Inaugural Australian Policy and History Workshop: Part 1

by Sarah Clarke,
Intern, Alfred Deakin Research Institute (ADRI)


In March 2010, Professor David Lowe and Associate Professor Melanie Oppenheimer officially launched the APH (Australian Policy & History) Network’s website.  The primary aim was to publish user-friendly articles online focusing on any current affairs and topical issues that benefit from historical perspectives. A collaborative project between the Alfred Deakin Research Institute (ADRI), the University of New England (UNE), the History Council of New South Wales (HCNSW), and the Australian National University (ANU), the broader goal is to link historians with policymakers, the media and the public by providing accessible materials promoting both public debate and better policymaking through an understanding of history.  In its first year the APH Network published 43 peer-reviewed articles, and in April 2011 the website recorded more than 1500 individual visitors and over 13,000 page hits. An Editorial and Management Committee (EMC) has been finalised with twelve members responsible for maintaining and expanding the website. Furthermore, an inaugural APH Advisory Board has been established with its eight-member panel consisting of senior historians, journalists, speechwriters, and internationally-based scholars.

Moving into its second year, where should the APH Network go from here?


On 18 April 2011, the APH Network conducted its first Policy and History Workshop at Deakin University Melbourne City Centre.  Hosted by ADRI, the workshop reflected on APH’s progress to date and also provided a platform for discussion about possible ways in which the Network can help to advance the use of history in pedagogy, research, and policymaking. Professor Lowe, as Director of ADRI and a co-founder of APH, opened the day’s proceedings with an overview of the Network’s achievements during a successful first year. Lowe quipped that having a URL that is strikingly similar to that of the Australian Parliament House website may have proven fortuitous in attracting inadvertent early traffic to the website, but on a serious note pointed out that it continues to attract a steady flow of visitors each month. Against the backdrop of initial success, Lowe noted a number of factors that linger around APH and the shape of its future development.  Does the early success signal that a positive base upon which to build has been consolidated already? Or, conversely, are the resources available simply too few to ensure progress beyond the early promising signs? Resources are, indeed, limited and the majority of ongoing labour for the APH project has been voluntary.  Most of the productivity has come from what David called the ‘sporadic’ bursts of energy and ideas from a handful of people when time has permitted.  He also noted that another source of ideas and labour has come from third-year Deakin University students who have undertaken internships at ADRI, and focused on completing projects within the APH Network.  Could the project be further linked with, or built into, pedagogy within history majors, enabling further potential for student involvement?

External factors that were relevant at the time of launching the APH Network remain relevant twelve months on, including the educational and political landscapes in which it must operate.  The Network was launched amid public discourse on the new ‘National Curriculum’ that describes knowledge of history as ‘essential for informed and active participation in Australia’s diverse society’.  With similar aims, will its rollout impact on the reception of the APH Network?  Initially, Lowe had focused on the legitimacy and authority that historical references could convey for politicians, and the need for time-poor public servants to have readily-accessible and informed web-based resources.  Now, while the Greens party has actually listed the APH as a resource for historical contexts, he said the question remains: in reality, will public servants and policymakers ever actively look for historical precedent and context? All of these considerations, both internal and external, provided insight into to the landscape within which APH must move forward.

Why do historians teach history? What can history teaching ‘at its best’ provide? Why is the teaching and learning of history important? These are key questions being tackled by international authority on the teaching and learning of history Professor Alan Booth (University of Nottingham, UK) and his partner Jeanne Booth, a social entrepreneur and expert on graduate employability, in their ‘History Passion Project’ based in the UK. Sharing their findings to date, the Booths delivered an engaging presentation at the APH Workshop where Alan was attending as an Advisory Board member. In association with the History Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) in the UK, the project’s primary objective is to rethink history teaching, and how its value is expressed, in order to improve history-related pedagogy. To do this, the History Passion Project aims to provide practical resources for the history community that will generate ideas about the practices of teaching history effectively, and also find ways of communicating to policymakers the value that history, and history education, represents to society. 

