Key concepts

Along with historical knowledge and skills, the Australian Curriculum: History places emphasis on teaching and learning the following key historical concepts. These concepts represent the 'big ideas' of the discipline of history.

Students who understand these key concepts are able to operate 'within the discipline', to think and act in ways similar to those used by historians, at levels appropriate for their stage of development. The key concepts provide a focus for historical investigation, a framework for organising historical information and a guide for developing historical understanding.

Sources and evidence

History is based on the use of sources and evidence.

Source

In history a source is anything that can be used to investigate the past. It can be an object (artefact) that remains from the past, such as a tool, coin, letter, gravestone, photograph or building. Or it can be an account or interpretation of the past, such as an online biography, a book or film about an individual from the past.

Sources that come from the time being investigated are called primary sources. Sources produced after the time being investigated, such as a textbook, documentary or film, are called secondary sources. Both primary and secondary sources are vital to the study of history.

The built environment provides us with many examples of primary sources. A local historian would
find a good deal of interesting detail just in the facade of this store in Glenn Innes, NSW.

Evidence

Evidence is relevant information obtained from sources that is useful for a particular inquiry. Students find this evidence by analysing sources and asking a series of questions. Evidence can be used to refute or support a claim, construct a narrative or explanation or support an argument or interpretation.

See: Finding evidence in sources (PDF, 445 KB)
Analysing sources (PDF, 165 KB)
Myths of source work (PDF, 159 KB)

Sources and evidence in practice

  • Year 3 students choose a variety of sources to include in a time capsule to inform historians of the future about what their local area is like now. Students give reasons for the inclusion of each object.
  • Year 10 students develop criteria to compare the usefulness and reliability of two websites as sources for an aspect of their Depth Study, for example the history of the environment movement in Australia.

For more examples see: Concepts in practice – primary (PDF, 140 KB)
Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

Continuity and Change

In history, investigating continuity and change requires students to explore aspects of life that have remained the same and those that have changed over time. Through appropriate activities, younger students can identify continuities and changes (as similarities and differences), while older students can explore why things have stayed the same or changed, the nature and pace of change and the impact of change. It is important to provide an overview, a chronological backdrop for the period, before introducing activities focusing on continuity and change. Illustrated and annotated timelines can provide a very useful resource for teaching about continuity and change.

Continuity and change in practice

  • Year 3 Students compare an early map of the local area with a current map, noting features that have remained and those that have changed. Students discuss reasons for the changes.
  • As part of a study of Ancient Greece, Year 7 students compare the ancient Olympics with the modern Olympics, noting continuities and changes in features such as purpose, events, rituals and prizes.

For more examples see: Concepts in practice – primary (PDF, 140 KB)
Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

Cause and Effect

Historians use cause and effect as a way of explaining factors that led to a historical event or development and the consequent results. Younger students tend to believe that events in the past happened because someone wanted them to happen. While human actions can be important, causation is more likely to involve a network of related factors. There are often multiple causes, long and short term causes and social and/or economic and/or political causes. There may be multiple effects and intended and unintended effects. Effects may differ from group to group and may change over time. Students should be encouraged to represent their thinking about cause and effect diagrammatically, as causal webs, fishbones and flow diagrams, rather than simple linear progressions.

Cause and effect in practice

  • Year 4 students investigate short and long term effects of European settlement on the local environment, including effects on local flora and fauna and Indigenous land and water management practices.
  • As part of their study of the Industrial Revolution, Year 9 students create a diagram to show short and long term effects of the revolution on social and/or economic and/or political life in Britain.

For more examples see: Concepts in practice – primary (PDF, 140 KB)
Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

Perspectives

A person's perspective is their point of view, the position from which they see and understand events going on around them. People in the past may have had quite different perspectives on a particular event or issue, depending on factors such as their age, gender, life experience, social position, political outlook, values and beliefs. A historical figure, for example, could have been seen as a freedom fighter by some and a terrorist by others. It is this diversity of perspectives that makes history so interesting.

Perspectives in practice

  • Year 2 students examine photographs of poor and wealthy children from a past era. They explain how life may have been different for the poor children compared to the rich children in the photographs.
  • Year 8 students use primary and secondary sources to identify and compare the points of view, values and attitudes of King Richard and Saladin in relation to the Third Crusade.

