Historical skills

The Australian Curriculum: History presents a set of skills for the teaching and learning of history, including skills associated with chronology, the use of historical terms and concepts, historical questions and research, analysis and use of sources, perspectives and interpretations and explanation and communication.

Chronology

Chronology is essential to history. It sequences events and provides students with a mental map of the past. Students need this map before they can make links between events and understand and apply concepts such as continuity and change or cause and effect. Chronology involves the use of historical terms to describe time, periodisation and dating systems.

A timeline representing historical periods gives these approximate dates: Prehistory – prior to 3100 BC, Ancient – 3100 BC to AD 500m Medieval – 500 to 1500 The Australian Curriculum: History uses the historical periodisation represented in the above timeline. It also refers to the alternative terms for BC and AD, ie BC = BCE (Before the Common Era) and AD = CE (Common Era). While these periods give us a convenient way for talking about the past, they reflect a European view and may not be as useful when describing historical eras in other parts of the world.
© 2013 Education Services Australia Ltd, except where indicated otherwise. You may copy, distribute and adapt this material free of charge for non-commercial educational purposes, provided you retain all copyright notices and acknowledgements.
Associate Professor Simon Forrest, Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University, is demonstrating a timeline activity to a group in an outdoor setting. He is pointing to a rope, An interesting timeline exercise demonstrated by Associate Professor Simon Forrest, Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Studies, Curtin University WA. The 25 metre long rope has tags indicating various historical periods and events, including Aboriginal occupation of Australia. The last tag, a few centimetres from the end, marks the arrival of Europeans in Australia in 1788.
© 2013 Education Services Australia Ltd, except where indicated otherwise. You may copy, distribute and adapt this material free of charge for non-commercial educational purposes, provided you retain all copyright notices and acknowledgements.

 

Chronology in practice

  • Year 4 students plot on a blank world map the voyage of the First Fleet, giving stopping places, dates and time spent at each one.
  • As part of their Overview study, Year 7 students research and add events assigned by the teacher to a class timeline, which could be digital or on the classroom wall.

For more examples see: Skills in practice – primary (PDF, 134 KB)
Skills in practice – secondary (PDF, 154 KB)

Use of historical terms and concepts

History has a vocabulary for naming objects from the past (eg artefact, monument), for describing time and historical periods (eg decade, century, Medieval, Renaissance), for terms associated with historical processes (eg oral history, source analysis, archaeology) and for historical concepts such as colonialism, imperialism, invasion, and revolution.

For each topic there are specialised terms and concepts that will need to be explicitly taught. This can be done through a variety of strategies, such as labelling diagrams, tracing and annotating voyages on a map, entering relevant information on a timeline and vocabulary building activities, including the analysis of the language of primary sources.

Students' historical accounts that use relevant historical terms and concepts appropriately have greater authority than those that are written in more general language.

Historical terms and concepts in practice

  • Year 2 Students write a description of a monument or historic site they have visited, using correct terms for the main features.
  • Year 8 students investigate a range of occupations in the Middle Ages that have become surnames in the English language eg fletcher, cooper. Use a telephone directory to identify the most common.

For more examples see: Skills in practice – primary (PDF, 134 KB)
Skills in practice – secondary (PDF, 154 KB)

Historical questions and research

Asking students to 'do a project' on a topic invites a response downloaded from the internet. A more engaging approach, and one that encourages independent historical thinking, is to ask students to pose their own questions, within certain parameters, with the purpose of their research clearly in mind.

In historical research, the type of questions asked depends on the purpose of the inquiry. There may be one single question or sets of smaller questions at different stages of the inquiry process. One set might focus on gathering relevant sources. Another set might focus on eliciting evidence from the sources. Other questions could gather data to inform an explanation, explore problems or explain concepts such as change and continuity or cause and effect.

The methods and conventions of historical research, such as locating, analysing and acknowledging sources and avoiding plagiarism, need to be taught explicitly in appropriate ways for students' stage of development.

See: The inquiry process (PDF, 112 KB)
Framing historical questions (PDF, 111 KB)

Historical questions and research in practice

  • Year 3 students create a calendar of days commemorated in Australia and investigate why these days are important and how they are observed.
  • Year 9 students create a set of questions to guide the collection of data needed to explain the position of the Asian society they have studied in relation to other nations around 1900.

For more examples see: Skills in practice – primary (PDF, 134 KB)
Skills in practice – secondary (PDF, 154 KB)

Analysis and use of sources

Refer to previous section on Key concepts and:
Concepts in practice – primary (PDF, 140 KB)
Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

Perspectives

Refer to previous section on Key concepts and:
Concepts in practice – primary (PDF, 140 KB)
Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

Interpretations

Histories are interpretations of the past, intentional reconstructions, explanations based on evidence. For some aspects of the past there are many sources, for others there are very few, and sometimes there are significant gaps in the evidence. Historians analyse, organise and make sense of the information they find. Some acknowledge when there are gaps in the evidence, others 'fill in' the gaps with a reasoned explanation.

Several accounts of the same event or issue may differ because the historians who produced them may have lived in different times or were interested in different aspects of the topic. They may have taken different approaches to their investigations, asking different questions or relied on different sources of evidence. Histories can also differ because historians have different political perspectives and different reasons for writing. The discovery of new sources or the challenging of old explanations can also result in new interpretations.

Exploring historians' interpretations can help develop students' understanding of the nature of history and the methods used to produce it. Students in Years 9 and 10 are required to identify and analyse different historical interpretations, including their own.

Interpretations in practice

  • Year 7 students compare at least two textbook or website accounts of an event or issue from their ancient society Depth Study. Students note the main information included and any emphasis given, sources referred to, especially images, and conclusions drawn.
  • Year 8 students examine two different historians' accounts of whether or not Vikings reached America. Students note the main argument and evidence offered by each historian to support their interpretation and finally consider the plausibility of each interpretation.

For more examples see: Skills in practice – secondary (PDF, 154 KB)

Explanation and communication

After students have conducted their investigation, they need to communicate their findings. They can use different forms of communication: a short written response, a longer structured essay, a persuasive oral presentation, a story board, a role play, a multi-media production. Whatever the form, the explanation should involve more than a list of facts or sequence of events. It should demonstrate three elements of historical explanation: historical knowledge, the use of historical methods and skills and the development of historical understanding.

Teachers need to explicitly teach the conventions and/or technical features of the various forms of communication. Communication, within the discipline of history, provides an ideal opportunity to develop literacy.

Explanation and communication in practice

  • After interviewing grandparents about the toys they once played with, Year 1 students report orally to class and make comparisons with their own toys.
  • As part of the Overview study, Year 8 students research and explain the spread of Christianity and Islam from c.650 to 1750 and show the results of their research on a series of colour-coded maps.

For more examples see: Skills in practice – primary (PDF, 134 KB)
Skills in practice – secondary (PDF, 154 KB)

Resources