A nationwide UK survey attracted 210 responses from people working within 72 institutions, providing a glimpse into historians’ thoughts about, and passions for, teaching their subject.  For their workshop presentation Alan and Jeanne focused on two of the survey questions that they felt held most relevance for the ‘outward-facing’ nature of the APH Network.  Question 7 asks historians to describe what students can ‘get’ from history teaching ‘at its best’.  This elicited a myriad of passionate responses with history perceived as ‘a key compass’ to navigate the ‘complexities of our own world’.  Respondents said history ‘crosses every aspect of human society’ and enables students to think about the past in order to reflect upon what it might mean for ‘today’; students learn to ‘think critically’, ask questions, reach conclusions, but still possess the ability to remain flexible and improvise.  Historians spoke of these skills and values as not just providing knowledge, but more broadly as ‘producing’ and ‘cultivating’ a certain type of person who is not only aware of the complexities of society, but ‘vital’ to its future success.  Question 8 queries how one would describe the value of these things to policymakers. Interestingly, responses here lost confidence in this ‘values-led’ approach.  With the introduction of the word ‘policymaker’, passionate and personal discussion of history values became lost within the narrow skills-based vocabulary of efficiency, employability, and what one historian referred to as the ‘seemingly relentless business/skills agenda’.  This denotes a distinct difference between how historians may see the value of their role as teachers in a personal light, and how they feel history education is valued in an official sense.  For some, this change was explicitly noted with an acute awareness of the tendency to frame discussions with policymakers or university managers within the ‘measurable’ outcomes of history learning, in ignorance of what was referred to as the ‘less tangible’ ? but equally important ? values associated with it.

To move away from this is a matter of ‘rethinking’ how the discipline is approached and expressed outwardly; in every sense, history pedagogy should reflect this excitement and energy ? passion ? and promote history as being capable of relevant contributions to society.  Jeanne then presented an insightful discussion about how those on the receiving end of this education ? history graduates ? will ‘make a living’ in a ‘real’ world.  In an amusing anecdote, she likened the new history graduate in a ‘constantly changing, unpredictable world’ to the daunting experience on the croquet ground in Alice in Wonderland. Therethe ground was ‘all ridges and furrows, the balls were live hedgehogs, the mallets live flamingos’ and the soldiers formed the hoops by bending over. As Alice struggled to control her flamingo and the soldiers kept moving, she declared that it was a ‘very difficult game indeed’.  Jeanne then asked the question, what could teaching ‘at its best’ have provided for the daunted history graduate Alice in order to help her?  She suggested that to ‘thrive in complexity requires ability’, and recent research has shown that to gain employment in a more complex environment, in addition to narrower vocation-based skills, graduates now require the broader ability to ‘recontextualise their skills, knowledge and understanding to transfer them between different settings’.  This ability is more in line with the value-based responses to Question 7, than to those of Question 8.  These emphasised not the technical language of measurable skill acquisition, but instead viewed students as ’rounded people’ and history ‘at its best’ as producing a ‘complex awareness.’  This encourages students to see the world in ‘multifaceted and interconnected ways’ and think independently, while providing the flexibility to consider multiple perspectives.

Workshop video Click here to view a recording of the full presentation.

Building on the Booths’ presentation on the History Passion Project, an important question for APH and its supporters concerns the possible ways in which the Network can be used as a platform for innovative teaching and learning of history. Alan Booth pointed out that, in further responses to Question 7 in the UK survey, several respondents claimed that students of history are empowered to think about the past and critically question what relevance it holds both for ‘human experience and for today’. The APH Network seeks to locate historical contexts germane to current affairs and issues in order to generate public discourse as well as to provide historical knowledge and historical understanding that can shed light on contemporary situations. Are these two aims not effectively one and the same? There is direct linkage between the values of history teaching and learning and the aims of the APH Network. Is it possible, then, to fuse the two together? Dr Tony Joel presented the workshop with a ‘current pedagogical experiment’ scheduled to run at Deakin University for the first time in the second half of 2011. Titled ‘Making History’, a new third-year level unit is being introduced at Deakin with a focus on immersing undergraduate History students in how history is written or produced. The idea is for a pilot group of approximately 20 students based at Deakin’s Geelong Campus each to develop a research topic of their choice and then produce a short piece of writing to be published on the APH website. While the articles will be housed in a specially created ‘folder’ separate to the contributions by professional historians and other experienced writers found in the main part of APH website, essentially the students will be set the same task: identify a relevant issue, conduct some historical research on the topic, develop an argument that showcases how drawing on history can be beneficial for better understanding or policymaking, and produce a short piece of writing that effectively gets their message across to the general public and policymakers alike. On the one hand, this initiative surely will help to expand the APH Network’s scope as it moves into the next phase of its development. On the other hand, moreover, it is expected that this pedagogical experiment successfully promotes the idea ? emphasised by the History Passion Project ? that innovative and truly effective teaching and learning of history can be relevant for wider society and not enclosed just to universities. Deakin’s ‘Making History’ experiment is only one example of the possible linkages between teaching and learning and the APH Network ? and it is yet to be even tested. Nonetheless, attendees at the workshop were very supportive of the concept and its potential outreach. If it does, indeed, prove successful then it could provide the impetus for building pedagogy into the APH Network’s key objectives on a much larger scale.

