Teaching historical literacy: the National History Project

by Dr Tony Taylor, Director, National Centre for History Education

History, particularly Australian history, is in an awkward position in the school curriculum. Enjoyed and appreciated outside school by hundreds of thousands of Australians tracing their genealogy, visiting heritage sites and museums, checking out the latest historical movies (frequently starring Mel Gibson or Russell Crowe) and hearing family stories about the past, the subject seems to be undervalued in the classroom. There also exists a very clear relationship between the study of history and an understanding of civics and citizenship education. It is almost axiomatic that an historically illiterate electorate is a politically illiterate electorate, and the Discovering Democracy project recognises this. However, many schools do not see the connection. If history is regarded as both popular outside schools and fundamental to democratic processes, how come it seems to be struggling in schools?

The answer seems to be that, in many secondary schools, history is envisaged as a backward looking, elitist, non-functional top-up subject, frequently allocated to non-specialist teachers – who do not know that the teaching of history is a highly skilled school activity. Twenty years of overseas research has shown that history teaching requires complex understandings, but this research has generally not been read by desperate Assistant Principals who are responsible for timetabling. They tend to think history is a form of general knowledge, and so they happily despatch puzzled non-specialists to the history classroom. The consequence is 'boring history'.

In many primary schools, the situation is not much better. On average, a trainee primary teacher will spend only a small fragment of their course learning about SOSE. They will spend even less time learning how to deal with very complex historical issues in the classroom. This arrangement does produce dedicated and committed primary school teachers but many are reluctant to take on the teaching of history because they lack the skills.

These are some of the issues that hinder a coherent, school-level appreciation of a subject that, as with science, helps us understand the world in which we live. The Commonwealth-funded initiative, the National History Project, has addressed this issue by funding a number of strategies, including the establishment of the National Centre for History Education, the publication of print and online teaching and learning resources and the publication of a new handbook for teaching history. Making History: A Guide for the Teaching and Learning of History in Australian Schools is the first history handbook published in recent times and is designed for all teachers of history, not just those who have completed a history education method course.

Effective teaching and learning in history must develop 'historical literacy' and the guide provides a ready index and explanation of its components to support classroom work. The following elements are part of this literacy.

  • Events of the past – knowing and understanding historical events, using prior knowledge, and realising the significance of different events.
  • Narratives of the past – understanding the shape of change and continuity over time, understanding multiple narratives and dealing with open-endedness.
  • Research skills – gathering, analysing and using the evidence (artefacts, documents and graphics) and issues of provenance.
  • The language of history – understanding and dealing with the language of the past.
  • Historical concepts – understanding historical concepts such as causation and motivation.
  • ICT understandings – using, understanding and evaluating ICT-based historical resources (the virtual archive).
  • Making connections – connecting the past with the self and the world today.
  • Contention and contestability – understanding the 'rules' and the place of public and professional historical debate.
  • Representational expression – understanding and using creativity in representing the past through film, drama, visual arts, music, fiction, poetry and ICT.
  • Moral judgement in history – understanding the moral and ethical issues involved in historical explanation.
  • Applied science in history – understanding the use and value of scientific and technological expertise and methods in investigating past, such as DNA analysis or gas chromatography tests.
  • Historical explanation – using historical reasoning, synthesis and interpretation (the index of historical literacy) to explain the past. Historical understanding is incomplete without explanation.

Different States and Territories have differing views on how and where history fits into the curriculum and it would be impossible and ill-advised to attempt to set up an ersatz national history curriculum. Making History, by outlining a clear historical literacy framework, demonstrates how good history teaching can be applied in any State or Territory.

For further information contact: history.centre@monash.edu.au.