A history of misinformation: Pyne spreads curriculum myths

Opposition education spokesman Christopher Pyne’s recent comments show his misunderstanding of curriculum. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

On the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night, Shadow Minister for Education Christopher Pyne was asked what the Liberal Party would do about the national (history) curriculum if they came to power. Pyne’s response simply served to reinforce my long-held view that two parallel worlds exist in the universe of history education in Australia.

One is the ideological world of politicians and journalists whose chief concerns are which history should be taught in schools and whether the agenda to construct the curriculum has been set by the radical-socialist left or the ultra-conservative right.

The other is the world of professional curriculum developers and practising classroom teachers who are faced with the everyday challenges of how to teach history in an engaging way to Australian school children in the compulsory years of schooling.

While those in the “first world” are busy arguing ideology and wrangling for media bites, those in the parallel world of curriculum development are quietly going about the business of carefully selecting topics and pedagogies that best suit the interests and needs of Australian students aged five- to sixteen-years who come from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and have varying levels of literacy, cognition and behavioural capabilities.

As a member of the “second world” and a writer of the kindergarten to Year 10 History and the senior Ancient History courses, I wish to correct the factual errors that Christopher Pyne and a number of journalists have been making for a number of years in the media on the subject of history in the Australian curriculum.

Error 1: the Australian history curriculum was written by one person

Pyne’s statement that the history curriculum “was certainly written by an ex-communist” implies that it was written by one person: the truth is it was written by hundreds.

In the best spirit of Australian democracy and federalism, the opinions of a range of educational stakeholders—teachers, principals, governments, state and territory education authorities, professional education associations, community groups and the general public have all been actively sought by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

The first writing team, of which I was a member, was comprised of practising teachers (primary and secondary) and curriculum professionals from NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT. Feedback on successive drafts was provided by an advisory panel of over twenty experts in the field of history education and other interested groups, such as museums. The first draft was posted to the ACARA website and the public was invited to comment.

Many of Pyne’s statements on ABC’s Q&A program about the National Curriculum were incorrect. ABC Q&A

The comments were considered by the advisory panel and incorporated into the document if and when they were deemed appropriate. It is important to understand that curriculum development is an iterative process and that there has been a number of writing teams and versions of the document since writing began in 2009.

Error 2: the Australian History curriculum has a deliberate ideological bias

Pyne’s political perspective is that the history curriculum is the product of left-wing ideology. The derogatory epithet “ex-communist” echoes the opinions on the website of conservative education commentator, Kevin Donnelly and is clearly directed at Professor Stuart Macintyre, architect of the initial “Shaping Paper” for history.

However, the openly-democratic, consultative approach to curriculum development described above ensured that partisan politics and politicians were excluded. Because the curriculum was largely the work of curriculum designers and practising educators, no single political ideology was allowed to dominate the substantive knowledge base of the subject.

Writers and advisors were more concerned with pedagogy rather than ideology. Differences of opinion centred on such issues as at what age children are cognitively capable of understanding chronological constructs of time, such as “BC” and “AD”.

Error 3: the Australian History curriculum does not teach the foundations of Western civilisation and “our Judeo-Christian ethic”

For the first time in our history, the history subject will be taught nationally as a stand-alone subject from kindergarten to Year 10. Our writing brief emphasised an approach centred on Australian history and Australia’s place in the wider context of world history.

The latest version of the Australian Curriculum’s history component clearly demonstrates that Mr Pyne did not check the facts before he formed his opinions on the historical content of the curriculum.

For example, the Westminster System, which forms the basis of Australia’s political democracy, is taught in Year 6 (see page 15); the transformation of the Roman world and the spread of Christianity and Islam is taught in Year 8, (see page 24); and in Year 9, students have the option of studying “capitalism, socialism, egalitarianism, nationalism, imperialism, Darwinism, or Chartism” (see page 32).

The curriculum has tried to cover a wide range of political, cultural and religious events in history; clearly there is something here for everyone. The main problem for teachers is fitting all this, as well as the other subjects, into already over-crowded school timetables.

Error 4: the history curriculum is not “national” because not all states have adopted it

On 8 December 2010, all federal, state and territory education ministers agreed to endorse the Australian (national) Curriculum. From there, the responsibility for implementation fell to the state and territory curriculum bodies and most are now in the process of trialling the four learning areas of English, mathematics, science and history for full introduction in 2013.

Once again, Christopher Pyne got it wrong when he said, “NSW has no intention of signing up to the national curriculum”. NSW requested more time to fine-tune its history syllabus to accommodate such extra topics as the Vietnam War and the Holocaust which have been taught in Year 10 since the 1990s. The syllabuses are currently awaiting approval from the NSW Minister of Education with the view to be introduced into schools in 2014.

What those in the “first world” have overlooked is the fact that the history component of the Australian Curriculum is underpinned by the framework of historical thinking which teaches students that history is a construct formed by evidence derived from primary sources.

Our aim is to teach history students to think critically: to ask “how do we know?”, and “where is the evidence?” before they form their judgements or uncritically accept the judgements of others. Hopefully this will produce a generation of Australians who, unlike Pyne, will use evidence as the basis of their opinions.