Evidence-free beliefs: history in the hands of the Coalition

Teachers and curriculum officials have complained about the way the coalition government has tried to frame the teaching of history. AAP

Back in January, Education Minister Christopher Pyne set up a contentious review of the national curriculum, to be led by two controversial appointees, ACU’s Kevin Donnelly and business academic Ken Wiltshire. Submissions are in. The majority are in favour of the status quo.

The review’s final report was originally promised for May 2014 for implementation in 2015. It’s now late August 2014. We are still waiting.

In the absence of that final report, I thought it might be timely to fill the gap and announce the interim findings of another national curriculum review. This is an Australian Research Council comparative study of history curriculum implementation in two apparently history-obsessed nations, Australia (a liberal democracy) and Russia (a “managed” democracy).

The history curriculum in Australia

Leaving Russia aside, there are some very interesting conclusions about the Australian side of things in a project that has involved two pilot surveys (2012 and 2013) of 191 secondary school teachers in Victoria and Queensland (we plan a national survey for later this year). Our interim review is also based on the voices of 49 interviewees (teachers, curriculum officials, history educators and academic historians) from all states and territories except the Northern Territory. These 2013 interviews were planned, carried out and transcriptions checked by a research officer who operated at arm’s length from me as project leader.

Although survey respondents felt that there were technical issues still to be overcome, the predominant position of teachers surveyed was supportive of the history curriculum (88% in Victoria and almost 90% in Queensland). Positives included a new level of consistency within Australian schools in the teaching of history, a chronological structure, emphasis on historical skills, teaching of history as a separate discipline, greater inclusivity and diversity in non-European history and the promotion of more sophisticated thinking. There was no indication that the respondents believed that there was any ideological bias in the curriculum.

With the interviewees, the overwhelming response was again positive. The only mildly dissenting voice was an academic historian who felt that the curriculum was piecemeal and that economic history and religious history needed inclusion. Of those teachers interviewed, none felt that the curriculum demonstrated political bias one way or the other.

There were common concerns about content overload, students in Year 7 studying only two of Egypt, Greece and Rome, emphasis on Asia (mainly squeezing it in - and anxiety that not many teachers would be up to scratch on Asian history) and Indigenous history (anxieties about inexperienced teachers transgressing cultural sensitivities) – and there was a bit too much on war.

Politicians interfering with history

When it came to ideology, both teachers and curriculum officials had widespread concerns about political interference, not from the Left but from the Right. Christopher Pyne and Tony Abbott received mentions.

In that context, two illustrative and disconcerting examples were cited about how Liberal politicians approached the need for curriculum change in history. The first concerned Kylie Minogue and the second was to do with trade unions.

In February 2011, Quadrant magazine, journal of the Right, reviewed an Institute of Public Affairs publication that had commented on the national history curriculum. The review highlighted what it saw as the IPA’s major criticism of the curriculum, which was:

human history of the past ten thousand years … portrayed as reaching its climax with AC/DC and Kylie Minogue.

In the following year, former prime minister John Howard followed this lead by pointing out that: ‎

those who wrote this curriculum, in their infinite wisdom, believed that ACDC (sic) and Kylie Minogue are more important to an understanding of the globalising world since 1945.

The problem with the Kylie Effect proposition was this. One of our interviewees, a teacher who had followed this debate and who had written the (elective) Year 10 unit in which Kylie allegedly featured, commented in his interview that neither AC/DC nor Kylie had been mentioned in the national history curriculum at all. Not anywhere. Not any time. He said in his interview:

This is the fabrication that irks me and I get really upset … there were so many inaccuracies and falsehoods.

Christopher Pyne offered a slightly different ideological interference allegation (which he had been riffing on for some time as opposition education spokesman). He argued in January 2014 that the curriculum was politically biased because, among other things, it “elevates the role of the trade union movement”.

One interviewee, a curriculum official, was asked to prepare a ministerial brief on mentions of this “elevated” role. She discovered two mentions of unions:

they were both in elaborations, which are examples for teachers to use, not mandated content, but examples of how teachers might use the content if they’re needing more guidance. And anyway the two – these two references to trade unions – one of them was in the [optional] Depth Study in year 9 about the Industrial Revolution … the other reference to trade unions was in the [mandatory] Depth Study on World War I and just suggesting that teachers might look at particular groups in Australian society who objected to conscription and then in brackets it has a suggestion that that might be Irish Catholics or trade union groups.

These two incidents reflected a common view among teachers that any intended changes to the curriculum by a Coalition government would be founded on evidence-free belief rather than on evidence-based professional knowledge.

Based on the reactions of our respondents, the curriculum needs to cut back on content in Years 7-10, students in Year 7 should be able to study Egypt, Greece and Rome, the curriculum needs to have a little less Asian history and the states and territories should make sure that teachers get enough professional development so that history staff can approach Indigenous issues with accuracy and confidence. There should also be less emphasis on the world wars and maybe there should be a bit on the Vietnam war. That’s about it.

It will be interesting to see how the Pyne/Donnelly/Wiltshire review stacks up when compared with our evidence-based findings and the voices of 240 committed professionals.