The Value and Utility of History and the Challenge of the New Curriculum

by Rashna Taraporewalla,
Honorary Research Fellow, University of Queensland


Executive summary

  • The elevation of History to the position of one of four fundamental academic domains underpinning the new National Curriculum responds to a view iterated in public discourse in recent years that history has both value and utility for society as a whole, and is of particular importance in the education and socialization of Australia’s youth.
  • While it already has been recognized that the shortage of specialist History educators poses a serious challenge to the implementation of this ambitious educational policy, another significant problem also faces the educators ultimately responsible for the realization of the aims of the new National Curriculum.
  • Though the value and utility of school history has been established in the public domain, beliefs about the value of history embodied in the National Curriculum will be imposed upon all Australian students for whom the subject will be compulsory. This has significant consequences for learning motivation and academic achievement within the school classroom.
  • A substantial body of educational research has identified that student perceptions and beliefs concerning the value of academic tasks and domains is an important predicator of motivation and achievement.
  • In the United Kingdom (UK), where History was made a compulsory subject within the National Curriculum introduced in 1991, studies have shown that the value and purpose of History has not been transmitted to students, despite the importance of History forming an essential part of the rhetoric justifying the position of the subject as a cornerstone of secondary education.
  • The key argument of this paper is that an important lesson must be learnt from this overseas example if the Australian National Curriculum is to achieve its aim of enriching educational outcomes, and if more than lip-service is to be paid to the importance of History in shaping civically and socially responsible young Australians. The value and utility of studying history and the relevance and saliency of the skills of the historians in their daily lives must be explored with students in order for these outcomes to be achieved.

The place and purpose of history within the school curriculum has been a source of politically-based controversy in Australia in recent years. In September 1999, a National Inquiry into school history was established amidst a high-profile public debate about the nature of historical knowledge and the purpose of history as a subject. In broad terms, the debate was contended between those who emphasized the importance of transmitting shared heritage, achievements and legacies (a ‘traditional’ form of school history) and those who viewed school history as a vehicle for developing critical thinking skills and historical literacy. When it was decided that a National Curriculum would be implemented across Australian schools, the position of history in education was confirmed. History was designated as one of four key learning areas (alongside Maths, English and Science), conferring upon the subject, according to ACARA, a privileged status as ‘an essential component of school education’. The working group ACARA appointed the task of drafting the new curriculum stated about the place and purpose of history:

Awareness of history is an essential characteristic of any civilised society; historical knowledge is fundamental to understanding ourselves and others, and historical understanding is as foundational and challenging as the disciplines of science, mathematics and English. By teaching history systematically and sequentially across the years of schooling we will enrich educational outcomes.

While the benefits of a historically literate society are appreciated and acknowledged by most, many problems attend the implementation of the new educational policy. In recent contributions to the APH Network, both Tony Joel and Nathan Wise have outlined the challenge which this K-12, nationwide approach to the teaching of the past poses in terms of mobilizing sufficient numbers of specialist History educators capable of delivering the curriculum. Teachers, teacher-educators and historians also should be aware of another significant issue connected with the application of the national curriculum. With all Australian students soon to be obliged to study history, and the subject set to become one of the fundamental academic domains, the history classroom now will be filled with a much more diverse group of learners, representing greater variation in learning styles and motivation. Though the purpose and utility of school history has been established in the public domain, and statements of the relevance and importance of history are included in drafted versions of the national curriculum, these concepts and beliefs about the value of history have been imposed upon the learner.

