The Australian Curriculum: History is organised into two interrelated strands: historical knowledge and understanding and historical inquiry and skills.
Historical knowledge and understanding strand
This strand includes personal, family, local, state or territory, national, regional and world history. The strand includes a study of societies, events, movements and developments that have shaped world history from the time of the earliest human communities to the present day.
Concepts for developing historical understanding
The Australian Curriculum: History identifies the concepts of evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, significance, perspectives, empathy and contestability as integral to the development of historical understanding. These concepts are the key ideas involved in teaching students to think historically in the Australian Curriculum: History and are developed in the following ways:
Evidence is what can be learnt from a historical source to help construct a historical narrative, to support a hypothesis or to prove or disprove a conclusion. Historical sources do not ‘speak for themselves’. While a source can offer information, it yields evidence only when relevant and probing questions are asked about it; for example, the relative size of historical figures in an ancient painting may provide clues for an inquiry into the social structure of a society. To find evidence in a source, a number of processes can be used, beginning simply and becoming more sophisticated. They include comprehending explicit information, interpreting any implied meaning, analysing patterns and themes, evaluating the usefulness of the source, and weighing up if and how the source’s evidence helps answer the inquiry/research question being pursued. Evaluating involves probing the ‘problematic’ aspects of a source, particularly its authenticity, accuracy and representativeness. Evaluating those qualities can involve ‘corroboration’ – deciding whether other sources provide evidence that complements and supports it.
Continuity and change
Continuity and change are not only key concepts in history, but ones that challenge students to move from simplistic notions of history as a series of events, to powerfully complex understandings about change and continuity. Change occurs at different rates simultaneously, linking forward and backward in time, while continuities define aspects of the past that remain/ed the same over certain periods of time. Elements of change and continuity exist simultaneously in the material and immaterial world. The complex mix of change and continuity is readily evident in human affairs. for example, in the lives of individuals, families and communities; the appearance and uses of places; the structure and purposes of institutions; the beliefs and values underpinning forms of cultural and artistic practice; and the design, accessibility and use of technologies.
Cause and effect
The concepts of cause and effect invoke the most vital question in history: ‘why?’ The term ‘cause and effect’ is used by historians to identify chains of events and developments over time, short term and long term. This suggests that there can be multiple causes and effects of an event, that they are related, and that they can be variously immediate or longstanding. Causes imply motive – the question of why significant players in the unfolding events acted as they did. In establishing motive, historical study involves a re-enactment of past thinking, an elusive process fraught with challenge and inevitably ending in tentative explanations. The challenge for students to understand the concepts of cause and effect is complex. From young students’ early notion that things simply happen randomly, and what did happen was inevitable, the study of contextual and causal factors in history can enable eventual understanding of the complex interrelationship of multiple, shifting causes.
There is too much history to remember all of it. In historical studies, the selection of what should be investigated and remembered is assisted by examining the significance of particular aspects of the past, considering questions such as: How did people in the past view the significance of an event? How important were the consequences of an event? What was the duration of the event? And how relevant is it to the contemporary world? Significant events include those resulting in great change over long time periods, as well as the history of ordinary people made significant when contextualised to larger events and of relevance to us today. In recent decades, some historians have explored new areas of significance or have brought fresh perspectives to traditional areas. Increasingly, there are histories of the oppressed, the marginalised and the ‘ordinary’ people of ‘ordinary’ communities, including people who were relatively powerless due to race, religion, gender or class. Students could be engaged in historical inquiry by debating whether a particular event is ‘historically significant’.
