The Australian Curriculum: History – a critique.

Teachers of History were pleasantly surprised when the subject– along with English, Mathematics and Science – was included as one of the “core’ subjects in the Australian curriculum. While most secondary schools in the states and territories have Ancient and Modern History in the senior years, History in years 7 to 10 is usually subsumed under a heading such as Studies of Society and Environment and is often not taught by history specialists.  The exception was in NSW where a full History/Geography course was introduced when Bob Carr was Premier. History being included in the first round of subjects for the Australian Curriculum was seen as raising its academic status.

But the big question is whether the implementation of this particular curriculum will be beneficial for the long term health of history as a subject, and this will depend on a lot more than just an 84 page document which is essentially just a list of topics and skills. This framework will be fleshed out as it is implemented across the States. Also crucial for its success will be having teachers qualified to teach it, having the support material and professional development available and having the backing of each state and territory jurisdiction for what is in many ways a new subject. A future value of a national curriculum will be having a common language so that achievements in one jurisdiction will be more easily transferred to others

 

Structure


Its overall structure is fairly traditional. In the first years it moves outwards from exploring family on to the local area and then to national celebrations and commemorations. Following this in years 4 to 6 it covers some aspects of Australian History from Indigenous history through the impact of European contact and the colonial period up to Federation.

The curriculum for Years 7 to 10 involves a focus on world history from earliest human settlement to today. The traditional areas are here (see Table 1): Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome; Medieval Europe and the Renaissance; and World War I and II. However I would question whether devoting 15 per cent of the course or the equivalent of two thirds of one year, to the two World Wars is justified.

There are also a variety of new units such as Ancient India in Year 7, The Ottoman Empire and Mongol Expansion (both in Year 8) and Movement of Peoples in Year 9. However if teachers are not offered support for these new courses in terms of resource material and professional development they are likely to stay with what they know best.

I see a particular difficulty in Years 9 and 10 where it is possible that in most schools any mention of Asia, the South Pacific or the Middle East will be incidental. It seems inconceivable that any Year 9 course would fail to cover the history of Australia up to 1918 (“Making a nation”) and this would then exclude any Asian study. This again is a consequence of what I consider our obsession with World War I which apart from the Anzac landing is ancient history to most students. The key elements of this topic could be incorporated to draw the Making a Nation unit to a conclusion, and leave time for either a general survey of Asian History in this period or a depth study of one of our neighbours.

Historical skills are mapped out at all stages and these are developed from the earliest years to Year 10 under six headings:

  • Chronology, terms and concept
  • Historical questions and research
  • Analysis and use of sources
  • Perspectives and interpretations
  • Explanation and communication

Within the Australian Curriculum there are also links across subjects. This is achieved in two ways. First there three cross-curriculum priorities that, in the words of the curriculum are, ‘embedded in the curriculum and will have a strong but varying presence depending on their relevance to each of the learning areas.”

The three cross-curriculum priorities are:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures
  • Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia
  • Sustainability

As an example of the implementation of sustainability, in the unit on Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns, students are to explore the forestry and land use policies introduced to cope with the increasing demand for timber. However one could ask, why just these three? Why not include social justice or citizenship? Perhaps even Trans-National relations? 

The other cross curriculum links are the seven general capabilities. These appear in all learning areas and ‘encompass the knowledge, skills and behaviours and dispositions that … will assist students to live and work successfully in the twenty-first century.”

These are:

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Competence in ICT
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Ethical behaviour
  • Personal and social competence
  • Intercultural understanding

As discussed below, the NSW Draft Syllabus presents an alternative way of doing this. It has grouped cross curriculum priorities with the general capabilities, added a few items and called the combined set Cross-Curriculum Areas.

 

Implementation in the States and Territories


Most States and territories plan to have the Australian Curriculum in History implemented by 2013. South Australia plans to have History implemented up to Year 8 by 2013 and Western Australia is spreading implementation over 2012 to 2014. The clear exception is NSW which will only begin implementation in 2014.

This discussion is based on publicly available documents at the time of writing (early May) from some of the jurisdictions. Some of these are draft version and others foreshadow supporting documentation, so any conclusions drawn should be considered tentative.

In Queensland the current curriculum focuses on what are called Queensland Essential Learnings and Standards (QESL). One of the strengths of the Queensland curriculum is the close way in which the assessment is to be closely aligned to the curriculum.

In its document ‘Reporting Student Achievement and progress in Prep to Year 10; Advice on implementing the Australian Curriculum” this is spelt out:

To produce the best learning outcomes for students, alignment means that:

  • what is taught (curriculum) must inform how it is taught (pedagogy), how students are assessed (assessment) and how the learning is reported (reporting)
  • what is assessed must relate directly to what students have had an opportunity to learn
  • what is reported to students, parents/carers and other teachers must align with what has been learnt from the intended curriculum and assessed.

