Centenary of Federation: Our nation: Then and now


Upper primary and lower secondary (With modifications, these activities could be used with middle primary students.)

Curriculum links

Links to the Australian Curriculum


Students examine a set of photographs from the time of Federation and compare them with a set of contemporary photographs.

These activities would complement the upper primary unit 'The People Make a Nation' in Discovering Democracy: Upper Primary Units, pp. 77–111, but could also be undertaken independently. Students will, however, require some knowledge of the process which led to Federation in 1901.

For teachers, there are background notes in 'The People Make a Nation' (pp. 79–80) or (more extensively) there is background information in 'Nation Making' in Discovering Democracy: A Guide to Government and Law in Australia, pp. 37–46.


About five class sessions without extension activities


  • A set of photos such as those below from the time of Federation that show a range of people at work, at school and at play. Suitable photographs are also available on the One Destiny CD-ROM.

    Click on each thumbnail to view a larger image.

  • Students' own photographs of contemporary life and of family history
  • Access to the Internet
  • Pens and paper



If possible, show a film clip of the Federation ceremony (available on the Stories of Democracy CD-ROM) to set the scene. As a further way of looking at some aspects of Australia at the time of Federation, students could be directed to 'What kind of country decided that a bright future should begin with an illuminated Parliament?', on the National Council for the Centenary of Federation website (housed in the Pandora Archive). 'The People Make a Nation' section of the Discovering Democracy Primary Video also could be used to set the scene.

Examining photographs from the time of Federation

  1. Explain that the class is going to look at some photographs taken about 100 years ago, at the time of Federation.
  2. Arrange for students to work in small groups of two or three and ask each group to select one or two of the photographs. Alternatively, allocate photographs yourself. Ask each group to discuss the people seen in the photographs, asking them to concentrate on what they can actually see rather than on their own reactions to the photographs. Students should talk first about what the people are wearing rather than what they are doing, so you might need to prompt them.
  3. Ask each group to then choose up to four particular people seen in each photograph and complete a table such as Table 1. Note that students are asked to move from what they can see to speculate about what people might be doing. Ensure that students understand this difference.
  4. Discuss the 'Questions we have about the person' column, clarifying where possible and noting outstanding questions. As an extension activity, individuals or groups can be asked to use other resources to research outstanding questions.
  5. Individual students can now be asked to choose one of the people in the table and write a paragraph about the person, using the information in the table.
  6. Arrange for each student to:
    • read his or her work to another student who has not worked on the same photograph
    • ask that student to look at the original photograph
    • ask that student to make suggestions about how the description could be improved
  7. Students can then use these suggestions to re-draft their work.
  8. As a class activity, older students could discuss each photograph in turn, suggesting possible inferences which could be made. They could use the questions at the bottom of Table 1 as stimulus. Ask students to support each suggested inference with evidence from the particular photograph. For example, the inference that 'most people wore hats' seems to be supported by several of the photographs (but hats may be more common among women). On the other hand an inference such as 'swimming in the sea was popular' is open to more question. This discussion should help students to clarify the difference between inference and fact: inferences are essentially matters that need to be corroborated by other evidence before being accepted as 'facts'.

Extension activity

To federate or not to federate?
This activity extends the use of the photographs to develop the idea that it was individuals throughout Australia who created 'One Nation' through their debates and their votes in the referendums of 1899 and 1900.

The activity should complement class work on the unit 'People Make a Nation' Parts 1 and 2 (pp. 81–83) and could be a variation of 'Activity 2: A letter from the past'. The One Destiny CD-ROM provides material for students to build an informed response. Particularly useful are the following sections: 'Australian Colonists', 'Australia Votes', 'Debate' and 'First Day'.

  1. Have each student assume that the photo in which they find their 'character' was taken the day before a Federation referendum of 1899 or 1900.
  2. In small groups, have the students select one person from the photo and create some personal history, for example, age, occupation, where they are (what colony and what city/region), what they are doing in the photograph.
  3. Using this profile and information from 'The People Make a Nation' and the One Destiny! CD-ROM, have the group discuss how this person might vote in the referendum and why. (Voting results in particular districts are available on the One Destiny! CD-ROM.)
  4. Have students imagine what their character would write in a diary entry or in a letter to a friend. Ask them to:
    • describe their day's activity based on the photo (one paragraph)
    • express their opinion about what they hope will happen in the referendum on the next day

    and give reasons for their point of view (two or three paragraphs). 

Examining students' own photographs

  1. Ask students to bring some photographs of their own families or friends 'doing something together' in the last few years. These photographs should be quite recent so that comparisons can be made with people at the time of Federation.

    Additionally, you could ask students to bring photographs of their own family history. These could then be dealt with in the same way as the photographs from the time of Federation.

  2. Arrange for swapping of photographs and ask students to complete a similar activity to that above.

  3. As a final step, discuss descriptions with the owners of each photograph. If there are 'inaccuracies' discuss with the class possible reasons for these.

  4. Extend this discussion to possible 'inaccuracies' in the set of photographs from the time of Federation. Assist students to see that it is not always possible to be sure about what people were doing, on the basis of only a photograph. (For example, a photograph might be posed rather than 'as it happened' or the photographer might be trying to give particular impressions or views of events. Sometimes, what is left out could be as important as what is included.)

Comparing photographs from the time of Federation with contemporary photographs

  1. Hold a class discussion about how we might compare the photographs from the time of Federation with our own photographs. Some discussion points:
    • identification of elements of 'information' in each photograph (number of people, their gender, race, ages, dress, arrangement of the group, inferred activity, settings, key objects)
    • identification of which of these seem to be different in the contemporary photographs
  2. Arrange for students to work in small groups. Provide each group with a set of four of the photographs from the time of Federation and a set of four contemporary photographs. As far as possible, the two sets should relate to the same 'topic', such as 'people at work' or 'people at home'.
  3. Ask groups to use Table 2 to record apparent similarities, differences and unresolved questions. 'Clothing', 'Objects and things' and 'Activities' are suggested points of comparison but space is provided for students to make other comparisons, such as 'Setting', 'Gender' or other elements identified in the class discussion. By now, students should be used to the idea that they can not infer too much from the photographs.
  4. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of using photographs as sources of 'information'.
  5. Discuss group findings with the whole class. You might want to develop a whole-class version of Table 2. Unresolved questions can be the subject of further investigation by groups or individuals.

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