history

The truth: what our students really learn about Anzac Day

Students taught “hatred” of the nation (even the PM thinks so). Teachers are duds. That’s the backdrop for the recent announcement of the final version of the Australian Curriculum and it shows exactly how contested is  the teaching of our nation’s history.

But let’s look at what actually happens in our history classrooms. As we approach this ANZAC Day, what will students be learning in history classrooms? 

1.      The April 1 Ministerial press release, claimed that in Years 9 and 10 Australian history content had previously been optional

In the version of the Australian Curriculum (8.4) currently taught in Australian history classrooms, Australian involvement in World War I and World War II and the First Nations Civil Rights Movement are ‘compulsory’, in that there are no alternative topics for teachers to choose from.   The minister’s comments do suggest that the 1750-1918 Australia will become a requirement as well. This is reiterated in ACARA’s press release, which stated Version 9 would focus on “the impact on First Nations Australians on the arrival of British settlers as well as their contribution to the building of modern Australia [and] strengthening and making explicit teaching about the origins and heritage of Australia’s democracy and the diversity of Australian communities”. However, these changes have not been widely welcomed, with Victoria and NSW insisting on an exemption citing the provision that  states and territories to “adopt and adapt” the curriculum, “casting doubt on how compulsory the changes are”. Perhaps this presents an opportunity to teach the Frontier Wars to all students, as the Wars are currently only covered in the Year 11 and 12 Modern History curriculum in some states.

2.      It is already compulsory for Australian students to learn “the places where Australians fought and the nature of warfare during World War I, including the Gallipoli campaign”

 Version 8.4 suggests students should learn the events of conflicts Australian soldiers were involved in during World War I. They should also study why ANZAC Day is commemorated in the primary years, with the secondary years considering the “nature and significance of the Anzac legend”. This idea that seemed to so distress Minister Tudge and his colleagues, is core to teaching all national days of significance. When building a nation, deliberation over the term “significance” is a key part of being a citizen in a democracy.  ANZAC Day is the perfect example for teaching this skill because it is well documented as a fact that its popularity has waxed and waned over the last century. Students can engage with a century of historical records to investigate why ANZAC Day has come to signify much more than a failed assault on a Turkish beach. The contested nature of commemoration and its role in schools has been present since the first ANZAC Day in 1916. The debate over ANZAC Day’s significance can open up Australian history for students to learn about other significant chapters in the building of Australia before and after World War 1.

3.      ANZAC Day commemorations are well-entrenched in schools.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic lock-downs and limitations on large gatherings, schools ‘pivoted’ to ensure that ANZAC Day commemorations were still able to go ahead. ANZAC day is a significant day in the school calendar where students and teachers gather with members of their school community and returned service people to commemorate the ongoing sacrifice Australian soldiers have made since 1915.  But appreciation is not un-critical – we can both appreciate the sacrifice of ANZAC service people, recognise how the ANZAC spirit has contributed to  national identity, and still critique how First Nations soldiers were treated or discuss the bid to include the Frontier Wars in the National War Memorial. Such debates are a part of Australian history just as much as the landing at dawn on April 25th. Australian students, by the end of Year 10, are taught to: “refer to key events, the actions of individuals and groups, and beliefs and values to explain patterns of change and continuity over time”. They also  “analyse the causes and effects of events and developments and explain their relative importance” Version 8.4 Year 10 History Achievement Standard .It is important here to be clear that the ‘interpretations’ that students both engage with and develop are historical – that is, based on the analysis and evaluation of sources of evidence, including the works of historians. They are not encouraged to engage in emotive, uncritical responses such as characterising history teachers as promoting hatred. This is the real benefit of learning a national, rather than nationalist, history.

4.  Learning to be critical in times of war is preparing students to defend their nation.

Not many people recognise the value history education has for present day issues of conflict. The skills of deep investigation, critical analysis of sources including placing the sources in their historical context, are the perfect skills for developing a radar for mis and disinformation. The ability to look at a social media post and determine whether it is a Russian deep fake or a legitimate image of war, is a skill taught in secondary history, just using past examples of propaganda. The current federal Government has dedicated $9 billion to cyber security in the recent budget. The skills taught in history that investigate how events are globally linked, are preparing students to have dispositions useful for cybersecurity, including tracking and analysing big data. Our first author uses the skills she developed as a student of history, a history teacher for 13 years, and a history and English teacher educator for 10 years, to investigate patterns in big data. Many of her faculty colleagues also use their humanities and social science skills as well as STEM skills to address information disorder.

