Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Essay - Howard, history & the national curriculum

My main post today is on my history blog, Train Reading - Gammage, the Aborigines & the environment. The post took a long time to write. Here just a personal comment.

By it's very nature, the present imposes a mind-lock on our interrelation of the past. It determines the questions we ask of the evidence. It also leads us to reject things that don't fit in with our views, to argue for things that do fit. Historiography, the writing of history, is always personal and political.

I haven't attempted to chart the reactions to Bill Gammage's book. Clearly he thinks that there is a problem with acceptance of his ideas, that they are too far outside current frames for easy acceptance. Why else devote an entire appendix to a self-defence? For my part, I found them self-evident, if very stimulating.

During the week, former Australian PM John Howard re-ignited what has been called the Australian history wars with his attacks on the national history curriculum. Frustratingly, I found the text of the speech twice, but didn't bookmark it. Now I cannot find it again! Maybe one of my readers can!

The speech upset Neil, one of my long standing blogging friends. Looking at the language in the speech, I can see why. What I had intended to do with the speech was to strip out all the rhetoric and look at the assertions made. I fear that I cannot do this without the speech. I can say that I find the national history curriculum bitsy and selective.  But there are two very different problems here.

As I said earlier, by its very nature, the writing of history is always personal and political. The people and committees that developed the national curriculum selected the topics that they considered to be important. I may disagree, but that is their view. This problem can actually be addressed through debate, something that Mr Howard was trying to do in his own polemical way.

For example, the history of Aboriginal Australia breaks into two parts. The first part is the very long history of Aboriginal occupation of the continent up to 1788. The second is Aboriginal history in the two hundred years since. From my reading of the curriculum, by the end of year 10 you are likely to know very little about the first and have only a very partial view of the second. If I'm right, I think that is a failing. But these issues are actually debatable, testable.

There is a second, more complicated, problem. Many people naively think that the purpose of the Australian history curriculum is to give people a knowledge of Australian history. The reality is a little different. If you look at the curriculum, you will see that it breaks into two parts, knowledge and skills. Knowledge, the part that Mr Howard attacks for its perceived selectivity, is actually secondary to the skills component, the things that the student is meant to be able to do. It would. in fact, be quite possible to complete the course with only a very partial knowledge of Australian history, but to end it with very specific historiographical skills.

When I first did history at school, the focus was on knowledge. I learned to write to a degree, I learned certain skills associated with critical thinking, but history method as such was something I covered at university.

In his speech, Mr Howard referred to the fact that he answered two questions in the old Leaving Certificate on Asian history. His point was in part that the "Asian focus" wasn't new. In fact, I think that he is right here. The history I did at school in the old Leaving Certificate days was broader and deeper than that provided by the current curriculum. But then, I was learning history, not the writing of history.

There are further problems with the curriculum beyond those that I have referred to already. One is the sheer time scale covered however partially, from go to woe so to speak. This combines with the emphasis on concepts and methods that I have referred to already. To illustrate the difficulty, let me quote from the year 7 curriculum where students study the ancient world:    

The Ancient World

The Year 7 curriculum provides a study of history from the time of the earliest human communities to the end of the ancient period, approximately 60 000 BC (BCE) – c.650 AD (CE). It was a period defined by the development of cultural practices and organised societies. The study of the ancient world includes the discoveries (the remains of the past and what we know) and the mysteries (what we do not know) about this period of history, in a range of societies including Australia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and India.

The content provides opportunities to develop historical understanding through key concepts, including evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, perspectives, empathy, significance and contestability. These concepts may be investigated within a particular historical context to facilitate an understanding of the past and to provide a focus for historical inquiries.

The history content at this year level involves two strands: Historical Knowledge and Understanding and Historical Skills. These strands are interrelated and should be taught in an integrated way; and in ways that are appropriate to specific local contexts. The order and detail in which they are taught are programming decisions.

A framework for developing students’ historical knowledge, understanding and skills is provided by inquiry questions through the use and interpretation of sources. The key inquiry questions at this year level are:

Key inquiry questions
  1. How do we know about the ancient past?
  2. Why and where did the earliest societies develop?
  3. What emerged as the defining characteristics of ancient societies?
  4. What have been the legacies of ancient societies?

In this mix, teachers are expected to provide an overview of the whole period, but this should constitute no more than 10 per cent of total time. Crikey!

The method focus comes through even more clearly in the year 7 Achievement Standard. Again I quote:  

By the end of Year 7, students suggest reasons for change and continuity over time. They describe the effects of change on societies, individuals and groups. They describe events and developments from the perspective of different people who lived at the time. Students explain the role of groups and the significance of particular individuals in society. They identify past events and developments that have been interpreted in different ways.

Students sequence events and developments within a chronological framework, using dating conventions to represent and measure time. When researching, students develop questions to frame an historical inquiry. They identify and select a range of sources and locate, compare and use information to answer inquiry questions. They examine sources to explain points of view. When interpreting sources, they identify their origin and purpose. Students develop texts, particularly descriptions and explanations. In developing these texts and organising and presenting their findings, they use historical terms and concepts, incorporate relevant sources, and acknowledge their sources of information.

  Once again, crikey! Yes, I could define a teaching program that achieves these outcome within the bounds set by the topic choices as specified. But I very much doubt that I could give my students any deep knowledge of the pattern of history over the period. But then, that''s not required. There is no requirement to actually have any knowledge of the history of the period in question, just slices within it sufficient to demonstrate understanding of the learning outcomes as specified.

Now whatever My Howard's weaknesses and biases may be, I think that he believes as I do that some knowledge of history should be an integral element in any broad education. He is also concerned, as I am, at the apparent decline in historical  knowledge among modern Australians. However, to my mind, his focus on historical topics misses the point. Instead of history being the centre of the curriculum with method second, method is central to the curriculum with history second. Therein lies the real problem.


Neil said...

Congratulations on the New England History post "Train Reading - Gammage, the Aborigines & the environment" -- very interesting.

On "teachers are expected to provide an overview of the whole period, but this should constitute no more than 10 per cent of total time": when we had books and few other resources, that would have been a big ask. However, it really is amazing how good well chosen video material or internet resources can be in addressing such matters. I agree that a good course can be devised that fulfils all the requirements of the curriculum AND provides a pretty good sense of history -- but it has ever been thus. I have seen over the past forty years so many boring, pathetic history courses done by uninspiring teachers -- and of course others which were just brilliant -- irrespective of what syllabuses might say.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil, on the Gammage post.

I agree that the availability of new forms of material makes overview easier. I also agree that a good teacher can perform miracles independent of the syllabus. I am not sure about your "AND" sentence. What should the balance be between skills and knowledge?

There is another problem that I did not address, and that is the "localisation" elements in the course. Don't get me wrong. I would hardly argue against this given my particular biases. But sometimes - often? - the source material is not there to support it.