Institute of Advanced Studies

Don't know much about History

 
Issue 6, October 2007 | Jenny Gregory

 

'Don't know much about History' began the lyrics of a pop song first recorded by Sam Cooke in 1957 and named one of Rolling Stone's top 500 songs of all time. Sadly Australian students still don't know much about History.

A longitudinal survey of participation in Year 12 across Australia shows that the percentage of students doing History at Year 12 fell from 21 to 18 per cent between 1993 and 20011.  However looking further back the situation is more alarming. Although statistics are not available for all states, New South Wales figures provide a dramatic indication of plummeting interest in the study of History in schools. The percentage of students studying History at Year 12 in New South Wales fell from 85 per cent of all students in 1955, to 80 per cent in 1965, to 42 per cent in 1990 and to 35 per cent in 20052. In Western Australia, although in 2000 the state of history in schools was considered healthy with growing numbers of students sitting TEE History, by 2005 the percentage had fallen to approximately 25 per cent of the total3. But while the drop in the percentage of students doing History at Year 12 over the past fifty years seems dramatic, the current percentages in New South Wales and Western Australia are comparatively good numbers. In Victoria only 13.5 per cent of Year 12 students did History in 20064.

How do we explain the declining interest in History amongst students? Does it reflect the increasing number of subjects on offer to students and thus a wider range of subject choices? This explanation is insufficient: in New South Wales there were 46 subjects on offer in Year 12 in 1955 and this had only risen to 50 subjects in 1990. Does it reflect the increase in the number of students remaining at school until Year 12? It is possible that the students who have been added to the Year 12 pool have little interest in History and are more attracted by vocational subjects. Is it because it is difficult to gain high scores in History than many other subjects? Certainly students heading for university play the numbers game to maximise their entry scores. Is it a reflection of the way in which History is taught in primary and lower secondary levels? Possibly. Does it reflect a general disinterest in the past amongst Australians? Not so. History is all about us, family history is booming, genealogical groups have record numbers of members, history is frequently discussed in the media, television historians attract great ratings and historical films proliferate. It's a puzzle. All we can say with certainty is that the apparent lack of interest in history and the state of history teaching in schools across the nation is disturbing.

Concern about the teaching of history in schools is not restricted to Australia. The Royal Historical Society, the Institute of Historical Research and cognate bodies in the United Kingdom hosted a conference on 'Why History Matters' in February 2007. The conference had two simple objectives; to affirm why history is important to education and national life in the 21st century and to explore how the History curriculum can be made more relevant, so that it provides students with the knowledge, skills and understanding to help them be successful adults. Although history is popular amongst the general public there are signs that history's position in the United Kingdom's school curriculum is being weakened. The curriculum time for history is being eroded, the history course is being narrowed, there is no synoptic overview or understanding of chronology, and history is retreating before vocational subjects. History's role is also under discussion in relation to concerns with citizenship, multiculturalism and national identity. The conference affirmed that

"an open, democratic society could not exist without a common and an individual commitment to the study of History, a study which would emphasize the importance of individual judgment and the provisionality of knowledge, which would both provide and draw upon society's collective memory"5.

In the United States similar issues have been current for some year.  Reports indicate that student ignorance of history and inadequate teacher training are acute problems in high schools. In 2002 a National Assessment of Educational Progress test in United States History showed that 57 per cent of high school seniors scored 'below basic', while the majority of social studies teachers do not have a major or minor in History6. In the post 9/11 era Americans have become worried about those who do not share so-called national values. The policy response has been the establishment of the Federal Department of Education 'Teaching American History' grant programme, which has pumped millions into partnerships between local schools and History professionals in universities, museums and humanities organisations. The purpose of these grants is to promote the teaching of traditional American History in elementary and secondary schools as a separate academic subject7.

Concern about the status of history has been wide-ranging across Australia. It has made for strange bedfellows from both the right and the left, and created a media uproar during the latter months of 2006. The focus has been on the status of Australian History. Prime Minister John Howard called for a 'root and branch renewal of Australian History' in his Australia Day address of 2006. The call was echoed by The Australian newspaper, and by Julie Bishop, his Minister for Education, who called a summit on the teaching of Australian History in Canberra in August 2006. Concern was not limited to the federal level. In Western Australia, for example, The West Australian newspaper ran with the story, with the support of the History Council of WA and the WA History Teachers' Association.

In a report commissioned by the Federal Minister for Education for the Australian History Summit, Tony Taylor, Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Centre for History Teaching at Monash University, concluded that 'by the time [students] reach leaving age, most students in Australian schools will have experienced a fragmented, repetitive and incomplete picture of their national story'8. He found that only in New South Wales, where interest in history is strongest, is Australian History taught as a mandatory stand-alone discipline-based subject with a clear syllabus at secondary level and an examination in modern Australian History. In Victoria, where interest appears to be at an all-time low, History is taught as a non-mandatory ‘domain’ within a discipline-based humanities 'strand' that is part of new Essential Learning Standards being implemented in 2007.

