Teaching Australia's painful shared history - Education Matters Magazine
Beyond the Classroom

Teaching Australia’s painful shared history

Dr Tracy Woodroffe is a Lecturer and Course Coordinator in the College of Indigenous Futures, Arts & Society specialising in Education, Teaching Indigenous Learners and Indigenous Knowledge in Education at Charles Darwin University. Here she discusses how the teaching of Australia’s shared history in schools requires the teaching of analysis and the inclusion and understanding of indigenous perspectives.

There is no denying that Australia’s history includes tragic incidents that are very uncomfortable for some people to acknowledge let alone speak about or teach. These incidents are part of Australia’s shared history beginning with colonisation. Feelings of teachers new to the classroom are important to understand when discussing the teaching of Australian history lessons. ‘History is recorded by the victor’ is a common phrase and explains the attributions given to the many milestones throughout the world’s history. Whether consciously or not, we form polarized ideas about the heroes being the victors in their triumph over the enemy.

The recording of history is crafted in a way to present the dominance of the victor and raises the questions about fact and truth. Colonisation has created this scenario in Australia. The language used to teach Australia’s shared history using words such as British discovery and settlement, and then terms such as natives and uncivilized describing Aboriginal people, are only teaching students from one perspective. History requires, and students deserve, a more rigorous investigation than that.

The teaching of Australia’s shared history requires the teaching of analysis and the inclusion and understanding of Indigenous perspectives. It requires a more rounded understanding of what has occurred in Australia’s past, to move forward as a nation and to teach for reconciliation. So how do we best teach for reconciliation in a way that represents different perspectives, that includes uncomfortable and painful incidents and concepts, and addresses the contention between fact and truth? Australian history has included massacres, dispossession, segregation, racism, exclusion, and abuse.

How do we make sure that all Australian citizens know this as part of our shared history and recognise these painful aspects as tools for reconciliation? The process should be a part of schooling, but past curriculum has been limited to approved priority topics which have been lacking in Indigenous perspectives and not inclusive of the inhumane treatment of Aboriginal people. The teaching of limited facts from only a non-Aboriginal perspective does not allow for the truth of Aboriginal experience, and results in a partial knowledge of Australian history.

There are several resources that teachers can utilise to make sure that their students know the comprehensive history of Australia. Teachers can use these resources to ensure a more realistic understanding of Aboriginal people and culture, creating opportunities for reconciliation. The following statement in the Sydney Morning Herald strikes at the heart of the matter. “Most students will leave history lessons knowing about the Stolen Generations and campaigns for Indigenous rights, such as the freedom rides and 1967 referendum. Their understanding of frontier wars, forced labour or blackbirding, however, might be less robust.” (Chrysanthos, 2020, para. 1). (Sydney Morning Herald). The resulting difficulty is in teachers finding out how to bridge this gap in knowledge and be able to move forward. Danielle Hradsky outlined outcomes of several curriculum reviews and political toing and froing, in her July 2021 article ‘Invasion or Reconciliation:

What matters in the Australian curriculum?’ (available at http://www.lens.monash.edu). The article demonstrated that the portrayal of Australia’s shared history has been an issue debated by many for a long time with relatively limited progress towards a truly comprehensive version with uncomfortable concepts inclusive of Indigenous perspectives. This needs to be remedied. Historical Acceptance is one of the five dimensions of reconciliation recommended by Reconciliation Australia and can be accessed on their website at www.reconciliation.org.au/what-is-reconciliation.

Historical Acceptance is described as: All Australians understand and accept the wrongs of the past and their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Australia makes amends for past policies and practices ensures these wrongs are never repeated’ and requires ‘widespread acceptance of our nation’s history and agreement that the wrongs of the past will never be repeated— there is truth, justice, healing and historical acceptance. However, none of this will be achieved though unless people act. The classroom is the perfect place to lay the foundations. In conclusion, teachers have a massive impact on their students and in the shaping of society in general. This responsibility includes truth telling about our shared history with the purpose of healing and moving forward together.

Dr Tracy Woodroffee is a regular contributor to Education Matters Primary and Secondary Magazine. This feature was first published in Education Matters Print magazine April 2022.

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