What should an Australian education researcher say about Ben Roberts-Smith? Should I again write about the ANZAC legend and its role in nationalist electioneering? What about something about the Australian National Values posters, complete with ANZAC iconography, you’ll find in most schools, tucked away near a photocopier somewhere? Relic of a time when school funding became about flagpoles. Maybe something else about the remit of all humanities and social science teachers – Australian citizenship and the characteristics of being Australian: courage, egalitarianism, endurance, mateship according to the Australian ANZAC portal.
You ask me what Roberts-Smith means for how we teach history in Australia? I’ll tell you what this means. This is an opportunity to teach the history of Australia’s supposedly ‘great men’ and teach them truthfully. Ben Roberts-Smith is just another allegedly legendary man whose actions have been exposed.
Last week, Justice Anthony Besanko handed down his judgment in the defamation trial brought by Ben Roberts-Smith where the former soldier claimed to have his life ruined by six articles published by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. Australia’s most decorated living soldier, Victoria Cross and Medal of Gallantry winner Ben Roberts-Smith, sought to clear his reputation.
As Michael Bachelard wrote for Nine Newspapers this week: “The main judgment – ruling on the question of whether the newspapers defamed the war hero, or if he is, in fact, a war criminal – was handed down on Thursday, June 1, 2023. The judge found overwhelmingly for the newspapers, finding Roberts-Smith was, on the balance of probabilities, a murderer, a war criminal, a bully and a disgrace to his country and the Australian military.”
What of other allegedly legendary men?
For example, Governor Lachlan Macquarie is way more decorated than Roberts-Smith. What’s a Victoria Cross in comparison to numerous geographic features and universities? Dr Amy Thunig in her TEDx talk explains how cold-blooded it is that someone who was instrumental in the Frontier War Appin massacre of the Gandangara and Tharawal men, women and children should be rewarded with such accolades. And Australia wasn’t the first place he glorified genocide. Macquarie began his brutal career in India, torching villages of Manantheri. Later, in 1799, he celebrated the aftermath of the defeat of Tipu Sultan where the bodies of Tipu and his people ‘lay in such immense Heaps on the Ramparts…as well as in different Parts of the Town that no regular account of them could be taken’. Lucky for the British Empire forces, there were no mobile phones at those parties recording anyone doing ‘shoeys’ or perhaps ‘leggies’.
Australian history teachers could compare Roberts-Smith to another allegedly legendary man of Australian history, John Eyre (decorated with peninsulas and giant lakes). He also went on trial for war crimes. Priya Satia recounts Eyre’s trial in her book on British colonialism, Time’s Monster(a book all history teachers should read). In Jamaica, where he was Governor after his time in Australia and New Zealand, Eyre ‘launched reprisals that killed more than four hundred black peasants. Hundreds more were flogged and arrested and thousands of houses burned’ (p113). Eyre did ‘things that should make every Englishman blush with shame and indignation’ (Birmingham Daily Post, 21/11/1865).
Eyre’s trial, a royal commission, was, like Roberts-Smith’s, spotted with Empire celebrities of the day presenting opinion pieces about the consequences of Eyre’s actions. Liberal philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill argued that Eyre was the opposite of what the civilising forces of the Empire were supposed to be. He argued for Eyre’s prosecution, as did Charles Darwin. But British public opinion was sympathetic to Eyre who had popular supporters like Charles Dickens and poet laureate Lord Alfred Tennyson.
Eyre’s trial interviewed hundreds of witnesses and produced a 1,200 page report that criticised him for excessive violence, dismissed him as Governor but exonerated him of murder and genocide because he approved the brutal actions after declaring martial law. We should keep watchful for such a technicality as Roberts-Smith’s consequences unfold. Hopefully we won’t have to teach our children that so-called great men still don’t get real consequences.
The study of history in schools has, and still is, one of the key architectures of nation building. Despite efforts by historians and history teachers to shift the methodology to include the stories of people long marginalised, it has always been broadly accepted by policymakers and politicians that the study of history is about ‘great people’ for young children to learn about to aspire to be great adults. Australian history is resplendent with allegedly great men including highly decorated soldiers who committed horrific crimes. Let’s teach about them, their decorations, their crimes and consequences (or lack thereof). And then let’s ask ourselves what it means to rely so heavily on asking our history teachers to engage in, as Banjo Patterson would say, nation building through stories of ‘shot and steel’.
Header images are, from left to right, John Eyre (by Henry Hering in the Caribbean Photo Archive ), Ben Roberts-Smith (photograph by Nick-D) and Lachlan Macquarie (image by unknown photographer, published by Blue Mountains City Library)
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, history and geography teacher in government, Catholic and independent schools.
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 Queenslandand 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.