This poses a significant challenge to both the newly-trained and experienced History teacher alike when seeking to motivate and engage the diverse group of learners within their classroom. In recent years, the link between the academic motivation of students and learning outcomes such as academic achievement has been routinely established by educational theorists. In particular, student perceptions of and beliefs about the value of academic tasks and domains have been identified as important variables determining the learning outcomes and performance of each individual. The expectancy-value model of achievement and motivation developed and assessed by Eccles, Wigfield and their colleagues places student valuing of a designated task and their expectations for success at the core of the differentiated motivation of each individual. For Eccles, Wigfield and their colleagues, the interaction of the identified value of academic endeavour and expectations for success predict student motivation such that those with high expectations and who also value the task are most motivated to succeed. Martin’s research likewise suggests that when the utility and importance of schoolwork is apparent to students, they tend to be more engaged with tasks and perform at a higher level. Instilling a sense of the importance and utility of school history, and cultivating student interest in the subject are thus important tasks of the primary and secondary school history teacher in order to ensure student motivation and achievement.

Although theories of motivation and engagement are founded upon substantial research, it is only recently that the complex nature of domain specificity has begun to be appreciated by motivational researchers. Contemporary academic motivation research explores the relationship between academic motivation and engagement, and subject domain. Research has shown that student perception of the utility and intrinsic value of various subjects is domain specific.

Perceptions of the Utility of History

Research focused upon student perceptions of the utility and purpose of history has raised some concerning issues for Australian history teachers and historians, faced with imminent implementation of a national curriculum. Adey’s and Biddulph’s survey of 1400 Year 9 students in the United Kingdom revealed that few could articulate their purpose for studying history. ‘Usefulness’ was perceived only in terms of direct application to a field of employment, and not the social and intellectual contribution of the subject, the very purposes of school history identified in public debate on the issue. Similarly, Fink has found that even when students did appreciate the usefulness of history, they could not define what history is useful for.

Most recently, the research of Haydn and Harris has confirmed a high degree of variation in student ideas about the importance and usefulness of history. The context of their research is of particular interest to Australian history teachers. Though the 1991 National Curriculum implemented in the UK initially augmented the position of history within school history, instituting a nationwide study of the past, subsequent revisions made in 2006 meant that potentially students could stop learning history at the age of 13. Haydn and Harris surveyed a group of 1740 UK students from twelve schools in the East of England, London and the South Coast. Haydn and Harris observed a general increase in the number of students who believed that history was a useful school subject from previous UK surveys implemented before the National Curriculum was put in effect. Nonetheless, even though more students recognized the utility of studying history, few could express why it was useful, and few expressed the utility of history in terms of the purposes of school history stated in the curriculum. Very few referred to shared national values as a justification for studying history, and few referred to the acquisition of ‘skills’ as a benefit of the subject, though both rationales had emerged in public debate concerning school history in the UK, just as they have in Australia. Haydn and Harris concluded that ‘the rationale for school history has not percolated meaningfully into the consciousness of many of those for whom the curriculum was designed, or been explained effectively to all learners of history’. Despite the protracted debate concerning the purpose and nature of history as a school subject which has taken place in the public domain in the UK, the rationale for school history, and, more importantly, the utility of the subject, has not been transmitted in a meaningful way to the young people obliged to study the subject.


An important lesson must be learnt from the experiences of educators in the UK if those drafting and implementing the Australian National Curriculum are serious in their aims to ‘enrich educational outcomes’ and if more than lip-service is to be paid to the belief that an awareness of history possesses value and utility within a dynamic and engaged society. Students have widely differentiated beliefs about the usefulness of history as a subject, which in turn influence learning outcomes within and beyond the classroom. If value is a critical motivational component and impacts directly upon academic achievement as social cognitive theorists suggest, these findings must be taken into account by history teachers who face the prospect of larger, more diverse groups of students about to undertake history as a compulsory subject in Australia. All history teachers must strive to make explicit the purpose and value of school history if they are to hope to engage in effective pedagogy within the classroom.

It is imperative that students are made aware of the value of the critical thinking skills which they develop within the history classroom, and the relevance and saliency of these skills in their daily lives. It should not be assumed that the connection between the thoughts and processes utilized in the history classroom and the thoughts and processes of an active and engaged citizen within the wider community will be self-evident to all students. Rather, these are concepts which must be actively taught. Time and thought ought to be devoted to conveying to students the salience and value of the subject. It would be imprudent to focus on content coverage and pedagogical approaches to the neglect of discussing with students why they are learning about specific topics or acquiring particular skills at the micro-level, and learning about broader units of work, and indeed history as a whole, at the macro-level.

