The national curriculum – knowing the truth about Australia’s history

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By Jessica Rogers, Indigenous Education lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast, National NAIDOC Youth of the Year winner, reconciliation advocate and descendant of the Wiradjuri people.

Guided by the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, the Australian Curriculum was developed over many years of national consultation and review. The comprehensive process encompassed input and review by all State and Territory education bodies, professional associations, teachers, parents, community members and individuals. Draft curriculum documents were published online for open consultation with the Australian public. Following consultation, draft curriculum materials were revised for Board and Ministerial approval prior to publication.

At this eleventh hour of curriculum rollout, the Abbott government has announced the appointment of two critics, former teacher and Coalition adviser Dr Kevin Donnelly, and University of Queensland professor, Ken Wiltshire, to review the Australian Curriculum. With a preliminary report due as early as March 31 and a final report due to by July 31, Donnelly and Wiltshire have been tasked with evaluating the development and implementation of the Australian Curriculum including recommendations regarding the content of the cross-curriculum priorities. The capacity for Donnelly and Wiltshire to provide a balanced review of the cross-curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, embedded across all learning areas and year levels, is questionable.

Currently, each State and Territory is responsible for what is taught in schools. A consistent, national curriculum provides all Australian students with opportunities to deepen their knowledge of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures. The inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in this national document cannot be emphasised enough. A student’s access to knowledge and understanding about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures currently depends on individual schools, principals and teachers’ enthusiasm and energy. Learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures allows students to develop respect for diversity and understanding of cultural difference. It provides all students with a rich and well-rounded knowledge of Australia’s history. Furthermore, it promotes the closing of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on life expectancy, educational achievement and employment opportunities. The inclusion of Indigenous content in classroom teaching has been shown to improve educational outcomes of Indigenous students.

The cross-curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures provides the Australian public with what they want. The Australian Reconciliation Barometer shows the majority of Australians believe it’s important to learn about Indigenous history and cultures. 86% of the national Indigenous and non-Indigenous sample agreed that it is important that all Australians know about Indigenous cultures.

Putting aside Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s remarks that “everyone’s been to school; everyone’s an expert in education one way or the other,” consider Donnelly and Wiltshire reviewing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in the Australian Curriculum. Donnelly recently expressed his views regarding the cross-curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, saying the “pendulum has moved too far towards that kind of approach and we really need to balance that with an understanding that our political, our legal institutions are derived from western civilisation, so I think children need good grounding in that,” adding that the history of this nation “can only be understood in terms of that western narrative.” Donnelly has criticised the Australian Curriculum as undervaluing “the significance of Judeo-Christian values to our institutions and way of life”, implying that he in fact undervalues the importance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures in schools.

It is essential for Australian students to have genuine opportunities to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to share pride in our complete and balanced national story. Pyne’s view that “it’s difficult to see in maths and science how those three themes are necessarily relevant,” disregards the evidence that the best way for students to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and histories is through meaningful, embedded and relevant content across all levels and learning areas. Australian teachers know that rich learning doesn’t happen when information is taught to students in isolation. The cross-curriculum priority allows students to value Indigenous knowledge and contribution across all aspects of Australian society, and, through all stages of Australian history. As Pyne stated, “History is what it is. We should know the truth about it.”

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