The “wokeness” of Australia’s National Curriculum has again made headlines and again it is more electioneering.
On Friday a Nine newspapers headline claimed the revised version of National Curriculum will elevate Western and Christian heritage. Crikey picked up on the Sydney Morning Herald headline to claim the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has “backed down” and “returned to Western Civilisation”.
Neither of these headlines is true. In fact, as the reporters wrote, the revisions needed to be discussed with the State education ministers at a meeting which occurred on Friday.
Furthermore, according to Stuart Robert, the revisions did not pass the States, with Western Australia holding out: “We have asked ACARA to go away and revise the curriculum, noting the concerns the Commonwealth and Western Australia have, and to come back to education ministers in April”.
So there is a long way to go yet, the curriculum is not “revised”, and ACARA has not backed down.
Robert claimed the problem with the Humanities and Social Sciences Curriculum was that it was too busy. Most HASS teachers agree. He also said there was no mention of Gough Whitlam, of course, or Robert Menzies but that “students were encouraged to research Greta Thunberg”. On the easy resolution of this issue, Robert claimed a win by saying: “Western civilisation is something we should be proud of, and what it means to be Australian to be proud of is well and truly back in the curriculum.”
On the same day, Kevin Donnelly, who oversaw a previous review of the National Curriculum, published an op-ed in the Daily Telegraph (not available online). Most of the article pointed to funding, testing and sentiment data, but there was one unsubstantiated statement: “Too many students leave schools morally adrift, lacking resilience and unaware of what makes Australia and Western civilisation so beneficial and worthwhile defending.”
The Christian (a word not featured in any of the press briefings available to the public) and Western civilisation have been linked to the Cross Curriculum Priorities in the National Curriculum. This is the section of the document that suggests all disciplines should work to include Indigenous perspectives, Australia’s connections with Asia, and sustainability.
A moral panic, linked to these “woke” ideas, was sparked by a NewsCorp survey. The questionnaire asked Australians over the age of 18 the following leading question:
Which of the following is closer to your own view about the curriculum in Australian schools?
1. The curriculum should continue to include topics such as Australia’s engagement with Asia, Indigenous Australians and the environment
2. The curriculum has become too woke and we should have less emphasis on Australia’s engagement with Asia, Indigenous Australians and the environment than we have currently
3. Don’t know
The results of the survey were reported by Channel 7’s Sunrise program as “A new poll has revealed that a majority of baby boomers want Aussie values nurtured in classrooms and think the current school curriculum is ‘too woke’.” The program proceeded to debate the claim with commentators removed from expertise in curriculum development and interpretation (just like those surveys) . The program concluded the curriculum was not too “woke” – but the headline remained.
If truth be told, all these statements are easily refuted through a cursory search of the Internet or a quick discussion with your friendly neighbourhood educator. For example, the proposed revisions also reported that the “contestability” of the Anzac legend had been removed, but Robert reported that the contestability of Anzac day has been revised. Additionally, as Jonathan Dallimore, from the History Teachers Association of NSW explained in September (when Tehan announced the revision), “contestability” was framed in the negative.
Essentially, “contestability” in history scholarship refers to rigour in historical thinking and according to Dallimore, is only linked to “very legitimate (even safe) historical debates” in the National Curriculum.
So why all this emphasis on wokeness?
As I wrote in October 2021, it’s because there is an election coming and this storm in a teacup is campaigning. This is clear in two ways.
Firstly, emphasis on wokeness appeals to some of the crossbench, like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the newly badged United Australia Party. The large number of high profile independents positioning themselves to contest the coming election are a great a danger to the Coalition. Many of the independents are economically conservative, but progressive in other policies like climate futures and human rights. If they were to win balance of power, the Coalition has a much less predictable chance of government. It is therefore, in the Coalition’s best interest to win seats where PHON and UAP might be competitive.
Secondly, the other big-ticket items in the review, phonics and maths, appeal to nostalgia, which I have also written about previously. The removal of “balanced literacy” from the document, increased emphasis on phonics, and reform of initial teacher education to include the explicit teaching of phonics are politically smart moves for the Coalition going into an election. The Coalition can now say they delivered on their 2019 promises:
“…we will invest $10.8 million to provide a voluntary phonics health check for every Year 1 student so parents and teachers can be confident their children are not falling behind. We will also ensure that trainee teachers learn how to teach phonics as part of their university degree to ensure they can teach phonics in the classroom.”
Michael Barber, who developed the “science of deliverology”, insists that politicians use good data, set targets and trajectories, is consistent, and have regular reporting and reassessment of the delivery chain. So while the Coalition might claim they have delivered, they have:
4. Not ensured the media reports progress in a clear and informative way.
So what can be done?
