Difficult histories: Teaching about the experiences of trauma in higher education

Year: 2019

Author: Harrison, Neil, Burke, Jackie, Clarke, Ivan

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The Stolen Generations, the Holocaust, genocide, the world wars, and a nation’s history of frontier violence is difficult knowledge to teach. The difficulty lies in creating opportunities for impact, and ensuring the impacts are safely managed. In the case of the Stolen Generations in Australia, men and women who have been taken from their families are often represented in classroom discourse as stories from the past. Stories are downloaded from various sites and presented with a focus on explaining why the children were taken from their families. Little attention is paid to the experiences of the children who were taken, or to the families from which they were taken.

Following disillusion with our own pedagogical impact, and perhaps a sense of helplessness over recognition that intentions cannot be controlled, we embarked on re-presenting a story of the Stolen Generations in a way that would produce affective links for students. The emotional impact of this story reached well beyond planning and intent.

If we employ the usual approach to teaching about the Stolen Generations, where disembodied stories from the internet, textbooks and videos are used to explain what happened and why, the risk of detrimental psychological outcomes is lower. Teaching will remain safe. There will however, likely be little shift in learner knowledge or attitude. However, when we engage the learner directly in the story delivered by a member of the Stolen Generations, the chance of detrimental psychological outcomes increases, and so the teaching becomes risky and difficult.

This presentation reports on a three year project with preservice teacher education students (n=162) in their second and third years of study at Macquarie University, Australia.

Following the presentation from Ivan about his own experiences of being taken (previously reported in Harrison, Burke and Clarke, 2018, 2016), we surveyed students enrolled in three separate cohorts over three years (2016-2018) in an Aboriginal education unit in order to identify the impacts of teaching about trauma. The data were sourced from a student survey, focus group interviews and student essays, and are used to build a Trauma Informed Pedagogy (TIP) for schools and universities. Our findings illuminate the ways in which we can teach about trauma content in universities, in a way that minimises detrimental psychological outcomes, whilst creating the opportunity for effective learning.