Highlights reel: curriculum review Supplementary Material

‘Highlights reel: curriculum review Supplementary Material’, Honest History, 4 November 2014

This highlights reel provides more detail from the Supplementary Material published with the Review of the Australian Curriculum Final Report (Donnelly-Wiltshire). Our initial take on the history parts of the Donnelly-Wiltshire report was written without benefit of reading the Supplementary Material. Reading this material gives a more rounded picture of the views of Professor Gregory Melleuish (who provided comments on our earlier article) but also reveals the fairly tenuous connection between the few pages in the Final Report relating to the history curriculum and the extensive and nuanced opinions of Professor Melleuish and Clive Logan in the Supplementary Material. Both gentlemen were ill-served in that respect.

The prominence given in the Final Report history pages to ‘Western civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage’ is not reflected in the Supplementary Material. The former term is more prominent in Professor Spurr’s report on English than it is in Professor Melleuish’s on History, where it is subsidiary to his emphasis on world history. The latter term does not appear once in the whole 363 pages of the Supplementary Material (though ‘Christianity’ gets three passing mentions). One gets the impression that the Final Report went through further iterations with other stakeholders after the views of the experts had been received.

Professor Melleuish’s remarks about world history should be read in conjunction with those of Professor Stuart Macintyre relating to how the history curriculum was put together. Professor Macintyre also provided a comment on the Final Report.

World_head_of_states_in_1889The World’s Sovereigns: photomontage made in Europe in 1889 with the main heads of state in the world (Wikimedia Commons: key available)

English (Foundation to Year 12) – Professor Barry Spurr

In relation to the historical study of literature, an over-emphasis on twentieth- and twenty-first-century texts produces an unbalanced curriculum and certainly not a rigorous one, with regard to the discipline at large. The range of study must extend from Middle English lyrics and the works of Chaucer to the present, with acknowledgement and experience also of ancient texts from the classical world and of the Bible – sources that, through the centuries, have had an inestimable influence on the development of literature in English. (p. 6)

History (Foundation to Year 12) – Professor Gregory Melleuish

A history curriculum based on teaching Australian history within a world history framework is the most appropriate history to be taught to Australian students in a twenty first century globalised world. This is because it will enable students to understand their own national history within the framework of the development of humanity over the past ten thousand years, thereby enhancing their capacities as citizens of an Australia which is a member of an international community. It will also help develop the skills needed to understand that world …

The curriculum is not robust in world history because it lacks many of the things one would expect to find in a world historical approach. It lacks balance for exactly this reason; it is often too Eurocentric in its historical understanding while at the same time not really giving enough importance to the place of Western civilisation in world history, especially over the past two hundred years. There are also some significant imbalances which seem to be ideologically motivated, in particular the exclusion of liberalism as an important progressive doctrine of the nineteenth century. (p. 173)

The rationale for the study of history

There needs to be a clear rationale for teaching history to students and for making such study compulsory. This rationale has two aspects to it. The first relates to the sorts of knowledge one wishes students to acquire as a consequence of their study of history. The second relates to the sorts of skills and capacities which the student will hopefully acquire through the study of history. While the latter is relatively unproblematic, the former can be highly controversial …

One solution to the issue of content is to say, as some do, that the content does not really matter as what is crucial are the skills. Any content will do. Such an approach is unsatisfactory; some of the skills inculcated by history involve an appreciation of change over time, and a capacity to relate the study of fairly limited topics in terms of both period and place to wider historical developments. A crucial historical skill is the capacity to employ analogy and this requires a good knowledge base. Skills, on the whole have to be grounded in particular subjects or disciplines. (pp. 174-75)

There does not appear to be a philosophy or vision underpinning the curriculum and its overall intention. Instead there are a number of structural imperatives, the chief of which are the three cross-curriculum priorities. Of course there needs to be appropriate attention given to both Indigenous history and the study of Asia in the curriculum but it is difficult to see how the topic of sustainability relates to the historical endeavour. Unfortunately the inclusion of these priorities has distorted the structure of the curriculum because too often the curriculum has been framed with them in mind rather than addressing the pedagogical issue of what constitutes an appropriate curriculum for Australian students. This can be seen in various attempts to include Asian topics in the depth studies, such as in the Year 9 depth study where students study either nineteenth century Australia or Asia, and in the inclusion of a depth study on the environmental movement.