In other states History is taught as part of Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE or S&E) using either an Essential Learnings or an Outcomes Based Education (OBE) approach. Under both these approaches, although historical content may be emphasised in areas like 'Time, Continuity and Change' there is no prescribed syllabus or timetable requirement for History, let alone Australian History. History is subsumed into the SOSE mass with the result that students do not gain a coherent in-depth understanding of History as in individual discipline, nor do they gain any sense of chronology and thus change over time. The news that SOSE is to be refocused in schools across the nation so that individual disciplines will once again be dominant, is welcome9.  While initially this may simply amount to a name change from SOSE to History, Geography and Economics in response to public criticism, in the longer term it will have a significant impact on curriculum content.

The extent of Australian History content in the existing SOSE courses varies from state to state. Often Australian examples are suggested, but it is not mandated, nor is there any History syllabus. Western Australia has been using perhaps the most extreme version of OBE methodology. This has been implemented throughout the WA education system and in 2006 began to be 'rolled out' at the Year 11 and 12 level, with full implementation due in 2008.

At the federal level Julie Bishop's message to the twenty-three Summit participants assembled at Parliament House in Canberra in August 2006, while clearly supporting the Prime Minister's position, was simple -  'Australian History should be taught in schools'. Beyond this, she made no overt attempt to constrain participants or to impose a political position on them. Assuring participants that she 'was not in the business of producing some form of official history', she had asked for the Summit to move

beyond the sound bites and bitterness that too often characterised the so-called History Wars. Debate is healthy. But too often in the last decade the extremes in the History debate obscured the sensible centre and left others - not least our children - to simply switch off10.

Nevertheless her choice of participants had implications. She defined the participants as the 'sensible centre'11. Crikey.com's commentator did not agree when the list of participants were announced. He listed (hilariously mislisted in some cases) the Summiteers in categories ranging from left-activist, through left, centre conservative, right-activist to affiliation unknown, concluding that the participants were skewed to the right, there was a clear absence of 'big left' names, that the right was 'stacked with men on a mission', and that because the 'right warriors' were well practised 'no-one is liable to get a word in edgewise'12. But during the Summit, a consensus gradually appeared amongst the historians (who represented a range of political and intellectual views from both the right and the left) and this view won out. After a feisty start commentators like Gerard Henderson and Paul Kelly, crikey.com's key 'right warriors', gradually fell silent. An analysis of the frequency of their comments in the 82-page transcript of the Summit shows that they made only 25 and 15 comments respectively and that these reduced in frequency and length as the Summit wore on. On the day the historians managed to steer away from the narrow approach to Australian History that would have been most acceptable to the conservatives.

The conclusion drawn at the Australian History Summit was that the present situation was unsatisfactory and that Australian History should be taught as a core stand-alone discipline-based subject in Years 9 and 10. Why that level? To ensure that all students leave school with some understanding of Australia's history. A whole raft of ideas were discussed at the Summit and announced in a communique released at the end of the Summit13. Any syllabus developed should be sustainable, doable and teachable. It should be capable of engaging and exciting both teachers and students with the full range of abilities. History teachers should be provided with more support, their number increased, and their quality improved. The teaching of History in primary and lower secondary schools should be part of a wider sequential History programme, so that children would no longer receive repeat information in different years if they changed schools. As well a series of open-ended questions about the nature of Australian History and a list of key events in Australian History were developed.

In March 2007, the long awaited report of the working party set up to finalise the Summit recommendations was circulated amongst Summit participants. In its final stages departmental officers from the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Science and Training (DEST) worked closely with the working party and the report represents agreement between the working party, the department and the minister. The department also commissioned Tony Taylor to develop a model Australian History Curriculum for schools based on the report. Although the report has not yet been released to the public, the overall outcome indicates the department's general acceptance of the Summit recommendations.

The Summit gained extensive media coverage. The large number of articles and letters to the editor/s in newspapers across Australia that preceded and followed the Summit showed that there is widespread public interest in Australian History and concern that it is not being adequately taught in our schools. The media coverage of the Summit morphed into wider longer-running educational issues relating to curriculum methodology. The ensuing or, in the Western Australian situation, on-going media debate, uproar in some cases, added fire to curriculum concerns at the state level. Education ministers in both Western Australia and Tasmania were demoted within three months of the Summit. Importantly, the Summit also moved the debate over History - the so-called 'History Wars' - beyond academia, the literary elite and the arts pages of the newspapers.

Meanwhile in Western Australia conservatives and radicals alike had been shocked by information that came out during the 2006 media furore over the WA Year 11 and 12 OBE 'roll-out'. Evidence about the state of History in WA as presented in the Taylor paper was grim, but the Year 11 and 12 'roll-out' in 2006 also showed the limitations of OBE methodology particularly at the interface between the secondary level and the post-secondary level where assessment is necessary to mark the transition between levels. There is no syllabus in the OBE world, hence there is insufficient content on which to base an examination or consistent assessment.

