History: Developing skills for life beyond the classroom
History is currently enjoying a resurgence of popularity within the school curriculum. As a teacher and lifelong student of history, it does not surprise me that others are once more discovering how fundamental this discipline is to a first-class education.
We have long recognised the importance of the content of history. George Santayana, the Spanish-American philosopher warns us, ‘Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’ We have evidence of this truism playing out over and over again throughout the centuries. Students of history are familiar with making links between demagogues and the power and persuasion of propaganda. They learn that human nature is frail and how easy it becomes to find a scapegoat when society is challenged. They learn that even the fairest of law systems can so easily become compromised. They make links between episodes of the past and those playing out in real time today. The importance of the content of history and its ability to develop empathy and understanding has long been accepted as a vital part of our education process.
Less talked about, but no less important are the skills that are developed within the history classroom, particularly that of critical thinking. In this world where fake news is now acknowledged as a real and threatening force, critical thinking cannot be underestimated. History students are assessed on their ability to scrutinise all published medium, including books, periodicals, articles, paintings, photographs, posters, pamphlets, and even social media postings. Underpinning the discipline is the appreciation that there will necessarily be a variety of interpretations of the same event. Students of history are not told what to think or feel. Instead, they are encouraged to examine pertinent evidence, recognise different perspectives, and most importantly develop their own understanding.
We have a duty to equip our students for life beyond the classroom, and critical thinking is a discipline that every young person should have within their skillset. It is a navigational tool that will enable a student to build her own world view based upon a strong and sturdy foundation of truth. Skills of synthesis, analysis and evaluation are finely crafted within the history curriculum. I may be biased, but I believe there is no richer context in which to learn the skill of critical thinking than History.
In Term 4, State Education Ministers met to discuss the draft Australian Curriculum for History. The HTAV (History Teachers Association of Victoria), sent a letter to the Honourable James Merlino outlining the fundamental role history plays in the curriculum and emphasising the development of a skill base that is ever more important in today’s digital world. You can read the letter here.