Feuerbach_symposiumAnselm Feuerbach (1829-1880) painted this scene from Plato’s Symposium in 1869. It depicts the tragedian Agathon as he welcomes the drunken Alcibiades into his house. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another major problem is the nature of the depth studies themselves. The depth studies constitute 90 per cent of the curriculum in from Year 7 to Year 10. In some depth studies there is no choice, such as the unit on World War I in Year 9, but in other depth studies there is a choice of three electives. Hence in one of the Year 7 depth studies students are given the choice of studying Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome or Ancient Egypt. There are good reasons for Australian students knowing something about both Greece and Rome as they have provided the basis for so many aspects of our contemporary world including politics, law, literature, art, religion. There are some topics which should be taught to all students, such as Greece and Rome, both of which are mandated in the English curriculum.

In fact, the whole structure of the curriculum with 10 per cent of any year being devoted to what is termed the overview and 90 per cent to depth studies is highly problematic. (pp. 175-76)

We need to discover a principle that allows us to create priorities as to what should be in a history curriculum. This is the principle of the ‘significant past’. The ‘significant past’ can be considered to be those aspects of history which are of importance or significance for a country when considering such issues as curricula, or research funding or what should be emphasised in museums. Obviously the history of Australia, including Indigenous history, is central for any student studying history in Australia but deciding what else should go into the mix from the rest of the world is not easy. The Australian history elements of the curriculum should focus on key political, social, economic and cultural developments. It is really a matter of establishing priorities. Given the limitations of teaching time this is not an easy task.

What is the significant past beyond Australia for Australian students studying history in the twenty first century? Given obvious restraints, there needs to be clear appreciation of what is essential for any student to know about the history of human beings over the past sixty thousand years. We need to think in terms of the sorts of knowledge which students will take with them into the wider world when they have finished their schooling.

A good starting point would be the human achievement over the past sixty thousand years and the circumstances under which those achievements occurred, with a particular emphasis on those civilisations and societies which may be said to be our ancestors in terms of our culture and institutions, as a western liberal democracy. This should be supplemented by the study of significant others, those civilisations and societies which have a particular relevance for young Australians. In particular, there is a strong argument that Australians should have a good understanding of China. (pp. 177-78)

World history is built around a number of themes including the growth of contacts between the various peoples of the earth (for example the work of Jerry Bentley), the importance of environmental factors for understanding history and the comparative study of the world’s civilisations. It has generally sought to de-centre our understanding of history by emphasising the role of non-European and non-Western societies and civilisations. This approach is healthy so long as it does not lead to ‘Europe bashing’ and attempts to denigrate the history of Western countries. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the biggest story in history over the past three hundred years has been the ‘rise of the West’ and its consequences. Understanding the West remains central to any historical appreciation of our contemporary circumstances. However, even the ‘rise of the West’ needs to be embedded in its world historical context. There needs to be balance struck between the history of humanity and the history of the West which forms the basis of contemporary Australia. (p. 178)

History Curriculum Years 1–6

My fear is that the curriculum, as described for these years, is too concerned with inculcating a set of abstract notions related in particular to identity, than with allowing young minds to engage with the living reality of the past. For these young students a focus on significant actors in the past is much more likely to achieve this goal. (p. 180)

The Secondary Curriculum

Year 9

A second section could focus on Australia considering how these transformations helped to create Australia. This could include the growth of democratic institutions in Australia, the effects of technology in areas such as communications (how the railways transformed Australia) as well as the interaction between the incoming British and the Indigenous Australians. In particular it could look at the extent to which Australia has always been tied into global networks through selling its products on international markets and by the need to borrow money to develop infrastructure, as in the construction of the various rail networks in the nineteenth century.

ShowImageTrans-Australian Railway photograph 731 construction camp train, 1913 (National Archives of Australia B3104, 430271)

Again it should be left to the discretion of the teacher as to which aspects of these developments about which they will conduct a depth study. For example, one group of students might wish to explore the meaning of democracy, another class explore the Opium Wars in China, and a third to consider nineteenth century America and the American Civil War.