My answer is the same as it was in October. Politicians need to stop using education as a political pawn. Media outlets must be more responsible. Education policy research that is usually responsive to policy announcements, needs deeper analysis of the political trends that lead to policy development. This latter is where my own work sits.
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.
Q and A with Anna Clark, author of Making Australian History
Q. Why has history become so contested in Australia?
Anna Clark: It’s always been contested. There were debates the letters pages of newspapers in the 19th century newspapers about what was going on on the frontier and debates over the legacy of Australia’s convict origins. In the last 30 or 40 years, it’s become increasingly contested because history has wrestled with questions about how to include the perspectives of people who had largely been excluded from the national story.
Q. Why has history now become so politicised when it comes to the national curriculum?
Anna Clark: That’s a very, very interesting question: it’s not simply a question of political debates along lines of ‘left’ and ‘right’. It’s also a dispute about the role and function of history in our education system today. For example, China is a very left wing government, which has very strong views that the role of history is to provide a proud narrative of national progress. Likewise, there are politically conservative historians who would argue that the role of history is to promote a kind of critical citizenship. So it’s not just a simple left/right divide. Much of the heat of the school history wars comes down to that disagreement over what the role of history should be.
Q: What do you think the role of history should be in a liberal democracy?
Anna Clark: It should be to help people understand their place in time, that we are all historical subjects and that we all have a past and a future. Understanding that people who were living and thinking and making decisions in 1901 or 1847, or 1945, were just as much a product of their own historical context as we are today. Teaching students to understand those historical contexts, as well as some of the skills of a historical education (such as research, communication, and interrogating historical sources) helps us to be better citizens and more capable, critical thinkers.
Q: Thinking about place and time, Anzac Day seems to be the most extraordinarily contested part of modern Australian history. Why is it like that?
Anna Clark: The idea of the Anzac legacy and even Anzac Day itself has always been up for grabs. To pretend that it’s not contested is just a total total misinterpretation of the history of Anzac Day. In the 1920s, that day was contested by many veterans who weren’t sure how to commemorate Australia’s involvement in war. In the 1960s (around the Vietnam War), Anzac Day was nearly moribund. Meanwhile, there has been a great national revival of this commemoration in recent years. ‘Contested’ doesn’t mean it has to be totally politicised, or that it’s ‘unAustralian’, but an understanding that people bring different ideas and understandings about what that day means.
Q: You’ve got children yourself, what do you hope for their history education in school?
Anna Clark: I hope they learn enough of the facts to understand the nation and the world in which they live. You know, understanding the World Wars, the Holocaust, civil rights, colonisation and imperialism But just as important as the facts are the skills of doing history, being able to get their hands dirty in proper historical research and be able to come up with historical questions themselves to ask of the past. So I hope they also develop research skills of inquiry, learn to use a library, distinguish different historical opinions, and also develop skills of empathy and imagination.
Anna Clark is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in Public History at UTS and the author of Making Australian History, published this month by Penguin.Teaching the Nation, was published by Melbourne University Press in 2006 followed by History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom (New South, 2008).
Australian children will never defend the country if the draft history curriculum is adopted. That’s the takeaway from the Federal Education Minister Allan Tudge’s speech to the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) on Friday.
The minister called for yet another curriculum reform to ensure “a positive, optimistic view of Australian history”.
His reasoning? “Individual students learn to understand the origins of our liberal democracy so that they can defend it, they can protect it, they can understand it, and they can celebrate it”.
The impact of such talk on the education system is cause for concern. Curriculum reform is expensive for the economy and disruptive for the sector. Tudge’s comments are unusual given the Australian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (ACARA) just completed a public deliberation over the History curriculum earlier this year.
This begs the question:
What the hell is the Minister doing?
It’s about the election but there is something more. The use of two political spaces, Sky News and the libertarian think tank Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), rather than the more bipartisan National Press Club, supports the campaigning thesis. My previous research has shown CIS and the Institute for Public Affairs have a specific focus on causing education issues to go viral. When an issue goes viral, it becomes something talked about in more households and more online accounts, whether challenged or accepted. As the lobbyist theory goes, more viral = more likely to have popular influence. Add to this Tudge’s online blocking of multiple historians and teachers of history over the past weeks, as they question his weird focus on optimism, a clearer picture emerges. This commentary is not about policy. It is about the election and getting that little word “optimism” associated with the Coalition.
It’s probably electioneering
There is a federal election on the horizon, and even if the Government is re-elected, there will be a cabinet reshuffle. So why is Tudge making so much noise about History education when he only has five months left in the job? I believe the imminent election is the key to unlocking Friday’s weird flex.
