A signature pedagogy for a National Curriculum in History?

 In Becoming a History Teacher

Revised Research FOCUS 2017

A signature pedagogy for a National Curriculum in History?

One of the most interesting observations I made at the recent HTAA Conference in Brisbane was the diversity of ways in which educational jurisdictions and schools were interpreting what had been intended to be a National Curriculum. At the same time, when people were discussing the pedagogy through which this curriculum should be taught, it seemed to me that there was far more unity of opinion. In particular, the Key note question and answer panel which began day two of the conference, reiterated a philosophy of history teaching that was clearly aligned to recent writings by Taylor in Australia and Seixas and Wineburg overseas. This prompted me to reconsider the direction of my Doctor of Education research. I share my new thinking with you in this editorial.

It seems that, given the diversity of ways in which Australian States are employing their constitutional rights to interpret the Australian Curriculum, these interpretations of the Australian Curriculum Reporting and Assessment Authority (ACARA) Curriculum no matter how National in intentions, will differ so radically that the time and money spent in researching and constructing a national approach to effective history teaching in Australian schools may well have been wasted if its goal was to create a truly national approach to the teaching of History in Australia. However, my research will investigate the notion that, if States and History Teacher Associations are willing to work together to identify, refine and define a signature pedagogy for teaching history in Australian schools, the goals of the national curriculum for may yet be achieved. Such a signature pedagogy would then provide a valuable framework for subsequent professional development for teachers.

The many presentations at this year’s HTAA Conference that focused on a history teaching pedagogy focused on the development of historical literacy and historical consciousness suggests that adopting a signature pedagogy of teaching history which focuses on the key concepts of a disciplined inquiry as described in the Australian Curriculum: History 7-10 document’s rationale and the historical skills identified at each year level and again in each achievement standard is not only possible but desirable.

It would, therefore, be worthwhile to investigate using both existing sources and the views of those who teach history and history teachers to determine whether a signature pedagogy of history does exist and, if so, what shape it might take. Once such a framework is determined, it should be possible for Australian teachers, regardless of what or where they teach, to teach using this signature pedagogy and so ensure sufficient commonality of purpose to argue that the Australian Curriculum History, despite differences amongst states about content priorities, can be implemented on a National scale in an effective and successful manner.

In his article later in this edition of Q History, Brian Hoepper provides a taste of what this signature pedagogy might contain as he highlights some of the key ways the discipline of history requires the development of specific historical literacies. I urge you to read this article and consider what makes history special and what might constitute a signature pedagogy in history.

One of the most problematic issues in the teaching of history in Australian schools in this the second year of the introduction of the revised National Curriculum in History 7 to 10 as part of the Australian Curriculum Reporting and Assessment Authority (ACARA) Curriculum in Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) (ACARA, 2016), is the fact that, although unacknowledged, there exist within the history teaching profession several conflicting paradigms to explain the purpose of history in schools. The significance of such a diversity of paradigms is the impact that these fundamental views of the purpose of history teaching in schools must inevitably have upon the way teachers interpret curriculum documents and the teaching strategies they subsequently select in their classrooms. Until the reality of this fundamental diversity of beliefs is recognized and the conflict between them resolved, history teachers will be at odds with one another and with curriculum developers. This conflict must inevitably mean that achieving a truly national learning experience for Australian students is not possible; However, it also means that, if teachers can agree on a signature pedagogy for the teaching of History, a truly national approach might be achieved despite state by state differences in content.

Thomas Khun in his “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” argued that Scientific Revolutions overthrew not only the paradigms by which Scientists conceptualise reality but also created “a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in the standards by which the profession determined what should count as an admissible problem or as a legitimate problem-solution.” (2002: p.6) In the teaching of history in Australia, the way such teaching was conceptualised undertook this type of revolution during the last three decades of the twentieth century. From this revolution, I would argue emerged a number of quite conflicting paradigms of history teaching. Canadian researcher Peter Seixas outlined three distinct approaches to teaching history which had emerged by the late Twentieth Century. He argued there were “three ways of dealing with…conflicting interpretation of the past” (2000,p. 20).

  1. “best story” approach- “historical knowledge appears as something fixed by authority rather than subject to investigation, debate, and its own system of warrants” (2000,p. 23). – the ‘Grand Narrative’ of the past.
  2. History as an exercise in Disciplined Knowledge; as a Way of Knowing- an emphasis upon historical concepts and skills, their vital relationship with knowledge, and the importance of historical inquiry.
  3. The Postmodern approach- “the task for students in the third orientation is not so much to arrive at a “best” or most valid position on the basis of historical evidence as to understand how different groups organize the past into histories and how their rhetorical and [narrative] strategies serve present day purposes” (2000, p. 20-21).