Regarding the approach to World War I, there needs to be a balance struck between the war as a world transforming event and its importance for Australia. This should include a discussion of Gallipoli and Anzac, as well the role of Sir John Monash. (p. 185)

Year 10

Despite what the curriculum might suggest, World War II was not the end of history. There needs to be a strong treatment of how the world has changed over the past seventy years, and I would suggest that this could be achieved as follows:

  • A consideration of the major developments of the past seventy years. In particular this should involve a consideration of the place which the United States has played. In fact, one of the deficiencies of the curriculum is the limited treatment which it gives to America, given that it has been the most important country in the world over the past seventy years. Within this framework there should be a depth study which permits students to focus on a particular country or region. Again, this should be left to the discretion of the teacher but a number of topics could be suggested including China, the European Union, India, Russia and the United States.
  • There needs to be proper study of Australia in a globalised world focusing on how Australia has been transformed by the end of the ‘tyranny of distance’. Obviously the migrant experience could be included here and there could be some discussion of popular culture and environmentalism but the focus should be on how Australia has been transformed since World War II. Teachers could determine on a depth study which looked at the connections between Australia and the wider world. (p. 186)

Comparing history curricula

Both the Singapore and English curricula specify certain concepts which students need to know and understand. The Singapore curriculum is particularly strong in its specification of concepts which are set out as part of the curriculum.

These include for junior secondary: history, archaeology, maritime kingdoms, trade, colonisation, identity, constitution, independence, sovereignty, citizenship, diplomacy.

These key concepts are largely absent from the Australian Curriculum. There is little mention of such key concepts as democracy in the Australian Curriculum. The absence of specified concepts is a real deficiency in the Australian Curriculum. The study of history, if it is to be more than just the telling of a story, requires conceptual tools which need to be understood by students. Concepts such as nation, democracy, empire, liberalism, citizenship, (this is not an exhaustive list) are crucial for any understanding of Australian history. It would be more profitable if, following England and Singapore, the curriculum indicated some of the concepts of which it believed Australian students should have an understanding. This would be far more useful than spelling out, and specifying, the content of depth studies in such a detailed and bureaucratic fashion. In a world history curriculum such concepts are crucial as they allow students to make sense of global historical change. Students need to be able to understand how such things as agriculture, trade, empires, religion, individuals, war, climate change have driven human history to where it is today. (p. 189)

7931564494_f746e52cba_z (1)South County Secondary School, Ashford, Kent, September 1950 (Flickr Commons/theirhistory)


After examining the Australian Curriculum: History documentation and then benchmarking it against the national history curricula of England and Singapore it is possible to draw a number of conclusions:

  • The Australian Curriculum sets itself the goal of teaching Australian history within the broad framework of world history. Despite my criticisms this is the most appropriate form of history to be taught in Australian schools in the twenty first century. The problem is that the curriculum lacks a real understanding of what world history means. What it presents students with is a strange collection of topics for study which often have little connection with each other and which may have been included to fulfil the cross-curriculum imperatives rather than for sound educational reasons. The worst examples, as discussed above, are in Year 8 and Year 10.
  • The cross-curriculum priorities are a hindrance to the educational goals of a first quality history curriculum and should be abolished. The curriculum needs to be guided by principles which have the discipline of history at its core.
  • Given that the goal of studying Australian history within a world historical framework is an appropriate one for twenty first century Australian students, and that there does not seem to be a clearly stated rationale for achieving that goal, then it is imperative that some principles be established for achieving that goal. Otherwise the curriculum will remain largely a collection of topics.
  • The first principle which should be applied is that of the ‘significant past’ which means identifying those aspects of history with which an Australian student in the twenty first century should be familiar, always bearing the limited amount of time available to teach a world history curriculum with a huge number of possible topics.
  • One means of delivering the significant past is to make more effective use of historical concepts as a means of delivering the curriculum. One key change would be to get rid of the three stage historical periodisation used by the curriculum and replacing it with a simple pre-modern/modern schema with the eighteenth century and the changes which it brought as the transition point. Another change would be to identify themes such as agriculture, war, natural climate change, empire, civilisation, culture, religion, as tools through which commonalities and differences amongst the peoples of the earth can be identified. A third change would be to place more emphasis on the interactions amongst the various societies of the world and how they have grown over human history.
  • Most attention should be paid to ensuring that the curriculum provides a coherent and meaningful picture of the human past which equips them to become citizens of twenty first century Australia. The curriculum is not meant to train historians. To this end work needs to be done in shoring up what are now described as the overviews to provide more structure for students. Depth studies should be retained but with changes and with less of the curriculum devoted to them. Their content should not be mandated, as is presently the case, but they should be left to the discretion of the school and individual teacher. This would allow school and teachers to develop depth studies appropriate to their school population. This is important as Australia is culturally and religiously diverse. As it stands the curriculum is far too prescriptive and rigid.
  • One issue raised by the English curriculum is the place of local history, particularly in the secondary curriculum. As Australia is a federation there should be some opportunity for students to look at their local history. This would be achieved most expediently through a depth study, suggested not mandated.
  • Following the English curriculum, the Australian Curriculum should be less prescriptive and much less bureaucratic. It should mandate a rigorous conceptual framework and outline of topics but beyond that it should follow the English model and provide suggestions for depth studies rather than prescribing them. As noted above, a national curriculum in a diverse society such as Australia should be as flexible as possible. Some topics should be mandated, including Anzac Day and following the English curriculum, the Holocaust.
  • As the purpose of world history is to encourage a more global appreciation of the history of humanity it is worrying that the primary school curriculum is almost exclusively Australian in focus. This is not the case in either England or Singapore. There should be more global content in the primary years. This could be done by following the Singapore model and exploring the historical backgrounds of some of the peoples who have come to Australia. Again the content of his component would vary according to the school population.
  • I was very disappointed by the quality of the textbooks written for the current curriculum which I have encountered. They contain factual errors and false statements. I see part of the problem to be the lack of coherence in the curriculum which has passed over into the textbooks. If the changes I suggest are implemented textbook quality should become less of an issue but there needs to be more effective checking of textbooks. We should not tolerate factual errors in them. (pp. 191-92)

