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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

What Brings History Alive? Anna Clark (HTAA Conference 2011)

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 4, 2011

Can history be engaging, fun even, and  have integrity? [i.e. history should be interesting, but not dumbed down].

1. What makes it fun? 

The community is very interested in history but that doesn’t seem to translate into the classroom. There is interest in heritage trusts, visits to historical buildings,family history, books (historical fiction, biography), passing on items of historical interest to the next generation – there’s huge popular interest in the past.

Ashton and Hamilton research – noted interest in popular history, but found  disinterest in a formal historical narrative such as taught in school.  In America, research likewise showed that history was thought to be boring.   Clark’s research confirms these findings, a current oral history research project builds on her previous research within schools and extends it into the community.  People of all ages and backgrounds are not engaged with the formal national narrative.  Young Australians have been exposed to the national story but don’t connect with it.  Older people seem to be interested in social history, personal stories, not kings and queens or past eras.  The intimate  past is alive, but is it history?? How to translate this into historical understandings so that people are aware of – and can engage in – the complex debates about major historical issues?

[The quotations Clark seemed to me to show the respondents to be stuck back in the primary history agenda for Prep – year 2,  of connecting at a very simplistic level with a personal past, and not having moved on intellectually].

Media criticism about students not knowing history isn’t fair, because it simply reflects attitudes held in the community anyway.  Teachers know that it’s important to make it real, to provide a personal connection and an immediacy so that students will want to engage in history. Clark noted that it’s easier to get that engagement on the topic of war, with its personal stories, than it is with Federation.

Why the disconnect?

2. Historical integrity. 

It’s not enough to get them interested, students need to develop historical understanding at a broader level.  There’s plenty of evidence that too few children know about Barton, what Australia Day means etc.  The public response falls into two opposing camps: teach ‘em the facts v teach them stuff that interests students.  This is why there is so much heated discussion about history teaching in the media.

Clark thinks that the aim should be to teach students to be historians, and doing history requires knowledge and expertise.  They can’t have informed opinions and debates without knowing what happened at some level.  Skills are needed and so is knowledge.  It’s not enough to have fun, and the skills are not intuitive, they have to be learned.

Essential skills

1. History is soooooo much more than simply knowing what happened.   Factoids and mere fragments of knowledge are not history.  It’s not a disaster if a date or name is forgotten, the point is that students should actually understand the history behind events, but….

2. Having said that it’s also really important to know what happened.   You can’t know or understand the historical story if you don’t.  It’s getting the balance right that’s hard. There needs to be a narrative, a chronology and at the same time to have enough of the detail.

3. Historiography: Students need to know that there is no one right story, e.g. alternative ways of interpreting the Aboriginal story, or the bicentennial.  Teachers needs to challenge students to go beyond right v wrong, B&W, and look at the grey areas. That’s what thinking historically is all about.

4. Moral judgement in history:  Students need to learn how to pass judgement on the past?  To explore issues such as aHiroshima or colonialism  – who was right and wrong, how to step back into the minds of the time about wanting to end the war or bring ‘civilisation’ to other parts of the world – and at the same time deploy 21st century perspective on it.  This is thinking historically.

None of these essential skills will be learned, however, without some personal connection.  This is as true of the national curriculum as every other curriculum.  Tony Taylor at the HTAA conference in Sydney said that history has to be ‘teachable’, around the country.

It’s a challenge!

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