The introduction of The Australian Curriculum: history from 2012 (2014 in NSW) represents a landmark in the teaching of history in Australia. For the first time, all students from kindergarten to year 10 will study history as a stand-alone subject. And for the first time, teachers and students will be talking the ‘language’ of historical thinking – not only will students learn about significant historical people, places and events, they’ll also learn to think and work like a historian.
But what does it mean to ‘think like a historian’, and how do students learn these skills? Each topic in the curriculum contains a set of key questions designed to guide students through the process of historical inquiry, such as ‘What do we know about the lives of people in Australia’s colonial past?’ and ‘How do we know?’. By critically examining a range of primary sources, such as official records, letters, diaries, photos and artefacts, students learn that history is not a single, linear narrative but rather a construct made up of multiple perspectives and interpretations. From this, they understand that because it’s based on the availability and reliability (or unreliability) of evidence, history is dynamic, changing and, most importantly, contested.
As the place of first British settlement, the historic precinct of The Rocks has a significant place in the new curriculum and our national history. By examining the history and archaeology of The Rocks, students learn about the lives of Governors, soldiers, convicts, free settlers, men, women and children as well as the long-term impact of colonial settlement on the Indigenous people of Sydney Cove. The Rocks is the perfect place for students to learn to think historically. Here they can come to understand that history changes over time because it’s made up of many stories that are constantly debated, contested and reinterpreted.
Louise Zarmati has worked as a history teacher, archaeologist, museum educator and academic. She acts as education consultant for The Big Dig Archaeology Centre where she developed its award-winning programs. Ms Zarmati is currently completing a doctorate on teaching history in Australian museums.