In order to ensure that the importance of gaining historical literacy is salient to all learners, an open discourse about the purpose of each task designated in class ought to be characteristic of classroom practice. This must go beyond simply identifying the aims and objectives of the lesson on the board at the start of the lesson. Hackman observes that while this technique is important for establishing the lesson purpose at the micro-level, macro-level justifications for studying particular periods or processes, and history in general are often overlooked by history teachers. Indeed, a student interviewed by Hackman made clear that this was the case:

SH: Don’t the teachers put the lesson objectives on the board? I thought everyone put the lesson objectives on the board now?
Pupil: Oh yes … they do that.
SH: Well what do you mean then ‘You don’t get it’?
Pupil: Well, I don’t get the whole of it.
SH: Well, give me an example …
Pupil: Well, what’s the point of doing the Stuarts?

If teachers were to commit time to exploring the purpose and utility of studying history and its relevance to students’ understanding of the world, then such confusions concerning the value of history might be overcome. Forewarned about the dangers of student disengagement and low levels of motivation if students are not aware of the value of studying history, teachers and historians ought to be properly prepared to lead a diverse cohort of students through the ‘history wars’. After all, if we as historians, teachers and members of society believe so firmly in the importance of history in moulding the minds of our future generations to the point that we compel our young people to study the past, ought we not also explain to them our reasons for doing so?

Selected Further Reading

ACARA. (2008). National History Curriculum: Framing Paper at <http://www.acara.edu.au/verve/_resources/National_History_Curriculum_-_Framing_Paper.pdf>

Adey, K. and Biddulph, M. (2001) The influence of pupil perceptions on subject choice at 14+ in geography and history. Educational Studies, 27(4), 439-447.

Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures, and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84 (3), 261-271.

Eccles, J. S. (1984). Sex differences in achievement patterns. In T. Sonderegger (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation Vol. 32, pp. 97-132. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Eccles J. S., Adler, T. F., Futterman, R., Goff, S. B., Kaczala, C. M., Meece, J. L., & Midgley, C. (1983). Expectancies, values, and academic behaviors. In J. T. Spence (Ed.), Achievement and achievement motivation, pp. 75-146. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman.

Hackman, S. (2007) Personalising Progress [Teachers TV broadcast]. Available online at: <http://www.teachers.tv/video/17832>

Haydn, T. and Harris, R. (2010) ‘Pupil perspectives on the purposes and benefits of studying history in high school: a view from the UK’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 42: 2, 241-61

Pintrich, P.R. and Maehr, M.L. (Eds.). (1995). Advances in Motivation and Achievement (Vol. 9). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Tangen, D., Bland, D., Spooner-Lane, R., Segley, T., Mergler, A., Mercer, L. and Curtis, E. (2008). Engaging Diverse Learners. Sydney: Pearson Education Australia.

Wigfield, A. (1994). Expectancy-value theory of achievement motivation: A developmental perspective. Educational Psychology Review, 6, 49-78.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. (1992). The development of achievement task values: A theoretical analysis. Developmental Review, 12, 265-310.

Wigfield, A. and Eccles, J. (2000). Expectancy-Value Theory of Achievement Motivation. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 68-81.

Wentzel, K.R. (1991). Social and academic goals at school: Motivation and achievement in context. In M.L. Maehr and P.R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in Motivation and achievement. A Research Annual (Vol.7, pp.185-212). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

© APH Network and contributors 2010. All rights reserved.

Citation: Rashna Taraporewalla, The Value and Utility of History and the Challenge of the National Curriculum. Australian Policy and History. February 2011.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/the-value-and-utility

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