History (Foundation to Year 12) – Clive Logan (experienced school teacher, now Principal of New England Girls School)

This curriculum has a well-thought out progression, logical in structure and scope and sequence with a determined view to give as wide a breadth of local, Australian and world history as possible. The range and the chronology of the case studies moving from Years 7 to 10 capture the changing forces and events across the spectrum of views and experiences from the history of the world. It is wide and comprehensive, does not promote any agenda but allows teachers to examine different theories, causes, roles, beliefs and effects as well as allowing for different interpretations to be examined. For example, for the topic of World War I in Year 9, one of the elaborations asks for students to investigate the ‘commemoration of World War I, including debates about the nature and significance of the Anzac legend’.

It is not a stroll down memory lane to make us feel good, to glorify the past or to escape the woes of the present. We need history’s long look at our national makeup and the role we play within the world. The interesting issue is who determines what should be included or excluded, the ‘distinction between the inessential and the indispensable’ and the philosophy underpinning the curriculum. Should there be more mandated topic areas? Should it be a Eurocentric view of history or should it include a range of different issues, viewpoints or ‘obscure and ephemeral’ topics from which to choose? This is of course one of the key problems in the teaching of history, as history changes over time, new evidence is found, new interpretations are presented and new pressures exerted from society to ensure that different groups are represented in the historical narrative. (pp. 196-97)

The issue of remembrance is a key area of the Year 3 content and is a key area that flows on from Year 2 particularly with a study of memorials. Given that we are fast approaching the centenary of the ANZAC involvement in World War I, it is essential that students are educated as early as possible in the understanding of the significance of key events that have binded this nation: It is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself’ (Marwick, 1970).

It is to the next generations that we need to pass on the national memory and carry on traditions. There are enough examples and detail given for Australia and other places around the world to celebrate and commemorate as to why we should not ignore the past. (p. 201)

The charge that this curriculum is ‘left wing’ or even ‘right wing’ is unsustainable – there are enough responses to these criticisms to counter these claims. There has been no skewing of the history curriculum towards one political perspective or another – there was a review by an independent party in the process of consultation that occurred in the development of the curriculum.

However, I am challenging the current use of limited mandatory units in the Years 7 to 10 syllabus to that of only WWI, WWII and Rights and Freedoms. One would not like to add any more topics to an already crowded curriculum (as stated a few times now) and without restricting choice to allow flexibility and interest. However, who determines what is the ‘core curriculum’ that needs preserving? This is always a difficult challenge as charges of bias for particular cultural or philosophical reasons come into play. Whose ‘grand narrative’ and ‘great traditions’ should be included, worthy of preserving, worthy of value, without the challenge to the validity of the choices of what has been selected to be included but at the same time allowing the other voices in the conversation of the past, the divergent voices? (p. 215)

ShowImage (1)Children at school sports day with their refreshments, Canberra, 1926 (National Archives of Australia A3560, 3121901/WJ Mildenhall collection)


Richard J Evans (2011) suggests, ‘It is possible to teach actual skills only if history is taught in depth and that means a focus on a limited number of specialised topics. Of course, students need to know at least in outline the longer-term context of what they study. But if you make this context the core element in the curriculum, you are sacrificing depth for breadth, and you will end up with a superficial gallop through the centuries’. Evans goes on to say, ‘History is by its nature a critical, skeptical discipline. Historians commonly see one of their main tasks as puncturing myths, demolishing orthodoxies and exposing politically motivated narratives that advance spurious claims to objectivity’.