Another strength of this system is that assessment is based on a folio of work built up during the course; this allows for a variety of forms of assessment tasks that can cover more areas than would be done in an end of unit examination.

Implementing the new history curriculum poses a particular challenge for Queensland as well as for South Australia and Western Australia. In the other states the transition from Primary to secondary takes place between Years 6 and 7, and this is what is assumed in the Australian Curriculum, where the survey of World and Australian history commences in Year 7. For Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, where currently secondary education begins in Year 8, this will involve a large scale re-write of the Year 7 content, and will also have implications for the current close integration with Geography as a SOSE subject.

Victoria does not face the same problems as Queensland in terms of introducing a new content and structure, as its current courses broadly follow that adopted by the Australian curriculum. In a similar fashion to Queensland, Victoria focuses on outcomes, which also have a similar name: the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS).

The VELS are portrayed as three integrated strands:

  • Physical, Personal and social
  • Discipline-based learning
  • Interdisciplinary Learning

The first and third of these can be loosely compared to the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum. However at this stage the General Capabilities have not been mapped on a learning continuum from Foundation to Year 10 so in Victoria teachers will continue with the current VELS strands which do have this sequential mapping.

Unlike both Queensland and NSW Victoria has not mandated teaching time for any of the four stage one subjects, leaving it up to each school to decide how best achieve the essential learnings required.

New South Wales stands out from the other two in producing a stand alone syllabus, which is currently in draft form. A memorandum issued by the Board of Studies, Catholic Education Commission, Association of Independent Schools and DET at the end of 2011 gave as some of their reasons for having their own syllabus and for delaying the implementation, the need to ‘ensure maintenance of the clarity and learning expectations that exists in the current NSW curriculum’ and to allow the Australian Curriculum ‘to be presented in Stages rather than Years’.

Another difference was that in looking at cross curriculum areas the NSW Curriculum grouped together general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities. The Australian Curriculum has seven items under general capabilities and three under cross-curriculum priorities – a total of ten – whereas the New South Wales curriculum has thirteen: the additional ones are Civics and Citizenship, Difference and diversity and Work and enterprise

The Draft version of the NSW History Syllabus maintained the same basic content as the Australian Curriculum, but where the Australian Curriculum supplied “Elaborations” - suggested but non-mandatory content - the NSW Syllabus included a series of mandatory dot points (usually ranging between 1 and 4) under each content descriptor. These all begin with phrases such as:

  • outline the main features of …
  • explain how …
  • identify …
  • using ICT and other sources, investigate and assess …

 

Wider implications


Making a subject compulsory is no guarantee that this will increase its popularity and in fact the opposite can often be the case. History in particular is easy to teach badly. This may be by learning a series of apparently unrelated dates, a set of causes or a division into “good” and “bad” kings –things that belie the complexity and role of contingency. There will be many teaching the new syllabus who have not been trained to do so.

This is where the universities could play a crucial role over the next five or so years. There could be evening classes, weekend schools or summer schools in areas of the history curriculum. However if these are to be successful it is vital that practising teachers be involved in the planning of these courses from the start. Forming links with State Governments and Catholic and Independent school systems could help provide the finance. Universities could also work with the relevant teacher associations to produce on-line resources or organise study days for students in years nine and ten.

One advantage of a national curriculum which has not been sufficiently stressed is that strengths in one system will be more easily transferable to other systems. A rich assessment task from Queensland would require little adaptation to be used in Western Australia. If a school or an individual teacher wanted a more structured program, they could adapt the New South Wales Syllabus.

Another advantage of a national curriculum is the cost-benefit involved. For example ACARA has begun to produce Work Sample Portfolios which include both the tasks and annotated samples of student work to show what achieving a satisfactory standard means. This is a time consuming and expensive process, and if each state had to produce their own, the cost would be prohibitive. Other tasks could also be divided up amongst the States.

 

Conclusion


The Australian Curriculum in history is certainly not a perfect document, and I have indicated what I consider some weaknesses. However, considering the time frame in which it was produced and the need to meet the needs of many different jurisdictions it is amazing how good it is. This was a result of a high quality consultative process and the willingness of states to co-operate. My impression is that states and territories are seriously working at implementing the syllabus in as short a time as possible.

I know that most teachers will do their best to implement the curriculum, but in history in particular it is vital that state and federal governments and the academic communities work together to ensure that the potential of the syllabus is realised. I also hope that we do not return to a time when the teaching of history becomes politicised.

Of course, one of the lessons we learn from history s that no matter how well planned a process has been planned, as it plays out over time there will be unintended consequences. But the current curriculum is a good place to begin and with good will from all stakeholders we can meet these challenges as they arise and eventually produce a world class curriculum.

Andrew Keese

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