In historical study, a perspective is a person’s point of view, the position from which they see and understand events going on around them. In studying history, two types of perspective are important. First, there are the perspectives of people in the past and the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional contexts that shaped their lives and actions. Students will encounter some people from the past who had unusual and unexpected ideas and attitudes, which can prompt students to think deeply about those ‘strange’ ideas, and also – by comparison and contrast – about the taken-for-granted assumptions of their own society. However, not all people in any particular society in the past always had the same perspectives. As today, there could be dramatic differences in values, attitudes and practices among people in societies long ago – producing instability, conflict and upheaval. Studying historical differences in perspective, and consequent conflict, can help students understand the roots of conflict in their own world and offer signposts towards possible resolution of that conflict. At the same time, it should be remembered that a person’s point of view on a particular issue can be affected by simple self-interest, rather than by deeply held values and attitudes. Second, there are the perspectives on the past. People, particularly historians, can disagree markedly about past events, their causes and effects. There are various reasons for these differences among historians, including which historical sources they studied, how they interpreted those sources, and the historian’s background, knowledge, expertise and values.
In historical inquiry, the term ‘empathy’ is used to describe engagement with past thought. The re-enactment of past thought and feeling is a greater challenge than constructing descriptions and explanations of the past. It requires an understanding of the past from the point of view of a particular individual or group, including an appreciation of the circumstances they faced and the motivations, values and attitudes behind their actions. Empathy encourages students to overcome the common tendency to see people of the past as strange and incomprehensible. Student empathy is encouraged when a teacher sets the scene in a particular historical setting and asks the students to describe a memorable episode and to express their thoughts and feelings. It is an imaginative activity, but unlike creative fiction, it relies on a disciplined imagination. The aim is for students to respond in ways that are true to the time and the situation – plausible and convincing in the activities described, words spoken, attitudes expressed and values implied. However, empathy is not authentically achieved if later standards, customs, values and truths are used to judge other times, potentially creating wild and unhistorical imaginings. Empathy promotes deeper understanding of ‘difference’ in the past and – where appropriate –tolerance and acceptance in the present.
Contestability is an inescapable characteristic of history, emerging from the essential nature of the discipline. History is the study and description of something (‘the past’) that no longer exists. Reconstructing the past depends on the surviving fragments of the past – themselves ‘problematic’; involves processes of interpretation; disciplined imagination; and judgement by historians who bring to the task their various abilities, experiences, perspectives, foibles and fallibilities. Contestability occurs when particular interpretations about the past are open to debate, for example as a result of a lack of evidence or different perspectives, with debate often remaining intractable. Some students might question the value of a discipline that seems incapable of producing ‘the truth’. But contestability gives history a distinctive strength and value. In history, as in life, certainty remains elusive – but nonetheless worth the pursuit.
Historical inquiry and skills strand
This strand promotes skills used in the process of historical inquiry: chronology, terms and concepts; historical questions and research; the analysis and use of sources; perspectives and interpretations; explanation and communication. Within this strand there is an increasing emphasis on historical interpretation and the use of evidence.
Historical inquiry processes and skills are described in bands of schooling at two-year intervals.
Relationship between the strands
The two strands are integrated in the development of a teaching and learning program. The historical knowledge and understanding strand provides the contexts through which particular skills are to be developed. In each year of 7–10, the skills are applied to increasingly complex concepts.
Key inquiry questions
Each year level in Years 7–10 includes key inquiry questions that provide a framework for developing students’ historical knowledge, understanding and skills.
Historical knowledge and understanding includes an overview of the historical period to be covered in each year level 7–10. The overview is not intended to be taught in depth. The overview content identifies important features of the historical period at the relevant year level and provides an expansive chronology that helps students understand broad patterns of historical change.
In addition to the overview, historical knowledge and understanding includes three depth studies for the historical period at each year level 7–10. For each depth study, there are up to three electives that focus on a particular society, event, movement or development. It is expected that ONE elective is studied in detail. The content in each elective is designed to allow detailed study of specific aspects of the historical period. The order and detail in which content is taught is a programming decision. Content may be integrated in ways appropriate to the specific local context; and it may be integrated with the content of other depth-study electives.
Relationship between overviews and depth studies
As part of a teaching and learning program, the depth-study content at each year level 7–10 may be integrated with the overview content. The overview provides the broader context for the teaching of depth-study content. This means that the overview content can provide students with an introduction to the historical period, it can make the links to and between the depth studies, and it can consolidate understanding through a review of the period.