This is what makes the formation of a national curriculum in history so controversial. Evans does not agree with Schama’s return to ‘storytelling in the classroom’ but advocates that students should learn to be skeptical about the narratives presented by historians, ‘including of course Schama’s own account of British history’.

History thankfully is not a process by which accepted facts are delivered to pupils. One of the most common problems in assisting students to understand historical narrative and make judgments is the compulsion students feel to find the ‘right answer’, the most important facts, the one authoritative interpretation. Students need to be exposed to the view that historians differ on the facts they incorporate in the development of their narratives and disagree on how the facts have been interpreted. History is usually taken to mean what happened in the past; but written history is the dialogue among historians, not only about what happened but also about why and how events unfolded. It requires the evaluating of arguments and arriving at usable, even if tentative, conclusions on the available evidence. But to do this, what is required is a strong grounding in historical knowledge and understanding as well as the ability to question and critique different opinions.

Marwick (1970) suggests, It is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself. As a man without memory and self-knowledge is a man adrift, so a society without memory (or more correctly without recollection) and self-knowledge would be a society adrift’.

In contrast, Foner (2002) suggests, ‘There is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the profession and among the public at large about how history should be taught and studied … History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies and new political, social and cultural imperatives … But the most difficult truth for those outside the ranks of professional historians to accept is that there often exists more than one legitimate way of recounting past events’. Foner concludes with: ‘Who owns history? Everyone and no one – which is why the study of the past is a constantly evolving, never-ending journey of discovery.’

It is a discipline in which pupils become aware of how historical accounts are constructed, the evidence upon which they are based, the motivations of those who construct accounts and the validity of those accounts in differing contexts. It is a discipline in which pupils make judgments and defend those judgments with evidence.

The current Australian Curriculum: History is strengthened by the ways in which the balance of knowledge and understanding, key concepts and skills has given the study of history in schools a sound disciplinary framework. These key concepts and skills have gained the approval of eminent academic historians. They are also familiar to many teachers, who have spent many years developing schemes of work and teaching approaches that have allowed pupils to show their understanding of history through these key concepts and skills.

The Australian Curriculum: History provides a balance of breadth of knowledge supported by the key concepts and skills to give pupils by the end of Year 10 an overview of local, national and international history. What lies at the root of all this is a profound division of opinion over what constitutes, or should constitute, national identity? What is required, and largely achieved in this curriculum, are rigour, flexibility and clarity, providing the fertile ground for ideas and debate. We need to provide students with the opportunity to develop skills to analyse, be creative, critical thinkers, be able to synthesise information, collaborate, problem-solve and communicate effectively – all this while being personally and socially responsible as an active citizen.

But this doesn’t solve the problem of what should be taught, the ‘distinction between the inessential and the indispensable’. I believe that the content base of the history curriculum should be broad and balanced, representing a sequential program that equips young people with a broad historical knowledge needed to make sense of their own place within Australia and Australia’s position in the world today. There should be an emphasis on the ‘big themes’ of history – the development of democratic institutions and political power in Australia; changing relationships through time of the peoples and cultures that make up what it is to be ‘Australian’; the impact of movement, settlement and contact; changing attitudes, beliefs, ideas and lives of people over time; and the development of trade, colonisation, industrialisation and technology.

At the same time, teachers require the freedom to develop programs suitable for the needs of their students, the needs of their school while ensuring a broader and more cohesive understanding of Australia, the region in which we live and the wider world, is taught. Substantive knowledge and understanding should be at the heart of the curriculum – given the nature of history, both in terms of its vastness and its contested and contentious nature, this reality is a remarkable achievement in the form it now appears and is a tribute to the authors of the various iterations of the Australian Curriculum: History. (pp. 222-23)

Bibliography [accompanying Mr Logan’s material]

Evans, Richard J. (2011). The Wonderfulness of Us: the Tory Interpretation of History, cited in London Review of Books. Retrieved from: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n06/richard-j-evans/the-wonderfulness-of-us

Foner, Eric (2002). Who Owns History? Rethinking the past in a changing world. Hill and Wang, New York.

Marwick, Arthur, (1970). The Nature of History, Macmillan Press, New York.

National Curriculum in England: history programmes of study, found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study (Published September 2013).

Schama, Simon (2010). My vision for history in schools, The Guardian, Tuesday 9 November 2010, found at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/nov/09/future-history-schools




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