The future of the past


24 February 2021

In an era of "alternative facts" and fake news, understanding history is more important than ever, says Professor Tim Allender, from the University of Sydney.

The critical thinking skills that underpin the study of history help us to filter authentic content and see through "counter facts", he says. “And it helps us understand human rights and social justice, what it is to be a human being, and how our society is formed and shaped.”

A new book Historical Thinking for History Teachers, edited by Allender, Anna Clark and Robert Parkes, sets out an Australian perspective on how to engage students in the discipline of history.

With knowledge of the "disciplinarity" of history, teachers can offer students robust historical frames that powerfully drive their ability to think in complex and humane ways, says Allender.

“This teaching also helps students identify and question what drives their own values and ethics,” he says.

The book is designed for preservice and early career teachers, and teachers without a history background. “There’s been increasing research into historical thinking and new ways of teaching and learning history, but not from the Australian perspective,” says Clark, from the University of Technology Sydney.

“We wanted to support current and future history teachers with reflective practice and provide a practice-based text that is Australian in its focus,” she says.


The term historical thinking was developed 15 years ago, led by Professor Peter Seixas from the University of British Columbia. This project identified six historical thinking concepts which are now largely embedded (with some variations) in history curricula around the world. In the Australian curriculum these concepts are called evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, significance, perspectives, empathy and contestability.

This consolidates the shift from a content-driven to a thinking-driven study of history. “We learn the what of history, but we also learn the why and the how,” says Clark.

Many of the skills needed to critique history are not intuitive, she says. Recognising, understanding and holding the tensions between then and now, which are present in historical research, is something that can be taught.

In the Australian curriculum, the concept of contestability recognises the subjectivity of all historical inquiry and challenges students to debate and interpret particular narratives.

Any outside political pressure to teach a particular positive view of the past to build citizenship is ill-conceived, says Clark. “From a historical thinking perspective, learning a positive and uplifting Australian history does not make us better citizens.

“It’s understanding the complexities of the past and how we might use our skills and our critical judgement to interrogate the past and its sources that makes us valuable citizens moving into the future.”

Students also begin to recognise that they are historical actors, just like the people they study, with a role to play. “We are just one chapter in history,” she says.


But in the end, the foundation for teaching history goes beyond the historical thinking model, says Allender. “It is not a recipe or single model of best practice.”

“Other dimensions include reflective practice and taking time out to discuss and learn with experienced teachers.”

It’s about building confidence and sharing support to think deeply about how to build historical knowledge. “Be an activist, an enthusiast, someone who captures current day events and has sufficient flexibility in the way you understand the discipline to be able to do that,” he says, “whilst also teaching those deeper academic skills,” he says.

Allender also encourages new teachers to keep strict boundaries when it comes to dealing with compliance pressures in today’s increasingly over-regulated classrooms. In his observation, compliance can reduce teachers' morale and classroom agency as experts in their field and contribute to them leaving the profession.

“The true value lies in the way you teach this wonderful subject, rather than meeting the exigencies of regulation,” he says. “Do not lose sight of the wonder of the subject.”

Agile, tech savvy … with an opinion

Teaching history in the 2020s is rich with technological resources to help generate and test knowledge. There are more than 30 available platforms including Coggle, Voice Thread, Padlet, Popplet and Sutori, plus online resources such as Wikipedia and Trove.

But it is important to analyse sources and put them into context, says Associate Professor Anna Clark. “A resource on its own is not enough.”

Today’s history curriculum equips students with contemporary and relevant skills, and is just as important as science and maths (STEM) subjects, she says.

“You can’t have a healthy society with STEM alone, and you can’t have a healthy society without humanities and social sciences. It’s a false dichotomy.”

“The skills you learn in humanities are absolutely the buzzwords we hear about being job ready,” she says. “Students are agile, they learn about communication and having an opinion and communicating that in a tangible, legible way.”

This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Summer 2020