Mindful of the public outcry, a new WA Minister for Education, Mark McGowan, announced a series of key changes to 'senior school reform' in January 2007; grades and marks to be used in school assessment instead of levels, examinations to be compulsory in the new WA Certificate of Education (WACE), teacher juries (selected from government and non-government school classroom teachers) to determine the readiness of revised courses, and Australian History to be prioritised as a compulsory component for students studying the modern context of the new Year 11 and 12 'History: Ancient and Modern' course14.

This response was backed by the announcement that an evaluation of a decade of curriculum changes in years K to 10 by Professor Bill Louden, the new chair of the WA Curriculum Council, showed that two-thirds of teachers believe that OBE has failed to improve students’ results and that 88 per cent of state schoolteachers believed that their workload had increased as a direct result of OBE. This will have wide implications throughout the educational system.

The federal Minister for Education continues to push for greater federal control of education. She hailed the State and Territories agreement to the Federal Government's request for greater national consistency in school curriculum, testing and reporting, as 'a victory of commonsense'15.  What does it all mean for History? In all states History is to re-emerge as an individual subject within the school curriculum. The Year 9 and 10 National History Curriculum based on the Australian History Summit recommendations had been completed and, at the time of writing, had been submitted for departmental and ministerial consideration. Whether it will adequately reflect regional differences across the nation remains to be seen. But it will represent a comprehensive range of views about Australian's past. The implementation of a National History Curriculum however, whatever its merits, could be years away.

*Postscript
The release of the National Australian History Curriculum was announced on 11 October 2007. The 'Guide to the Teaching of Australian History in Years 9 and 10' can be accessed at http://www.dest.gov.au/schools/australianhistory


  1. S. Fullarton, M. Walker, J. Ainley, K. Hillman, 'Patterns of Participation in Year 12', ACER Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth, Research Report 33, July 2003
  2. Board of Studies NSW, Statistics Archive, http://www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/bos_stats/, accessed 15 April 2007 
  3. Curriculum Council of WA, Statistical Reports on the TEE, http://www.curriculum.wa.edu.au/pages/publication03.htm, accessed 15 April 2007
  4. Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, General Statistics about VCE, http://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/vce/statistics/2006_statistics.html#H2N40000B, accessed 15 April 2007
  5. Colin Brooks, 'Why History Matters', report, The Higher Education Academy, February 2007, http://www.hca.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/reports/History/why_History_matters.php; accessed 20 April 2007
  6. David Darlington, 'U.S. Department of Education Releases Results of Latest U.S. History Test', Perspectives On-line (journal of the American Historical Association), Summer 2002, http://www.historians.org/perspectives/index.cfm, accessed 10 February 2007
  7. US Department of Education,Teaching American History, http://www.ed.gov/programs/teachinghistory/index.html accessed 10 February 2007
  8. Tony Taylor with Anna Clark, 'An Overview of the Teaching and Learning of Australian History in Schools', prepared for the Australian History Summit, Canberra, August 17th 2006
  9. 'Diehard subjects return to schools', The Australian, 24 April 2007. The decision has been made as a result of a report on the future of schooling prepared for the Council for the Australian Federation and has been agreed to by all states and territories
  10. Hon Julie Bishop, Federal Minister for Education, 'Forgetting Our Past, Failing Our Future: The Teaching of Australian History', Address to The Australian History Summit Dinner, Canberra, 16 August 2006
  11. Historians at  the Australian History Summit were Geoff Blainey, Geoff Bolton, Kate Darian-Smith, Inge Clendinnen, John Gascoigne, Jenny Gregory, John Hirst, Jackie Huggins, Mark Lopez, Greg Melleuish, Geoffrey Partington, Peter Stanley and Tom Stannage. Participants also included  History and education specialist (Tony Taylor), four teachers (Andrew Barnett, David Boon, Nick Ewbank and Jennifer Lawless), an Indigenous representative from the National Museum of Australia (Margo Neale), 'public figures who promote the study of History' (ex-NSW Premier Bob Carr, media commentators Gerard Henderson, Paul Kelly) and the Secretary of Department of Education, Science and Training (Lisa Paul).
  12. Guy Rundle, 'The History Summit's subtle stich-up', History Summit Wars, Larvatus Prodeo, 25 July 2006, http://larvatusprodeo.net/2006/07/25/History-Summit-wars/
  13. See http://www.dest.gov.au/sectors/school_education/policy_initiatives_reviews/key_issues/Australian_History_Summit/Default.htm, for a transcript of the Summit and the communique issued at its conclusion
  14. WACE Curriculum Council eNews, Issue No 2, 31 Jan 2007
  15. Hon Julie Bishop MP, media release, 13 April 2007