Historical understanding

Historical understanding is less about memorising facts and more about 'making sense' of the past. This is a process involving knowledge acquisition, skills development and the application of key concepts to an investigation set in a particular historical context.

Researchers interested in the teaching and learning of history identify certain features or elements of historical understanding, for example:

In the Australian Curriculum: History, the key concepts of evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, significance and contestability have an important role in developing historical understanding.

Depending on students' level of development, historical understanding could involve them in the following activities, related to a particular historical context:

  • grasping the idea that life in the past was different from today
  • realising that people in the past may have had values, beliefs and customs different from their own
  • discovering that there may have been several causes for a particular event
  • distinguishing between short term and long term effects of an event
  • making judgements about the significance of the contribution of particular people or events to the history of a place
  • synthesising information from a range of sources to support an explanation or argument
  • recognising that there can be different interpretations of the same historical event.

Video discussion:Professor Peter Seixas: historical consciousness (Video, 5:06)
Professor Peter Seixas is Professor of History Education and Director of the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.

Teaching for historical understanding

Planning should start with the achievement standard for the Year being taught. Work backwards from here. This will create the goal for a particular learning sequence (ie a series of learning activities within a topic, or an entire topic).

This approach has three steps:

1. What is the purpose or goal of the learning?

What important information and ideas do you want students to know and understand by the end of a learning sequence or topic? What skills do you want them to develop and apply in working toward this goal?

Without a clear purpose, there is a danger that learning activities can become ends in themselves, disconnected 'busy work' that does not necessarily contribute to historical understanding.

It is also worth narrowing the focus so that only a limited number of skills or understandings are targeted within a particular learning sequence.

2. What will be acceptable evidence of student learning?

After identifying the overall purpose of a learning sequence, you need to think about what you will use as evidence that students have gained historical knowledge and understanding and proficiency in historical skills.

Will this evidence of learning come from student completion of a number of short activities or a larger culminating project – or both? In either case, the goal should be a substantial outcome for students.

3. What teaching and learning strategies and resources will enable students to achieve the learning goal?

Having identified the purpose of the teaching and learning and the type of evidence of learning you want to collect, it is time to plan the most appropriate activities and select the most appropriate resources to enable students to achieve the desired learning goal.

Teaching and learning activities should be varied to cater for a range of student learning styles and stages of development.