It is the first two of these paradigms that dominate the classroom in Australia in the Twenty-first Century. While both keynote speakers and several session presenters at this year’s History Teachers’ of Australia Association National Conference highlighted the vital importance of adopting the second of these approaches, it is unclear to what extent, this paradigm is the preferred model of those teachers who do not belong to their state or national history teachers’ Association.

The same call to approach History from a discipline-based approach was articulated most clearly in Australia by Tony Taylor and Carmel Young (Fahey) whose Making History: A Guide for the Teaching and Learning of History in Australian Schools was released in 2003. The ideas about Historical Literacy and Historical Consciousness outlined in this guide for teachers were subsequently echoed in the Guide for the teaching of History in Years 9 and 10 published by then-Prime Minister Howard in 2007. This document reaffirmed a commitment to the teaching of History from a disciplinary approach and focusing upon on capacities rather than content. In short, research into effective teaching of history in both Australia and Canada agreed that a view of curriculum which saw students engaged in doing history was the preferred model. Certainly, this is the view of many long term, trained history teachers, a view reiterated again and again at the 2017 History Teachers’ Association of Australia National Conference- particularly in the Day Two Key Note Panel Discussion, “Teaching History Fostering Historical Consciousness”. Amongst those in attendance, arguably those most committed to the teaching of history, it appears the Discipline paradigm has been accepted as the signature pedagogy of history teaching.

However, the extent to which this may be a consensus opinion amongst all history teachers remains unclear and is the investigative goal of my own future research.  This research interest was born from the spotlight upon the existence of these diversities of belief systems which was illustrated when John Howard used his 2006 Australia Day address to the nation to challenge the quality of History teaching in this country and call for a “root and branch renewal” of this discipline. This call ignited a furious debate within the community, the media and the profession. Many history teachers defended current practice in the teaching of history, arguing that the move to a critical (Disciplinary) approach “characterised by the teacher’s role as leader and facilitator, active inquiry by students, and an emphasis on understanding the reasons for social phenomena” (Kemmis, Cole and Suggett, 1983), and has led to teaching which is “exciting, engaging and personally meaningful” (Beane, 1995) and so has a real impact upon the learner.  However, Howard’s address provided a forum for opponents of this approach to counter with a call for a systematic, chronological study of Australian history, more in line with the grand narrative paradigm, arguing that it was the transmission of such cultural capital that would provide students with the knowledge of our nation’s past necessary to embrace Australia’s values and become positive, active citizens of this country.  It needs to be remembered that this call by John Howard followed a significant investment into the effective teaching of history in Australian schools by this government.

Certainly, a positive benefit of constructive debate and research about what constitutes effective teaching in history is that it serves to highlight the importance of History, especially Australian History, as a subject worthy of study.  Unfortunately, this debate quickly became a debate which focused on the content to be taught rather than a systematic investigation of the most effective pedagogies to employ in teaching this content. Because this later investigation has never become a public part of the debate, teachers in Australia may share a national curriculum document, but may well be interpreting this national document through a diversity of paradigm-lenses. Such a situation cannot lead to a shared national teaching and learning experience and, thus, a national curriculum is unlikely to be enacted in practice. However, if a signature pedagogy for teaching history were to be defined, refined and communicated by History Teacher Associations working collaboratively with State Educational departments, and such a pedagogy used as the basis of meaningful professional development for teachers, then a truly national approach to history (one in line with both Australian and International research) is possible.  Viewed from the perspective of a verb, the history of the development of the Australian Curriculum: History 7 to 10 provides ample justification for such a pedagogy.

Given the extent to which it could be argued that the authors of the Australian Curriculum have drawn heavily upon international and Australian research into what makes for effective history teaching, any controversy about the paradigm upon which the Australian Curriculum: History rests, especially amongst history teachers, is worth investigating and noting. In 2012, then-HTAA President Paul Keim argued that “The advent of a national curriculum would have been the perfect opportunity for a wide-ranging discussion about pedagogy. Instead, [he further claimed] the Australian curriculum was developed without reference to either pedagogy or assessment, but with a general assumption that it would be inquiry based.” (Keim, 2012, p 28). While Keim may be correct in his claim that the Australian Curriculum was not explicitly based upon a preferred pedagogy, I would argue he is incorrect in his claim that there is little common understanding of or agreement about the privileged pedagogy implicit in the Australian Curriculum. The key concepts associated with the notion of Historical Thinking and Historical Consciousness have long dominated the professional development opportunities offered at state and national conferences by the relevant Australian History Teacher Associations. Any lack of agreement about appropriate pedagogy for a national curriculum is, indeed, a cause for concern and exploration, especially given the privileged position a disciplinary paradigm holds in the Australian Curriculum.  Keim’s call for discussion is timely. If his criticisms illustrate a deep divergence in the paradigms held by Australian teachers of history, and, if a truly National approach to teaching History is to be achieved, it is certainly an appropriate time to open a dialogue about these paradigms of practicing history teachers, and the implications of this for their implementation of the Australian Curriculum: History 7 to 10. Such an investigation is the goal of my planned research. In particular, it is time to explore whether it is possible to articulate a signature pedagogy for the teaching of history in Australia; a pedagogy consistent with the rationale, skills and understandings outlined in the Australian Curriculum: History 7 to 10, and likely to develop the capabilities described in the standards for each year level.



