Embracing the past: creatively using millennials’ growing interest in ceremonies of commemoration

By Alison O'Grady

This week many teachers will be turning their attention to the next event in the school calendar, the commemoration of ANZAC day. Research tells us that over 94% of Australians agree that this is a very important day for commemorating our country and its freedoms.

The current generation of young people, the maligned millennial generation, seems to be embracing memorialisation and commemoration activities, such as ANZAC day celebrations, in increasing numbers. My colleagues and I have noticed a growing interest among young people in ANZAC ceremonies. Many seem enthusiastic about attending and some are even interested in travelling overseas to see battlefields for themselves.

We know that 46%, or nearly half, of Australian households has either one or both parents born overseas, so we wonder why, when we know that most young people seem to particularly abhor the idea of war, would this generation embrace the associated ceremonies of commemoration?

The way schools conceptualise commemoration activities usually involve flying flags, singing songs and the retelling of heroic tales and yet our research tells us students seem to take away much more than this from participating in such events.

Those of us who work in history and drama teacher education are very interested in the increasing attentiveness to wars of the past and the growth in participation in memorialisation and commemoration ceremonies. We are keen to know why it is happening and how we, as teachers of teachers, can approach it in the teaching of history in schools.

Why young people have a desire to remember wars largely unrelated to them and their forebears, perhaps goes to their heightened desire to empathise and connect to their country by participating in national events. The discourse around national events encourages young people to think about participation in citizenship and community as central to what some contrive as an Australian way of life, and contribute to a sense of belonging.

So as teachers and researchers we needed to ask how would remembering the past, particularly world wars, inform the futures of our young people? How could understanding about wars that are perceived by the young as a source of regret rather than of growth, provide students from a host of backgrounds and experiences with new knowledge to navigate uncertain times?

This generation is often depicted as either the scourge of their nation or alternatively its salvation, and it is firmly under the microscope. Our young people are often provoked by the media and told that theirs will be a chaotic and complex future, that the skills they will need to navigate this unwieldy future should be radically rethought if they are to be successful citizens in the post normal future.

Our project

It’s precisely because the modern world is increasingly complex and because we need new ways of thinking about how knowledge is acquired, that led to our interdisciplinary project. Interdisciplinary thinking in our project refers to a coming together of different researchers in particular and related fields of historiography, drama and applied theatre, primary and secondary education to generate new knowledge about complex problems.

In the case of our project, initially our idea was to improve attrition rates in history electives in secondary school and to engage teachers with new and relevant pedagogies. Our project was designed to provide teachers a respite from the current educational climate that mandates teachers spend an increasing amount of time in the classroom on testing, measuring and standardisation rather than legitimising time for creative play in a professional development setting.

We offered teachers from different disciplines an opportunity for a creative collaboration about teaching the history of war that included experiences with performance and dramatic thinking. The result was a richness of intention and perspective that became fertile ground for new knowledge to be seamlessly and creatively co constructed. Passions were ignited or reignited; discipline siloes were disassembled and new confidences with unfamiliar pedagogies embraced.

What we did

The British philosopher Ziauddin Sardar suggested that we think about our imagination as the most important tool for tackling the future, so we took this as our impetus. Using the digital archives of the University of Sydney, Beyond1914 (an extensive, searchable database of biographies and archival information about members of the community involved in World War 1) our early career teachers from low SES and regional schools, met with us and experienced a tour of the carillon in the university grounds, an introduction to the book of remembrance and then spent the afternoon in drama workshops where we used the story of Dr. Elsie Daylell, a wartime medical officer in various medical units, to introduce historical ideas such as commemoration, women in war and new perspectives using primary evidence as an interpretive tool.

We then followed these activities with a panel discussion to analyse the effectiveness of drama and creativity to assist students in thinking about historical concepts and the role of empathy in broadening historical awareness. By taking time to walk in someone else’s shoes and by reimagining real events teachers can help students transform meaning into consequential knowledge. The act of imagining in this case was a very powerful pedagogical tool.

By happy happenstance, my colleague Kate stumbled upon one of the celebrated World War poet Wilfred Owen’s poems the night before we launched our project and it has fittingly become the call to arms for our work and our research into imagination and empathy in teaching history. When we shared this with our teachers their reactions were quite profound and many of them were visibly moved.

“All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful”.

Teaching history and teaching students about truth in the Trump era of alternative facts is proving vexed for many teachers. When we teach History we also want students to understand perspectives and by using imagination, empathy and interpretation they can develop their own very personal take on what the truth really might be.

