January 10, 2014

Why do Education Ministers feel the need to use History lessons as their policy vehicle?


Another week, another education minister, another lambasting of the way history is taught. This time, it's not the feckless Gove of England who's basing his entire education policy on how teachers should teach history (funnily enough, he's actually Scottish by birth, which might explain the Minister's confused understanding of British history), but instead the Australian Christopher Pyne who wants to remove "partisan bias" from the Australian curriculum, starting with the way history is taught.

A priori, there's little wrong with the notion of "celebrating Australia" in history lessons (in the same way as we celebrate Scottish history here, and English / British history south of the border). And in my gander through the Australian history curriculum there is little partisan anything. But, in an age of multicutlural, multi-faith, multi-lingual classrooms this assertive Aussie, Aussie, Aussie approach might be considered a brash act of "partisan bias" by those students sat in classrooms where, often, the majority are made up of more than whatever "being Australian", or for that matter "being Scottish" or "being British" might entail in the politicians' eyes. 

"Being Australian" or "Being British" is, today, hugely complex, and the challenge for Ministers using history as their key vehicle for reinforcing these notions is that history is filled with stories that, in 2014, might be considered partisan bias. Indeed, the way an English Education Minister understands the First World War is imbued with partisan bias that belittles the contribution by Australia's war dead. Thankfully, Pyne's advisors haven't worked that out yet.

It is only looking at the whole child, the whole curriculum, and not picking on a pet topic that feels 'safe' with its dates, "hard facts" and knowledge, that will actually help children learn what is really feels like to be a modern day Scot, Brit or Australian.

All of this seems of minor interest, really, when one considers the really concerning aspect of this Australia-English Education Minister policy, that of facial furniture. I wonder whether, in 2014, one of the "partisan baises" of being an Education Minister is that of 1970s National Health Service spectacles.


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As a History teacher in Australia I am appalled by Pyne's narrow view of the world. My job is to create students who will be global citizens, not biased nationalists whose only understanding of world history is through Australian politically motivated eyes. Pyne's proposals, if successful, will stunt a generation of thought and understanding into believing being a true Aussie is having British ancestors and a relative that fought at Kokoda or Gallipoli. Beyond belief that Pyne is supposed to be the leader of the national education agenda.

History can never come be neutral or objective because as Churchill famously said 'it is written by the victors'. Surely as a school subject, the importance of history lies as much in the process of establishing facts by thinking about sources and their reliability and by constructing possible scenarios and explanations?
As I wrote that messy sentence it suddenly struck me that these are exactly the 21st century skills we keep pushing elsewhere in the curriculum. What a great link between the past and the presence! Finding and assessing sources, putting forward hypotheses and trying to work out motivations and cause and effect.
I'm guessing the reason education ministers keep wanting to control the history curriculum is this desperate need to defend the 'established facts' rather than any desire to promote a curiosity about how history is made.

I can remember in the mid nineties, showing a bunch of history heads of depRtment how the internet worked.

One of them said to me "I can't use this"

When I asked why, she said "how do I know if it's true?"

I replied 'isnt that what history is?"

Pyne claims that everyone who has been to school is an expert on education.

That alone tells me that he isn't true

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