For more examples see: Concepts in practice – primary (PDF, 140 KB)
Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

Empathy

Historical empathy involves students in trying to see and understand events from the perspective of someone living in another time and place. This requires sound knowledge of the historical context and a conscious effort to 'make sense' of human motives and actions within that context.

Teaching empathy requires much more preparation than simply instructing students to place themselves with their modern sensibilities into a historical context. The instruction to 'imagine you are a soldier in the trenches' is not enough. Activities most likely to encourage empathetic understanding are based on real historical figures, are grounded in evidence, require students to examine people's perspective and motivation within a particular historical context and provide opportunities for students to engage in decision-making, problem-solving or debate.

Empathy in practice

  • Year 4 students compare what they eat in a day with a day's rations issued by Gov Phillip in 1789. Students write or role play why the rations were introduced and how it would have been to live on them.
  • Year 10 students use media reports of the NSW Freedom Rides to build knowledge of the historical context, including values and attitudes of the time. Students write a series of brief reports of the Freedom Rides from the perspective of one of the participants.

For more examples see: Concepts in practice – primary (PDF, 140 KB)
Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

Significance

Significance is the importance that is assigned to particular aspects of the past, for example an event or issue or the contribution of an individual or group. Deciding on significance is a complex process because it involves making judgements that depend on perspective and purpose. Significance may vary over time and from group to group. What was seen as significant in the past may not be considered important today, and what was significant for one group in the past may not have been significant for other groups.

Students can learn to assign significance by asking questions such as: How did people view the event or issue at the time? How many people were affected? How widespread, how deeply or for how long were people's lives affected?

See: Significance and perspective in Australian history (PDF, 116 KB)
Assigning significance (PDF, 113, KB)

A number of tiles are set in a walkway. The names on the tiles are: Ben Nicker, Bushman; Bohning Family, Drovers; Pearl Powell, Folk Historian; Albrecht Family, Missionaries; Vincent Lingiari, Stockma A number of the 200 Remarkable Territorians commemorated along a walkway in Bicentennial Park, Darwin, NT. Those selected 'distinguished themselves in a remarkable way in fields of endeavour which do not normally attract public acclaim'. This is one of many examples in Australia, including a number of walkways, where individuals are commemorated. It is interesting to compare the criteria that were used to establish the historical significance of such individuals.
© 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.

Significance in practice

  • Year 1 students bring from home an object that is important to them and, in a short talk, explain to the class why it is important to them.
  • Year 10 students plan the contents of a 20th century textbook titled 'Australia and the Modern World', nominating 10 topics to be developed as chapters as well as relevant images. Students justify their choices.

For more examples see: Concepts in practice – primary (PDF, 140 KB)
Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

Contestability

Contestability in history arises from the open-ended nature of historical interpretation. Two historians might produce quite different interpretations of the same event for a number of reasons, including their reason for researching the topic, the sources of evidence they relied on and their perspective or point of view. An example of contestability in Australian history is the debate over whether the arrival of Europeans in 1788 was an invasion or settlement.

Examining debates between historians can help students understand how historians use sources to construct historical accounts and how their approach and interpretation can be shaped by their purpose and perspective, including their political outlook.

Contestability in practice

  • Year 7 students examine different theories about how the pyramids of Egypt were built and decide which is most plausible, giving reasons for their choice.
  • Year 10 students examine the debate about whether or not Japan intended to invade Australia during World War II, including the evidence presented then and since.

For more examples see: Concepts in practice – secondary (PDF, 160 KB)

© 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.
The image shows a monument to the European founder of Melbourne, John Batman, erected by public subscription in 1881. It states that when he arrived in 1835 the area was 'then unoccupied'. In the midd This public monument in Melbourne provides a good illustration of a number of historical concepts, including perspective and contestability. To the people who erected the monument, Melbourne was apparently unoccupied when Europeans arrived in 1835. This was clearly not the case and we see that in 1992 Melbourne City Council attached a plaque that offered a different perspective on the past.
Not only does this show how perspective can influence the way in which the past is represented but it also shows that previously dominant views can be contested and changed. In this case the version of history originally recorded on the monument has been revised by the addition of the plaque.
© 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.

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