  • Australian Curriculum Reporting and Assessment Authority, 2016, Curriculum in Humanities and Social Sciences, accessed September 9th 2017, https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/humanities-and-social-sciences/
  • Australian Curriculum Reporting and Assessment Authority, 2016, Australian Curriculum:History 7 to 10, accessed November 1st 2016, http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/humanities-and-social-sciences/history/curriculum/f-10?layout=1
  • History Teachers’ Association of Australia, 2017, History Teachers’ Association of Australia National Conference, All Hallows School Brisbane
  • Beane, J., October 1991, ‘The Middle School: The Natural Home of Integrated Curriculum’ Educational Leadership 49 (2)
  • Curriculum Corporation, Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, (MCEETYA),  2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, http://docs.acara.edu.au/resources/national_declaration_on_the_educational_goals_for_young_australians.pdf
  • Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST) (11 October 2007) Guide to the  Teaching of Australian History in Years 9 and 10, DEST< Australian Government: Canberra.
  • Ditchburn, Geraldine, 2016 A national Australian curriculum: In whose interests? Ditchburn, G. (2012). The national Australian curriculum: In whose interests? Asia Pacific Journal of Education, Vol 32(3), pp. 259-269.
  • Hirst, Paul (1974) Knowledge and Curriculum, Routledge: London
  • Kemmis, S,  Cole, P and Suggett, D., 1983, ‘Orientations to Curriculum and Transition to the Socially Critical School’, Victorian Institute of Secondary Education, Melbourne.
  • Keim, Paul, (September 2012). Have we lost the plot? narrative, inquiry, good & evil in history pedagogy, HTANSW’s Teaching History, HTANSW:NSW
  • Kelly, A. V. (1999) The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, London: Paul Chapman.
  • Kuhn, Thomas, (2002)The Structure of Scientific Revolutions 50th Anniversay Edition: Fourth Edition, University of Chicago Press: London
  • Lévesque, Stéphane.(2011) “What It Means to Think Historically,” in Penney Clark(2011) New Possibilities for the Past, UBC Press: Vancouver
  • Luke, Allan (2010) Will the Australian curriculum up the intellectual ante in primary classrooms? Curriculum Perspectives 5/10
  • Martin, Bridget (2016) “Debating History in the Australian Curriculum: A Clash of Paradigms, AGORA , HTAV, 51 (1)
  • Reid, Professor Alan, 2005, Rethinking National Curriculum Collaboration Towards an Australian Curriculum    https://digitised-collections.unimelb.edu.au/bitstream/handle/11343/115751/scpp-00187-nat-2005.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  • Schools Council history Project(SCHP), 2015, Welcome to SHP, http://www.schoolshistoryproject.co.uk/
  • Seixas, Peter, (2000) “Schweigen! Die Kinder! Or Does Postmodern History Have a Place in the Schools?” In Knowing, Teaching and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, edited by Peter Stearns, Peter Seixas and Samuel S. Wineburg,. New York: New York University Press.19-37
  • Seixas, Peter & Tom Morton, 2013, THE BIG SIX: Historical Thinking Concepts, Nelson, Toronto.
  • Taylor, A. I., & Young, C. M. (2003). Making History: A Guide for the Teaching and Learning of History in Australian Schools. (First ed.) Carlton Vic Australia: Curriculum Corporation.http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/30552481?selectedversion=NBD25131652
  • Taylor, Tony and Anna Clark, 2006, An Overview of the Teaching and Learning of Australian History in Schools, prepared for the Australian History Summit Canberra, August 17th 2006, DEST(Australian Government):Canberra
  • Taylor, Tony (2017) “Lowering and raising historical consciousness in Australian schools prior to the introduction of a national history curriculum” in Anna Clark (tbc) As yet un-named and unpublished text.
  • Triolo, Dr rosalie, (January 2008). Being Historians and Detectives: Inquiry into History, Agora, vol. 44, no. 1, 2009, pp. 50–54.
  • University of British Columbia, Historical Thinking Project, 2016,     http://historicalthinking.ca/about-historical-thinking-project
Recent Posts

Leave a Comment