So this ANZAC Day, as our young people lay wreaths and recite the ode, parents and governments can rest assured that “we will remember them”. Those same students will then return to (understaffed) classrooms where they will “ask relevant questions; critically analyse and interpret sources; consider context; respect and explain different perspectives; develop and substantiate interpretations, and communicate effectively” (History Rationale), the skills needed of any good citizen of our nation, so they can be an informed participant in our democracy. 

Dr Alison Bedford is a lecturer (curriculum and pedagogy) in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland and a secondary school history teacher.

Dr Naomi Barnes is a network analyst and theorist interested in how ideas influence education policy. She is a senior lecturer in literacy teaching and has worked for Education Queensland as a senior writer and has worked as a secondary English, hstory and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.

Alan Tudge’s understanding of our history deserves a fail

The Federal Minister for Education Alan Tudge says the draft History and Civics and Citizenship curriculum is not up to scratch. According to a letter seen by The Australian newspaper, Minister Tudge has suggested that the draft curriculum ‘diminishes Australia’s western, liberal and democratic values’. According  to Tudge, the curriculum provides a negative view about western civilisation placing emphasis on ‘slavery, imperialism and colonisation’.

He’s not happy with any of Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) draft curriculum but history came in for a belting.

Tudge also suggested that there has been an effort to remove or reframe historical events, emphasising ‘invasion theory’ over Australia Day. In addition, he is also concerned that Anzac Day is presented as ‘a contested idea, rather than the most sacred of all days’.

His comments are of particular concern to the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia (SCEAA).

SCEAA represents a diverse and experienced group of teachers, researchers and teacher educators from across Australia. The Australian Curriculum, and how it might best be taught is central to our work and advocacy. In this respect, we have provided detailed submissions regarding the  Australian Curriculum.. We are critical friends and do not hesitate to offer suggestions for improvements where we feel they are warranted. It is in this role,, and with a great deal of respect, that we respond to the Minister’s comments. In the case of History and Civics and Citizenship, we would argue that the Minister has mis-characterised aspects of the proposed History and Civics and Citizenship curricula. 

If we are to consider the Minister’s comments regarding Anzac Day, as one example, the evidence does not support his claims that it has been removed or reframed. For example, in Year 3, students are taught ‘How significant commemorations [such as Anzac Day] contribute to [Australian] identity and the content descriptor explicitly references ‘the importance’ of Anzac Day. 

This does not sound as if Anzac Day is being marginalised in the curriculum.

 There is an elaboration that allows teachers to explore the idea ‘that people have different points of view on some commemorations’. Whilst this is optional, its inclusion is consistent with the principles of critical thinking and engaging with multiple perspectives that are foundations of democratic societies. It does not demand the study of Anzac Day as a contested idea. In Year 9, students explore ‘The commemoration of World War I’. Part of this includes ‘different historical interpretations and contested debates about the nature and significance of the Anzac legend and the war’. The documents that comprise the curriculum are carefully articulated to be as close to neutral as possible; they don’t advance an ideological argument against Anzac Day.

Regarding the Minister’s concerns about ‘slavery, imperialism and colonisation within the curriculum, it is important to reiterate that within History and Civics and Citizenship there is a great deal of emphasis placed on critical thinking, and considering different points of view and perspectives. In History, especially, students must engage with concepts like ‘Continuity and change’, ‘Perspectives’ and ‘Contestability’. They must do so by applying historical inquiry and skills, which includes the analysis and use of sources, and the examination of perspective and interpretations. Again, these arguments about meaning and value are central to what it means to be an active and informed citizen and member of the community, and a student of History.    