Our findings

One of our initial findings from the professional development day is as superficially simple and as deeply complex as this – teachers need time to play and to be creative when acquiring new knowledge, particularly about historical events.

As researchers and facilitators, we basked in the energy and the creative insights of the teachers who participated in our professional development day, it was a real privilege to be with them.

Understanding even momentarily and conceptualising the plight or circumstances of others allows us to develop reflective and critical skills of insight and analysis and space to change or alter views because of newfound empathy and emotional agility.

In January, 2018 Senior Australian of the year Graham Farquar described his generation as the luckiest to live on the planet so far. He urged us all to embrace our innate creativity, to struggle for honesty and in doing so, progress as a nation.

The way we can learn from our historical mistakes can be a product of play and creative experiences. An interdisciplinary and creative approach can activate and encourage critical thinking in and about the world and is paramount to understanding and approaching the complexity, the chaos and the challenges of the future for our young people.

We hope to repeat this day again with our teachers here in Sydney and to take our workshop to Cambridge University, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick Ireland and to Singapore later in the year and see what initial teacher education students experience when they engage with this work. Our research and work will continue.

And as for the pundits?
I rarely listen to them. I have a household, classrooms and lecture halls full of millennials – they are our ‘new hope’. The force is strong with them.
(Star Wars references courtesy of my very own Millennial, Ignatius.)


Dr. Alison O’Grady is the Program Director of Combined Degrees: English Curriculum, Pedagogy and Practices 1-3, Creativity and Teacher Artistry and lecturer at the University of Sydney, Sydney School of Education and Social Work. Alison is a former English and Drama teacher. Hers current research looks at history and drama and how these disciplines develop empathy and critical thinking. Alison’s most recent publication is a chapter, with Catherine Smyth, in Playing with possibilities P. O’Connor & C. Rozas Gomez (Eds.) called Finding Neverland: The affordances of play for teachers’ knowledge work.


6 thoughts on “Embracing the past: creatively using millennials’ growing interest in ceremonies of commemoration

  1. Ania Lian says:

    Dear Alison
    Thank you – it always amazes me what we get when we take people out of their daily rut and offer opportunities to self-engage. You call it being creative, I try not to say this as I did not see your explanation of what creativity might be, what makes it important and therefore how you structured those experiences to account for all this. But, putting it aside, why are these occasions so rare that they require a special project to happen? The way you write about your experience it seems we should have them all the time. By the way, I also think that it is not just empathy, and I am not sure why you focused on it. Why not open the field and see what “reasons” or feelings would emerge?
    thank you
    Ania Lian

  2. Alison O'Grady says:

    Hi Ania
    Thanks for your comment. The project is part of a broader study and I am happy to provide you with any information regarding our definition of creativity and the difficulties many teachers have in carving out time for creative play and the endless possibilities that have emerged including heightened feelings and moral reasoning practices. Sometimes its a bit hard to capture all that in a blog!

  3. Congratulations Alison.
    A thought provoking article to contextualize the ground breaking work you are doing using the techniques of process drama to illuminate aspects of military history and engage teachers in a meaningful way.
    Looking forward to incorporating similar practices in to the learning program here at the Anzac Memorial!
    Stephanie Hutchinson

  4. Alison O'Grady says:

    Thanks Stephanie
    This project is a real joy to work on. looking forward to working on a new area of memorialisation with you!

  5. Anastasia Yule says:

    Hi Ally – thank you for sharing this and inviting us into this dialogue with you!

    As a pre-service teacher, it’s great to hear that teachers are engaging with the power of creative play, imagination and the collaborative co-construction of knowledge. Unfortunately in my experience ‘creative play’ and ‘imagination’ have minimally been incorporated into the discourse around pedagogy, and thus seem foreign and intangible to implement. I hope we can equip all disciplines, beyond just the Drama class, to meaningfully engage with it!

    Your blog post raised a few questions for me around the motives and depth of millennials’ interest in memorialisation, and also how Anglocentric it tends to be. Despite that, I hope we’re shifting towards students having a more holistic and meaningful engagement with Australia’s history and memory re conflict, including memorialisation of frontier resistors, and not merely rooted in cultural obligation/conformity.

    Anyway, back to the pedagogical focus of your post… It’s so encouraging to see and be taught by educators that are thoughtfully reflecting and creatively collaborating to improve and adapt their practice. So thanks for that Ally, it speaks loudly.


  6. Alison O'Grady says:

    Thanks Anastasia and yes the interest and cultural intentions are really worth exploring. This project is intentionally taking discipline knowledge out of content areas and taking dramatic thinking and applied theatre practices into broader areas. Its a real privilege to teach teachers!

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