Established in 2002 and providing much of the inspiration behind its younger Australian counterpart, the British History and Policy (H&P) website is now well established. Attending the APH workshop as a special international guest, leading twentieth-century historian Professor David Reynolds (Cambridge) drew on his involvement with, and knowledge of, the British model to share some reflections for the longer-term development of the APH Network. A commitment to longevity, or a willingness to play ‘the long game’, underpinned Reynolds’ practical recommendations, which are detailed in Part II of this report ? ‘The Future’ (see below).

More broadly, Reynolds framed a discussion of the functions and status of history as a discipline, its role in society, and positions to which both the British and Australian ‘networks’ can aspire.  Reynolds noted that ‘History and Policy [UK] is part of the larger project of re-linking history with the public’, and, furthermore, that in order for historical context to inform all levels of society it becomes critical that ‘history is part of the wider culture’.  In recent years, he suggested, historians had tended to gradually move into a ‘tight?disciplinary ghetto’ where a sharp focus only on academic expertise and scholarly method has isolated history from the wider public, making it inaccessible to those not involved in academic pursuit.  Yet at the most fundamental level history underlies every society, for it is what has happened in the past that brings people to where they are in the present. It is in this sense, according to Reynolds, that the foundations of history make it a ‘common sense, common language’ subject.  To allow historical perspectives to infiltrate public debate and policymaking, Reynolds urged that rather than being isolated merely as scholarly ‘content’, history instead must be seen and promoted ‘as a way of thinking’ that is relevant to everyone.  This idea is not new, of course, and here Reynolds made reference to Thinking in Time: Uses of History for Decision-Makers, a thought-provoking 1986 book co-authored by Neustadt and May, in which policymakers are encouraged to think more contextually ? or ‘in time’ ? and not to first ask ‘what’s the problem?’ but rather ‘what’s the story’ behind it. With this, Reynolds asserted that the aim of any initiative ? be it the British model or the APH Network ? must be on the provision of tools that enable and inspire policymakers, the media and the public, to think ‘historically’ for themselves.  This is not spoon-feeding drab historical jargon, but providing digestible materials with relevant historical perspectives on current affairs, which encourage people to question situations that they otherwise may not.

To conclude the workshop David Lowe invited attendees to share some ‘take-aways’, that is some reflections on the day and helpful perspectives to be considered beyond the workshop. Clearly, three key themes emerged from the speakers: the value that effective history teaching and learning can offer students in particular and society more generally; the importance of encouraging people to ‘think historically’; and, overall, the need to reconnect history with the wider public.  These ideas illustrate and reaffirm the very rationale that informs the APH Network.  The initiative is built upon an inherent acceptance of history as useful to, and important for, society.  It asserts that a link needs to be established between historians, policymakers, the media and the public in order to provide access to, and encourage engagement with, historical matter.  Yet, in discussions one academic historian posed the question: what, exactly, is meant by the term ‘useful’?  The suggestion was that these themes ? and the people involved in the scholarship, teaching and writing of history ? accept its ‘usefulness’ and possibly forget that this is not presumed by everyone.  After further discussion, an understanding emerged that for this ‘useful’ view of history to benefit people not included within the scholarly discipline, and to inform policymaking, two things must happen: first, history must be outwardly framed in the manner that historians wish it to be understood; and, second, it must be interesting and ‘inclusive’.  While Professor Reynolds noted that it is imperative for an importance on scholarly method and appropriate evidence-based research to remain in the ‘writing’ of history, in order to reconnect it with the public he also suggests that historians need not be ‘so prissy’ about it as an exclusive ‘discipline’!  He asserts that the public must be engaged wherever there is a historical interest, and the H&P and APH websites alike provide a relatively unique avenue for this to take place.  It is imperative, then, for the APH website to focus on attracting a broad audience, and by then providing articles on a wide range of relevant and current issues it can begin to facilitate an active interrelationship between history and everyday culture.

Returning to David Lowe’s initial question ? does the APH Network now have a positive base upon which to build? ? the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’.  In a relatively short timeframe, the APH Network has materialised from an ambitious idea into a dynamic website.  With its initial aims unchanged, the necessary governance has been established to ensure it is able to work toward fulfilling them.  The themes that emerged throughout the inaugural workshop suggest that by further exploring the link between pedagogy and the APH, and by providing the necessary means to engage discussion and promote historical interest, the project has an active role to play in reconnecting history with policymakers, the media and the public.  It remains to be seen how other factors like the availability of resources, or the political and educational landscapes, will influence the future direction of the APH Network.  But, like Alice in the croquet game, or the new graduate in a 21st century world, to ‘thrive in complexity’ the APH requires ‘ability’.  In this sense, it is the steps that are now taken towards further equipping the website with the tools to cultivate ‘historical thinking’ that will determine its success and utility over the course of what David Reynolds describes as the ‘long game’.

Click here to read ‘Part II:The Future’ to look in more detail at the practical steps for moving the APH Network forward.

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/part-1-inaugural-australian-policy-and-history-workshop