It is tempting to look at the transcripts from Tudge’s comments and dismiss them as far-fetched. But it is more important to draw back the lens to view a government with an election in five months, after a pandemic year filled with bad press.
When taking a broad view of the Federal government, it is interesting to note that the word “optimism” is popping up in many Federal press releases and media interviews. Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, has been using the word consistently since COVID19 vaccines were developed, but the word has also crept into other portfolios. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the “man for optimistic narratives”, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg is optimistic of an economic recovery, Trade and Tourism Minister Dan Tehan is optimistic about resolving the French submarine diplomatic disaster, “government sources” from Attorney General Michaelia Cash’s office say they are cautiously optimistic about resolving the industrial relations bill, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne even has “optimism” in her Twitter profile, even if it is about breeding racehorses.
Optimism has popped up enough times to warrant attention. The word taps into a public desire for something good to happen after the heartbreak and restrictions of the COVID 19 pandemic. We also know that the current federal government is very keen to ensure popular optics. “Optimism” is a useful word for dismissing the Opposition’s criticism of the Government at the same time giving hope to the population. It’s a powerful word that escapes a lot of generalised attention, and does a lot of political heavy lifting.
How “optimism” works in History education
The tactics of this current government’s History education rhetoric is different to the Howard government. The History Wars have a few skirmishes every time there are announcements about education’s role in the development of the nation. While Ministers and their lobbyists clutch pearls over declining scores in literacy and numeracy, and students are squeezed into STEM for the economy, History has always been about what type of nation Australia’s children should be actively informed about. In the past, this battle for the soul of the nation has at least had some semblance of debate, with academics, historians and politicians getting into the nitty gritty of what it means to raise active and informed citizens. They have engaged with alternative readings of events, even if only to dismiss them.
Tudge’s History War is different.
Tudge’s reasoning is riddled with misinformation and weird predictions but he keeps coming back to this word “optimism”. While he drags out the History Wars’ bread and butter about balancing the positive things Australia has done alongside the violence of the colonial past, his desire to squeeze in the use of “optimism” in other ways looks more forced.
For example, as mentioned previously, the review of the Australian Curriculum was just completed in July. It was not until after the Australian public were invited to make submissions on the proposed changes to school offerings that Tudge began to get quite vocal about changing it. Which leads me to wonder, if he really wanted to make the curriculum more optimistic, why didn’t he begin this campaign before the review ended. A closer look at his reasoning shows that some of the items in the History curriculum he thought were pessimistic have already been removed in the latest draft. So why did he think they were worth talking about?
He uses old news to argue that if the draft curriculum goes forward, students “won’t necessarily defend our democracy as previous generations have done” using data from the Lowry Institute to support his claim. Apart from being completely impossible to make that prediction, what Tudge doesn’t say is that the Lowry Institute poll on democracy shows young people’s faith in democracy is on the rise, trending up from 31% of the population believing in democracy in 2012, to 60% in 2021. So using Tudge’s logic, the current History curriculum is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.
But by flipping a 60% win to a 40% deficit, Tudge can politik about the need for optimism.
These are tactics, not ANOTHER education reform strategy
This points to education tactically being used to further the Federal Government’s re-election campaign, rather than a strategic move to save the soul of the nation. Tactics are localised responses to circumstances, whereas strategies are more stabilised and long term. So in other words, the federal cabinet ministers are finding issues to associate with the word “optimism” and putting it in front of as many voters as possible. For education, the History Wars have a history of going viral, even before the internet. And if you look at Tudge’s comments on Friday, the History curriculum is nestled in with the other two big viral topics – literacy and numeracy test scores.
Ultimately, education cannot continue to be used by politicians this way. Education researchers and journalists need to work hard on holding these tactics up to the Australian public and pushing back on the use of words like “optimism”. While researching for this article, it became increasingly noticeable that the media has begun to use the word to describe the Government. And it’s not just the Murdoch press. Every time a journalist associates that word with the Federal Government, they are giving them free political advertising.
This is just another electioneering policy announcement where Federal politicians have called for a review of the Australian Curriculum: History declaring the hearts and minds of Australia’s youth as under threat. This same rhetoric was used in the 1990s when Henry Reynolds and Keith Windschuttle faced off over the “black armband view of Australian history” in the proposed national curriculum. We need to start asking why this government sees the need to renew the History Wars while still pointing out the misinformation in their rhetoric.
Education researchers need to look hard at their expert subjects and then pan out to see if they are simply being used as a pawn in a wider federal agenda. Education has been in a state of flux for many years now and this requires research that pre-empts, just as much as it reacts. That involves looking wider than the education portfolio. If we look outside of our silos, there’s some clues about where we are going.
Naomi Barnes is a lecturer in Literacy, Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology
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.
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.
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.