HTAA May 2010 Update

HTAA Interim Response to the Draft K-10 History Curriculum

13 May 2010

This is an interim response based on submissions from state and territory HTAs and consultation with teachers around the country. It has been written prior to the publication of senior course draft documents and may need to be refined to reflect ongoing consultation and discussion that will be generated by the release of the senior documents.

Major Strengths
While there are a number of very significant concerns outlined below, it is important to put this in the context of a broadly positive response:

  • Teachers are generally supportive of and even excited by the prospect of a national curriculum.
  • The ‘return of history’ as a discipline has been widely welcomed.
  • There is broad approval for the skills and understandings outlined, even though there is major concern about whether the course will give teachers the opportunity to develop them.
  • The broad scope of content proposed for Years 7-10 has been welcomed, particularly in Years 7-8.
  • The teaching of Australian history in a global context has been welcomed, even though it has been noted that this does not appear to apply to primary.
  • The early introduction of ‘source work’ in primary years has been welcomed. The proposal is seen as reasonably inclusive.
  • Broadly, there is a reasonable balance of topics and perspectives.
  • The school developed options in Years 7-9 provide some scope for local history.

Areas of Significant Discussion
There are a number of areas where there has been significant discussion:

  • There has been both support for and concern expressed about the ‘expanding communities’ approach to history in primary.
  • There have been questions asked about the achievement standards and how adequate they will be as a basis for developing an approach to assessment.
  • Some have a preference for an outcomes approach.
  • The elaborations have given rise to some confusion and questions have been raised about their status and ultimate usefulness. There has also been some confusion about the extent of prescription in the content outlines. Some of this may be related to issues around presentation and formatting, dealt with below.
  • While many primary teachers seem happy with the topics proposed, others have expressed regret about the limited opportunity for dealing with either local history or history beyond Australia.
  • There is a perception that there has been an at times heavy-handed attempt to satisfy the demands of certain lobby groups or particular perspectives. This can impact on coherence.
  • There has been some discussion around the placement of a ‘What is History?’ unit at the start of Year 7. However, views about its appropriateness are divided. Perhaps there needs to be more discussion around the rationale for this unit in its present location.
  • There has been considerable discussion about the need for key terms, themes, concepts or questions as topic organisers and guides.
  • There is a great deal of uncertainty about pedagogy and assessment. While the stated intention is to leave decisions in these areas to jurisdictions and teachers, there is concern that the content selection and presentation is inevitably making assumptions about pedagogy and assessment. It was always going to be a difficult proposition to develop curriculum in isolation from pedagogy and assessment and there is now widespread concern about the lack of information from state and territory governments, who will apparently be responsible for developing approaches to pedagogy and assessment once the curriculum is delivered.
  • Many teachers have asked about the possibility of programs being supplied as models for at least a selection of the topics. With the school developed options in Years 7-9, for example, there is a view that their potential needs to be demonstrated. On another level, the programming of at least some topics would be an ideal way for ACARA to test the feasibility of what is proposed.
  • There is a view that skills and understandings should be more explicitly integrated with the knowledge outlines. On the other hand, there is also a view that this is not only unnecessary but would be difficult to do consistently well, could be over-prescriptive and may have the potential to produce awkward approaches to assessment.

Major Concerns
The following have been identified as major concerns:

There is enormous uncertainty around implementation. From the start of the process HTAA has expressed concern that the courses are being developed without any specification about the teaching time that will be required.

The issue here has always been that we have been asked to judge the feasibility of courses without knowing how much teaching time will be allocated. This uncertainty qualifies any other consideration and makes it impossible, for example, to gauge how much depth will be achieved or how effectively skills may be taught. Nevertheless, ACARA has now confirmed that there will be no specification of teaching time:
ACARA will not specify required hours for learning areas. ACARA has provided indicative time allocations for each phase one learning area to help guide the curriculum writers. ACARA recognises that time allocations for subject areas vary across jurisdictions, education systems and schools. [11 April 2010]

While it would appear that we now need to live with this, there is also a significant acknowledgement here – despite writers being given a time to write to, implementation will be inconsistent. In fact, there are many other reasons why implementation of the Australian national curriculum will be inconsistent – Year 7 is a primary class in some jurisdictions and a secondary class in others, many primary students are taught in composite classes, SOSE traditions and structures are stronger in some sectors and jurisdictions than others, Year 10 has a different status in some areas and there is the option in junior secondary schools of history being timetabled over a stage, a year or a semester. The level of uncertainty around implementation is only compounded by the fact that, at this very late stage in the process, we have yet to hear anything definite about either teacher pre-service training or professional development. All of this uncertainty must be taken into account in the refinement of the draft curriculum documents. It would be unrealistic and even irresponsible to ignore it.

While the response from primary teachers to the draft proposal has been mixed, there is very significant concern about how the discipline of history will be programmed and taught in a diverse range of primary settings according to well-accepted and understood primary methods. This reflects a more general concern about the draft proposal being developed with only very limited primary input.

Broadly, but particularly for Years 9-10, the amount of content proposed is far too ambitious for the amount of school timetable space the subject is likely to be given. Thus, even though the draft document places considerable emphasis on the development of ‘transferrable skills’, the fear is that dealing with content will overwhelm everything else.

