Think about the awesome Roman Empire every day? Excellent. Here’s what else to do

It’s not (ancient) history. A viral post on TikTok revealed we think about ancient history all the time, even now. But it’s how we think about it that matters. That’s why what students do when they bring Ötzi, The Iceman, out of the ice, that really matters.

Our aim is to develop historical thinking with high school history students.

If students think history is only about dates and battles, then they are not fully appreciating the purpose of studying history. What is not necessarily obvious to students is that they need to use concrete details for the purpose of saying something more generalised about them. Each time they write about an artefact, historical event or figure, that content is an opportunity to display their historical thinking.

In writing about Ancient History, the NSW syllabus says students must be able to shift from concrete particulars to more abstract historical concepts. This means, for example, getting Ötzi, The Iceman, out of the ice. In writing about the details of how Ötzi was discovered and preserved, students need to connect to recurrent processes and cultural practices that are not only about Ötzi.

To examine how students can successfully connect details with more abstract concepts, our research https://doi.org/10.52289/hej10.106 investigated what happened when students wrote about Ancient History under timed practice exam conditions. We were part of an ARC funded research project and collected data from schools, including one with a lower Index of Community Socio-educational Advantage (ICSEA) in Western Sydney. In this school, a teacher was motivated to join the study because she felt her students could express their historical knowledge in classroom discussions but struggled to move beyond description in their writing. 

Here’s an example from our data set (original wording from students). It is a response to the short-answer exam question of: How are human remains preserved?

Student one
If the weather is either freezing cold or hot and dry, bacteria cannot survive and the body doesn’t decompose. An example of a body found in the freezing cold is the Iceman who was found in the Alps.

Here the student includes contextual details about environmental conditions, but they are not yet repackaging this knowledge in a more abstract form. 

In the next example, a student demonstrates better control of relating concrete details to more abstract concepts: 

Student two
Human remains can either be preserved by natural or artificial process of mummification. For a body to decompose, bacteria must be present in order for the decaying process to occur. Certain conditions may disallow bacteria to use a human body as host and as a result, a preserved human remain is left.

Naturally mummified bacteria occur by accident and are dependent on the conditions of the environment of which the body lies. An example is the iceman who was frozen in ice, those frozen are not suitable for bacteria to flourish and as a result the body was preserved.

Artificial mummification, or embalming was for such reasons like religion and an example are the ancient eqyptian mummies where the body was preserved with chemicals for the “after life” and religious sacrificial purposes.

Student One’s text about Ötzi was descriptive – i.e. it stayed stuck in the ice. Student Two foregrounds abstract processes, such as mummification. They then connect a concrete example (the iceman) to this process. From the perspective of an examiner, Student Two is more successfully demonstrating historical thinking because they are not only describing concrete evidence, but highlighting its relevance and significance beyond the context in which it was found.

One way to understand why this more elaborate response would be awarded a much higher grade in Ancient History is to examine student texts with tools for analysing English texts. In our project, we used a theory from within the sociology of education, called Legitimation Code Theory (LCT). This theory, developed by Professor Karl Maton at the University of Sydney, is about understanding the bases of achievement in social practices. This includes theorising differences in what kind of knowledge is seen as legitimate, how it is learned and who is valued as an appropriate authority. 

The part of this theory that we used involves the concept known as semantic gravity. When analysing student writing, semantic gravity can be used to compare and contrast how tied to context something is. For example, writing about the details of the arrowhead found in Ötzi, the Iceman has relatively strong semantic gravity as it discusses a specific artefact in a specific setting. In contrast, writing about the process of natural mummification has weaker semantic gravity as it is not bound to one artefact or setting but rather discussed in general terms. When analysing student writing, we used the convention of (SG+) and (SG-) for stronger and weaker semantic gravity. 

As we analysed student texts, we plotted the relative strength of semantic gravity as it changes throughout a text. This creates what is known as a semantic profile. Points at the top of the semantic profile represent more abstract and generalised meanings, whereas points at the bottom represent meanings that are more strongly tied to context. Here’s an example from Student 2’s successful text.  

Figure 1: Plotting a semantic profile from an exam response

What this semantic profile tells us is that students need to frequently shift between stronger and weaker context dependence. This kind of movement has been described as semantic waving, as visualised in Figure 1. Writing in waves enables students to connect concrete evidence clearly to more abstract historical concepts. For writing about mummification in Egypt, semantic waving enables students to not just describe fragments of physical evidence, but say something about its significance. Put another way, physical evidence becomes a stepping stone for elaborating on non-physical concepts, such as recurrent processes or religious beliefs and practices. This kind of connection is crucial because it provides a way to connect fragments of evidence to something more abstract. (See our article for precise categorisation of how context dependence may shift in relative strength from one word or group of words to another).

How students connect physical evidence to non-physical and more abstract concepts is also evident in how they deal with time. While they of course need to situate physical evidence in the past (e.g., was frozen), they also need to ‘get up and out’ of that single example and context. One option is to relate physical evidence to a potential or possible occurrence which is relevant to multiple artefacts and events  (e.g., …can be preserved…). Student Two clearly does this when connecting evidence to the recurrent processes of natural and artificial mummification. Controlling time in this way makes it easier to elaborate on the relevance and importance of the evidence. In LCT terms, these temporal choices contribute to widening the semantic range of a text. (See our article for precise categorisation of how context dependence may shift in relative strength from one clause to another).

The kind of analysis that we have briefly shared here aims to illuminate the ‘rules of the game’. If, for high achievement, the ‘rules of the game’ include saying something non-physical about physical evidence, and also relating physical evidence to recurrent processes and cultural practices, then we argue that this can and should be taught. It can be taught to students so that they know how to display more abstract reasoning and thinking in their writing, and it can be the focus of discussion and professional learning for teachers. 

Controlling context dependence has implications for subjects other than Ancient History and for further education. In Modern History, students might study World War One to learn how complex social forces may contribute to a situation in which international diplomacy breaks down and a war breaks out. In English, students might study poems of Wilfred Owen to learn how specific techniques such as alliteration, onomatopoeia and personification (among others) are used to convey meanings infused with emotion. In physics, students might race toy cars down ramps to learn about forces and motion. In each case, relative shifts in context dependence are essential to exploring and writing about something broader in the world or in the realm of human experience.

This ability to manage abstraction is also critical at the tertiary level, where students must be able to use all kinds of evidence, including their own experiences and research findings, to make knowledge claims in a wide range of writing tasks. It therefore seems likely that better supporting students to use evidence, in subjects like Ancient History, could provide a robust foundation for controlling degrees of context dependence in their future tertiary studies.

Lucy Macnaught, senior lecturer and learning advisor, Learning and Academic Engagement team within the AUT Library, collaborates with the Graduate Research School and faculty to integrate academic literacies in programs. Her research draws on theories of Systemic Functional Linguistics and Legitimation Code Theory to investigate what students are expected to create. She designs teaching making these expectations clear.  Twitter @lucy_macnaught and LinkedIn

Erika Matruglio, senior lecturer, School of Education, University of Wollongong, draws on theories of Systemic Functional Linguistics and Legitimation Code Theory, and on Design Based Research, to research literacy practices in schooling. She has published on the nature of classroom discourse, conditions which enable cumulative knowledge building, disciplinarity and the demands of writing in the disciplines. Twitter @Lingitude and LinkedIn.

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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.