Perhaps there is some confusion about what history is, and how it is meant to be taught? In the comments above, it appears that the Minister is suggesting that young people undertake no critical thinking about the centrality of Anzac Day (or anything else) in our culture, but solely experience it as an annual patriotic rite. This positions the study of history as something that is only celebratory and patriotic. While History can promote  feelings, it should also encourage reflection, thought and reasoned debate – such as, in this case, about the continued importance of Anzac commemoration in Australia today. This understanding better reflects the experiences of our members, who after all, are those entrusted to make the curriculum a reality and who lead ANZAC day celebrations in schools. There is highly respectful dialogue and interaction between schools, RSLs and others around Anzac Day, with many opportunities for educational conversations. Furthermore, the effective study of History is one that presents multiple sides which are supported by evidence, and invites critical analysis of those multiple views on the balance of evidence, in a way that neutralises biases as much as possible rather than amplifying bias one way or another. 

As Australian educational settings are super-diverse we need to embrace a curriculum that is not monocultural and embraces and critically explores and presents our history so that all learners can relate to it and be valued. History, at its most effective form of contribution to society, is a doorway into our past in ways that help us to make sense of our present and then enable us to make better informed decisions for our future. It is not about advocating any one view, itself. The  Australian Curriculum reflects this best practice approach.

This misunderstanding also applies to the Minister’s comments regarding Australia’s western democratic values. Again, an examination of the Australian Curriculum documents might correct this. Students in Year 3 through to Year 8  learn about government, politics and democracy in Australia. For example, in Year 3, ‘students explain how citizens contribute in their community’, the role of rules and the importance of making decisions democratically’. In Year 5 students explore ‘What is democracy in Australia, how does our democracy work, and why is voting in a democracy important’. A content descriptor outlines ‘the key values, and features of Australia’s democracy, including the election process and the responsibilities of electors’. In Year 6 ‘Students study the key institutions of Australia’s democratic government. They learn how State, Territory and Federal laws are made in a parliamentary system and the role of law and law enforcement’. There is an entire sub-strand in the Year 7 and 8 called ‘Government and Democracy’ which focuses on the key features of Australian democracy and government, and also the role of political parties and independent representatives. Students are also called upon to evaluate political and legal institutions (including in positive ways!) as they ‘Explain how democratic, political and legal systems uphold and enact values and processes, and how Australian citizens use these to contribute to their local, State/Territory or national community’.

Again, there is no evidence that this represents any particular ideology. It is hard to see how the curriculum exemplifies a ‘left-wing’ bias as represented in the media coverage. Instead, what it does do is strive to meet the twin goals of ‘active and informed’ citizens and membership of the community that are present in the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Declaration; nationally agreed goals for schooling agreed to by all state and territory Ministers of Education.. Students have the opportunity to recognise what is good about our current institutions and their past, but, perhaps more importantly, how they might strive to improve and participate as informed citizens in the democratic life of all Australians. This constant evaluation of systems and processes is essential to a healthy democratic system.

Whenever a new draft of a curriculum is opened for consultation, stakeholders from all backgrounds are invited to respond and raise their concerns and questions. Such action is to be encouraged, since contributions from diverse stakeholders,  (including teachers and their representatives) strengthen education in Australia as a whole. However, these contributions must be weighed against the content of the curriculum and the practice of teachers in their classrooms.  

Australians need informed, engaged citizens to contribute to a healthy and responsible democracy. We are committed to educating young people with these kinds of qualities through our teaching in both schools and teacher education institutions.

From left to right: Keith Heggart is an early career researcher with a focus on learning and instructional design, educational technology and civics and citizenship education. He is currently exploring the way that online learning platforms can assist in the formation of active citizenship amongst Australian youth. Keith is a former high school teacher, having worked as a school leader in Australia and overseas, in government and non-government sectors. In addition, he has worked as an Organiser for the Independent Education Union of Australia, and as an independent Learning Designer for a range of organisations. Peter Brett is an experienced History and Civics and Citizenship teacher educator and was involved in a variety of ways with the launch of citizenship education in England from 2002. He is a recent President of the Social and Citizenship Education Association of Australia [SCEAA] and a co-editor of Teaching Humanities and Social Sciences (Cengage, 2020). Sophie Fenton is an award winning founder, learning designer and researcher in education. She has taught History, Global Politics and Civics, as well as developing curriculum with VCAA and SEV. Today, she specialises in school design, curriculum adaptation and pedagogy innovation with a focus on human-centred design for the emerging cyber-physical world.