A related concern is that many of the proposed Depth Studies suggested for Years 7-10 are simply not Depth Studies. While an Overview-Depth Study approach to these years is appropriate and has been welcomed, it must be strongly suggested here that the current model has been poorly developed and is simply not working. Not only are many of the Depth Studies not offering the opportunity to actually teach in depth, but the function of the Overviews has not been clearly developed. Once again, the lack of opportunity to deal with at least some topics in genuine depth will make it very difficult to address skills development. Of equal concern is the potential for widespread student disengagement if the course is reduced to a superficial rush through content.

At the moment it appears that there will be only a very limited opportunity for considered evaluation of the senior course proposals alongside the K-10 proposal. This makes it difficult to assess how well the different courses articulate, something that has the potential for significant impact on the future health of history in the senior years. This is not an easy issue to deal with because the prospect of some topic areas appearing in both Year 10 and Modern History, for example, is inevitable and will not necessarily have a negative impact. However, the approach to topics in Year 10 will be critical and at the moment the Overview-Depth Study template does not give a clear indication of how this will work.

There has been a good deal of disappointment expressed about the web-based presentation of the document. It has been a struggle to gain an overview or sense of coherence and colleagues have been frustrated in their search for clarity around either large or small intent. There is a danger that the web-based format, with its various filters and other attractions, may get in the way of clear communication.

In a recent address to teachers at Macquarie University Professor Stuart Macintyre referred to the impact of ‘capricious’ decision making on curriculum development. This echoes HTAA’s well-founded concerns about what has been a relatively unsophisticated process up to this point. As a consequence, there is now considerable anxiety about ACARA’s capacity to respond to consultation effectively and put in place the refinements that are so desperately needed. This anxiety is not helped by the fact that, at the very time when careful and well-considered work will be needed, the process already appears to be under pressure from the artificial urgency imposed by the current timeline. With talk now of ‘in school’ implementation not happening until 2012, there is time to focus on ‘getting it right’ rather than just ‘getting it out’.

HTAA Recommendations

1. ACARA needs to embrace FLEXIBILITY as a guiding principle in the refinement of the proposal. While this may appear to challenge entrenched notions about ‘commonality’ and a national ‘learning entitlement’, not only would greater flexibility sit well with how history is most effectively taught but it would be a realistic response to the unresolved uncertainties surrounding implementation and the diverse circumstances in which the courses will be delivered. Moreover, once the need for greater flexibility is accepted, it would pave the way for a better balance between mandatory and optional topics and help resolve the widely accepted problem of content overload.

2. ACARA needs to shift the focus from WHAT students must learn to HOW they learn. This would bring to the forefront students, teachers and real learning situations, something that may have been lost sight of in a community-political driven process that sees history as a series of events. In other words, we would like to see ‘commonality’ and the ‘learning entitlement’ focus more on the development of the skills and understandings that are highlighted in the draft document. Once again, this sits easily with how history is most effectively taught.

3. The clearest message coming through from history educators is that ACARA will need to cull content. At the same time, numerous lobby groups will be demanding that their topics stay, are enhanced or are added to the final course document. At this stage it is vital that the process moves beyond the influence of lobby groups and commits to a rational process for reducing prescribed content. At the moment, for example, it is not clear that the current content outlines have been developed on the basis of agreement about SIGNIFICANT KNOWLEDGE. HTAA’s suggestion is that there needs to be discussion aimed at establishing agreement around a minimalist approach to significant content that would form a mandatory core. All other content would be presented as optional and there would also be greater scope for both local history and teacher/student choice.

4. The YEAR 7-10 OVERVIEW/DEPTH STUDY approach needs to be rethought. It is diffcult to see how effective refinement can occur within the current template. HTAA strongly recommends that time be taken to develop and consider a range of options, consistent with an overview/depth approach, for either replacing or improving the current template.

5. The PRIMARY proposal needs greater primary input with a view to shaping it for primary implementation and supporting primary teachers with this implementation. HTAA strongly recommends that ACARA involves educators with specific primary expertise in both advisory and writing roles. As with the 7-10 approach, there needs to be an early opportunity to develop and consider a range of options for dealing with consultation feedback and the major concerns of primary teachers.

6. HTAA feels that a new national curriculum should inspire teachers and, ultimately, students. This inspiration will come from the substance of the document but the presentation is also relevant. At the moment the WEB SITE PRESENTATION is not inspiring. On another level, it is essential that all involved in refining the draft have a very clear understanding of the presentation template they will be writing for. Once again, HTAA recommends that further work should only go ahead once this understanding has been established.

7. HTAA has long expressed concern about PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT & PRE-SERVICE TEACHER TRAINING. We would now like ACARA to take up this concern with policy-makers.

8. A number of the recommendations above incorporate a call for a pause and time for genuine evaluation of consultation feedback and consideration of a range of proposals before there is any focus on detail. In other words, some big questions need to be dealt with and clear and transparent guidelines established. Otherwise, especially under the pressure of a tight timeline, there is the real danger that the process will revert to the ad-hoc rearrangement of content. Regardless of the timeline that is being imposed, there is clearly a need for early broad-ranging discussion to establish clear guidelines for refinement and then some intensive and sustained writing. HTAA’s expectation is that there will be TRANSPARENCY in the development of such guidelines, with advisors and writers given a clear understanding of and justification for the parameters in which the process will operate.

Paul Kiem
President, HTAA