Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Re-Visiting Historical Literacy: Towards a Disciplinary Pedagogy

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Re-Visiting Historical Literacy: Towards a Disciplinary Pedagogy

Article excerpt

In J.K. Rowling's (2003) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix we see evidence of the public stereotypes that inform opinion about how history is taught (1):

History of Magic was by common consent the most boring subject ever devised by wizard kind. Professor Binns, their ghost teacher, had a wheezy, droning voice that was almost guaranteed to cause severe drowsiness within ten minutes, five in warm weather. He never varied the form of their lessons, but lectured them without pausing while they took notes, or rather, gazed sleepily into space ... Today they suffered an hour and half's droning on the subject of giant wars. (2003, p. 206-7)

and a little later:

He was finding it very difficult to remember names and kept confusing dates. He simply skipped question four (In your opinion, did wand legislation contribute to, or lead to better control of, goblin riots of the eighteenth century?) thinking that he would go back to it if he had time at the end. He had a stab at question five (How was the statute of secrecy breached in 1749 and what measures were introduced to prevent a recurrence?) but had a nagging suspicion that he had missed several important points ... He looked ahead for a question he could definitely answer and his eyes alighted upon number ten. Describe the circumstances that led to the formation of the International Confederation of Wizards and explain why the warlocks of Liechtenstein refused to join.

I know this, Harry thought, though his brain felt torpid and slack. (2003, p. 639)

At the same time as suffering from an image problem as implied in these quotes, school history has been seen to be a significant school subject. Subsequently, the focus of immense public and political controversy has been about what should be selected to be taught. This public debate about the 'what' of history has reinforced a traditional view that history is about important knowledge. However, rather than leaving the 'how' question unaddressed, it has been assumed to have been of innate interest, and an important subject that will motivate and engage both students and teachers.

The debates around history in this country have been largely in relation to the nature and presentation of Australian History in schools. The resultant 'History Wars' need to seen, however, within the longer term of school history as being part of nation building (Clark 2006). In this context, the numerous inquiries into school history, civics and citizenship, values, and even museum displays, over the last twenty years, and their subsequent programs such as Discovering Democracy, Values in Australian Schools, and now a National Curriculum all assume a problematic character and a particular view of the discipline of history.

In this view, nation building is linked to knowledge, with knowledge alone being seen as what is needed for a democratic population and the maintenance of democratic values. Thus, the rationales for mandatory Australian History in New South Wales through to a National Curriculum (including mandatory attention to Australian History) have a remarkable similarity: students (read 'the community') need to know about the development of 'western' democratic society and the important events of our nation's history in order to value and preserve the institutions of our society. Vaguely, within this 'belief' is an appreciation of the notion that we learn from the past, albeit ambiguously. However, the high profile involvement of politicians--most notably John Howard, Bob Carr and Kevin Rudd--in debate about school history with their focus on knowledge and their claim that contemporary history pedagogy has led to history's 'dumbing down' (Clark, 2006), represent its political sensitivity.

Returning to the Harry Potter series, Ann Curthoys (2011) points out how throughout the series, Harry and his friends return to the past in the form of archives, old texts, newspapers and other sources, in order to understand the challenges that confront them and to determine their course of action in the present. …

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