Pyne curriculum review prefers analysis-free myth to history

The history curriculum review was supposed to be free from bias, but unfortunately that’s not the case. AAP

Education Minister Christopher Pyne launched his review of the Australian Curriculum last week and, as expected, the recommendations for the teaching of history left a lot to be desired. Stuck in its “Judeo-Christian” time-warp, the history review is in part a politicised treatise that attempts to confirm the publicly announced pre-review biases against the curriculum of the reviewers and minister.

Bias in the curriculum? Or the review?

The review promised to be balanced, but a simple word count reveals some interesting biases. There are 111 cited or authored references to “religion” or “religious”, 57 references to “spiritual”, 63 to Christianity, 26 of which are references to the mythic “Judeo-Christian heritage”, 123 references to “values”, 55 references to “moral” and 93 references to “Western”.

In contrast there are only 73 references to “pedagogy” (how we teach and learn) and 42 references to “inquiry”. The review demonstrates a lack of comprehension of modern educational practice by confusing inquiry-based learning (teacher-guided investigation) with student-centred learning and constructivism (engaging students by starting with their interests and experiences). Also, at times, the review incorrectly assumes that a curriculum framework is a prescriptive syllabus.

Nationally and globally, history education is the most contentious area of study in school curricula. In Australia, several Liberal Party politicians, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and The Australian have seemingly had a fixation with replacing alleged “Leftist” infiltration of the history curriculum with their own version of the past.

Did the review find any Leftist infiltration? Well, actually, it didn’t. All it could say was that while an unstated number of submissions argued that the Australian Curriculum was balanced, the reviewers received an unstated number of submissions saying that:

the Australian Curriculum did not pay enough attention to the impact of Western civilisation and Judeo-Christianity on Australia’s development, institutions and broader society and culture.

There was no evidence or analysis, just a note that some people thought the history curriculum was balanced and others thought it wasn’t. These competing commentaries led the reviewers to their pre-ordained conclusion:

History should be revised in order to properly recognise the impact and significance of Western civilisation and Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage, values and beliefs.

The major failing of this approach is that the review summarises two sides of an argument and favours one over the other without any analysis. Not only that, but Australia’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” is a fabricated myth.

More Australian history? It’s already there

As for the other subject recommendations they are, first, that students should be able to cover all the key periods in Australian history, especially the 19th century. However the current curriculum already covers Australian history from pre-European settlement to 2010.

Second:

the curriculum needs to better acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses and the positives and negatives of both Western and Indigenous cultures and histories.

The curriculum already details key periods in Australian history. Flickr/Peter Hindmarsh, CC BY

A close examination of the curriculum will show that both Western and Indigenous histories are already covered in very great detail. As for strengths/weaknesses and positives/negatives in historical analysis at the school level, these are students’ evidence-based judgement calls, not imposed views laid down in the curriculum.

A part of that same recommendation argues that:

especially during the primary years of schooling, the emphasis should be on imparting historical knowledge and understanding central to the discipline instead of expecting children to be historiographers.

There are two problems with this suggestion. Thirty years of global research in history education says we no longer “impart”. Imparting is a 19th-century educational term. The second problem is that there is no suggestion in the primary curriculum that students become historiographers.

More time should be dedicated to historical overviews

One of the more intractable problems in studying history is the balance between depth and chronological context or narrative. The Australian Curriculum had attempted to resolve this at secondary school level by having, at each year level, Depth Studies (detailed investigations) embedded within a broad narrative background known as an “Overview”. Here is how this approach looks in Year 9, “The Making of the Modern World”.

The Year 9 Depth Studies are:

  • Making a Better World?

  • Australia and Asia

  • World War One

From each of these Depth Studies, students must select a total of three electives making up 90% of class time over the year. There is then “Overview” content that is taught to all students regardless of the electives they choose. This includes things like the nature and significance of the Industrial Revolution and how it affected living and working conditions, the extent of European imperial expansion and different responses, and Australia´s engagement with Asia.

This system allows students to background their three Depth Studies. If, for example they choose The Industrial Revolution, Making of a Nation and World War One, they also get to find out about the more general European, Australian and Asian topics that they haven’t studied in detail.

Originally these Overviews were meant to take up about 25% of class time over the school year. After pressure from some major states the Overviews were cut to a mere 10%, making them almost meaningless.

The lone teacher involved in the history review process, Clive Logan, a NSW private school principal, who is supportive of the history curriculum, has come up with a sensible suggestion. He argued that this issue needs more attention and one of the review’s history recommendations suggests that more room be given for dealing with broad narrative contexts for the intensive Depth Studies.

More time should be spent learning history overviews. Shutterstock

From a history educator’s point of view, this is a welcome development, given that in some schools and jurisdictions the history curriculum is being squeezed into near invisibility.

The curriculum was originally designed with an indicative figure of 80 hours a year for history alone. As the design process went on the figure dropped from 80 to 70 to 60 to 50 hours and eventually disappeared altogether. This gives every state and territory and every timetabler in every secondary school the opportunity to bury history in an obscure corner of the curriculum.

Indeed, one Victorian high school has compressed history into 20 timetabled hours a year. That’s not a good look for a subject that was originally intended to be one of four core disciplines and which arouses so much interest and passion.

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