Thoughts on teaching, technology, learning and life in an era of change.
Teaching Australian history
September 22nd, 2008

Last weekend David Dale wrote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the teaching of Australian history in our schools. His article was prompted by the fact that the newly formed National Curriculum Board have commenced their meetings to start building a syllabus for History, English, Science and Mathematics. The new syllabus will come into effect in 2010. I am personally not sure how this new Board will achieve their goals given that they are only meeting on a few occasions and their numbers are few.

I personally have mixed emotions about the teaching of Australian history at present. More on that later.

I take exception to one Mr Dale’s statements, “Traditionally history lessons convinced kids Australia is one of the most boring places on the planet.” Which history lessons, Mr Dale? Elsewhere Mr Dale raises some good points. Yet, I wonder if he realises that all of the historical incidents that he listed in the article could not be taught in the current complusory Australian history course in NSW as they all took place before 1900?

Now, Australian history may not be as bloodthirsty or as thrilling as some episodes during the course of world history yet it is still possible to bring the content to life and make it relevant for the students.

One thing that annoys me about the teaching of Australian history here in NSW is that in recent years politicians have determined much of what and when we teach as opposed to historians and educators. This is frustrating. During the Howard years a jingoistic approach has crept into the teaching of the subject. Some politicians want teachers to be politically correct as we teach the subject.

I teach Australian history to Years 9 and 10 over a two year period. It is compulsory. I feel that the decision to make Australian history compulsory for students of Years 9 and 10 to be a poor decision. The syllabus content is tedious at times and admittedly it is challenging to engender interest and excitement in that specific content. The compulsory 100 hours of Australian history should be taught either to Years 7 and 8, either in a single 12 month period or over the two years in tandem with the Australian geography course. The Australian history taught should be comprehensive and not limited to the twentieth century.

Following that the Year 9 and 10 students should be allowed to select History as an elective. That elective subject should have a sweeping syllabus that covers world history, ancient through to modern and across all continents, including Australia. History should be an elective for the older students. The subject will attract a core of students interested in History. They can take that interest into senior subjects and then on to the community.

The politicians should leave the structure and content of the syllabus up to the teachers and not peddle their political or ideological agendas via our classrooms.

David Dale posed the question to his readers, “What should be in the core curriculum for Australian history?” A number of respondents suggest a wide range of topics and a number of students point out the boring aspects of the current syllabus. One students mentions how they are taught too much Australian history. This may not be entirely correct yet I can understand their sentiments given the structure of the syllabus.  We have limited hours in which to teach the course and as a result it is difficult to sink one’s teeth into the content.

A teacher Greg Leighton, put it rather well:

In NSW we have two constraints on good history teaching practice and they apply before any teacher gets into a classroom. Firstly, the Primary School syllabus limits Australian History content to the 19th Century if it is taught at all (with all the other subject and topics our overworked Primary teachers are required to do). Secondly, in High School we are limited to a shared (half) teaching load with Geography yet we still have a School Certificate exam. Because of this, content coverage is superficial in many areas in the interests of keeping our SC exam results at a satisfactory level. (Have a look at the SC Australian History exam sometime if you don’t believe the politicisation of the curriculum).

The ones who generally get forgotten are the students themselves, as has been shown by some of the earlier posts. I expect I’ll be howled down as one of those dreadfully biased teachers who ignores all the really important aspects of our history. However there are a lot of very dedicated History Teachers in NSW and no doubt across the country who would just like to be given a fair go at being able to deliver an interesting story that can both inspire as well as educate our students.

Other readers of David Dale’s article contributed salient points. Others did not. It makes an interesting read, particularly for teachers and students of Australian history.

And finally, one respondent Tony Flander made an impassioned plea that some of the lowest ebb of human decency should be taught. Do not worry Mr Flander, it is being taught. After all, History should at least engender in us all a desire not to repeat the errors of the past.

4 Responses to “Teaching Australian history”

  1. Tony Searl Says:

    Thanks for the heads up John.
    I too am somewhat disillusioned with the politicised, piecemeal and tedious nature of the current Year 9 and 10 Australian History course. I much preferred the previous pre compulsory elective History course and before that the 19th century Australian history taught in stage 4, that has now moved in part to k-6. Our Year 9 narrative assessment where students ‘adopt a family’ and research their lives from 1896 to 1945 engages most students and they seem to like the task. They have choice, select and analyse a variety of sources, write a prepared assessment response in class based on this research and finally the formal exam asks for a response on the usefulness and reliability of sources, similiar to that found in the Senior Modern History course.
    I am very concerned how the NCB will decide what is “worthy” of study in school history and fear it will extend the prescriptive PC nature of what academics and/or politicians perceive as ‘history’.

  2. John Daley Says:

    G’day John

    There have been 2 articles in The Australian newspaper over the past 2 days concerning history as storytelling rather than as straightforward analysis. This, according to the direction of the articles, has bearing on the way that history is received by students in schools.

    Whilst this might not exactly align with what you put in your post, John, I thought I’d draw these items to the attention of you and your readers.

    The article to which I refer is at:,,24416689-2702,00.html

    A review of the book The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville – which has partly caused this discussion – is at:,,24392823-25132,00.html

    I hope that this is of interest.



  3. John Larkin Says:

    Thanks Tony and John. For many students History has become a chore. It is saddening. They love the Year 8 History syllabus with the Persian Wars, Viking warriors, castle construction, strange diets, modes of dress, Aztec sacrifice and all the other great stuff. The politicised content of Years 9 and 10 is such a struggle at times. We bring it to life but it is like reviving a dead patient at times.

    Excellent bloody links John! Jolly good! Most interesting. The article written by Justine Ferrari is most informative. Cochrane is correct about Windschuttle. What an unfortunate name. Windschuttle. Is a ‘windschuttle’ the thing you need when broken wind is tangible as opposed to tenous?

  4. Jason McKee Says:

    Personally I like the way that History is taught in NSW. As a History teacher I have a selection of a variety of cultures and civilisations pre-1900AD. The Stage 5 Australian History units where doomed from the outset as there were far too many topics and too little time to deliver them. If the Dept. is serious about History then perhaps they could structure the course similar to the way senior History is taught i.e. A single core (such as “Australians at War” and “The Aboriginal Experience”) for years 9 and 10 which have common exam questions such as short answer response and two elective topics, one social and one political for each year. Finally one personality. This would allow teachers to develop locally oriented programs or some that might actually interest students. All exams could be generic extended response such as the current HSC Modern and Ancient, this would allow the teaching of the skills of History in the senior years rather than response writing techniques which currently takes a lot of the time.