Teaching difficult pasts

Dr Heather Sharp is an education researcher who investigates the teaching of traumatic pasts and the influence of public history in teaching.

Dr Heather Sharp has always been interested in history and intrigued by what happened in the past and what shaped us to be who we are today. Her research seeks to answer the question: how does the past influence the present and the future?

Dr Sharp’s research focus is on public history and traumatic pasts as communicated through informal and formal channels, like the media, museums and memorials, popular culture, and how history is taught to school students.

“To me, public history is really important as a way to communicate to members of the public, whether that be school students, people visiting cultural sites, or history presented in a way that the general public stumbles across,” she said.

“It is important to open conversations about difficult and controversial pasts in the school curriculum because what we understand about the past of our nation really shapes how we see the world today. It influences how we interact with present day topics and respond to current controversies.”

Dr Sharp says that the controversy around whether the public should be allowed to walk on Uluru is an example of how not having an accurate knowledge of the past can impact current day decision making.

“It seems that a lot of the prominent commentators being given media coverage are ignorant (either wilfully or genuinely) of the history of Uluru or the traditional owners’, the Anangu people’s, connection with it. Not understanding this history means the general public are hearing uninformed perspectives in the media. Without understanding our history we cannot have complex discussions about really important topics,” Dr Sharp observed.

Dr Sharp also contrasts the way that the history of the Holocaust is taught compared to Australian history and reflects that the more traumatic aspects of Australia’s past are often overlooked.

“The Holocaust was a horrific event and we all agree that our school students should know about this. Yet when we talk about  the traumatic past of our own nation we seem to have historical amnesia and do not want to know the finer details of the acts and impact of the colonial era,” she said.

“I believe the trauma of our past still impacts us today and therefore impacts how we understand and commemorate Anzac Day, Remembrance Day, Australia Day, and other days of national importance.”

Touring the Remembrance Trail

Each year Dr Sharp leads an outbound mobility experience. This study tour which takes place in France and Belgium follows key sites on the former World War I Western Front. She guides university students through museums, memorials, and other cultural and historical sites so they can see for themselves the impact of the trauma of war.

One of the aims of this Outbound Mobility Experience is to better understand how history is represented and communicated to a wide range of people. Many tourists from a range of countries visit these historical sites each year and many school students from European countries and from the UK travel for school excursions for guided tours and educational experiences.

“On our Study Tour, we visit a range of sites, from a German military cemetery to a co-funded museum in Villers-Bretonneux, to monuments and memorials in French fields. We learn about the experiences of soldiers and of the Belgian refugees. We are not looking at this from a glorified perspective, I emphasise that this was a war and millions of people died,” she said. “I want my students to understand that World War One is more than Gallipoli and it’s something that we should look at through a sobering lens, rather than the celebratory tone that Australian commemorations are increasingly showing.”

Over the past four years, more than 125 students have taken part in the Study Tour. It is open to all students of the University, not just those in the School of Education. It explores frameworks for understanding the development of historical consciousness in children and young adults, and the part History education, political debate, and the cultural industries play in the construction or revision of public memory as an important aspect of nation building.

Exploring historical and moral consciousness

Dr Sharp is part of an international research team working on a project that examines intersections of historical consciousness and moral consciousness. The $878 000 project was the largest grant awarded by the Swedish Research Council in 2018 in the History education field. Their research aims to illuminate what values school students are bringing to their history classes and how students integrate those values into their learning of history.

“It has not been done before on this scale, and there are arguments that these aspects of moral consciousness cannot be finely observed because they are deeply embedded within a person, but we are attempting it,” Dr Sharp said.

One of the research activities in the project aims to determine the students’ moral underpinnings by asking students questions like ‘what is history?’ and ‘what is right and wrong and how do we know?’ The students are presented with written text to read that highlights the complexities of World War II and are then asked to answer questions such as ‘what would you do in this situation?’ and ‘what would happen if you took that option?’

“The text reveals complexities with dominant understandings of Germany during this time and of German soldiers. It is multifaceted in terms of what is right and what is wrong. We then pose some questions which allow us to dig deeper in the thoughts of the students with the aim of finding out if we can identify their moral consciousness.”

Remembering for Peace

Dr Sharp was awarded a ‘Women in Research’ Fellowship sponsored by the University of Newcastle’s Research Advantage program in 2018. Coupled with a Department of Veterans’ Affairs grant, the Fellowship helped her to publish a picture book, Remembering for Peace: The adventures of Emma and Ryan.Published in 2018, it is aimed at independent readers aged 10+. The book follows two primary school aged children who discover their great grandfather’s World War I possessions inside a Princess Mary tin. These tins were a gift and given to all Commonwealth (Empire) soldiers in World War One. In this fictional account, Dr Sharp says Emma and Ryan, with their parents, then travel through France and Belgium finding out what their Great Grandfather experienced in World War I. Emma and Ryan encounter people along the way who teach them the history of the area. With a focus on the Remembrance Trail, children reading this book will learn about areas Australians fought in during the war and understand the lasting impact conflict has on people and on the environment.

“They go to museums in Passchendaele, Ypres in Belgium, and the Villers-Bretonneux memorial. They encounter people who also have experiences of World War One. For example at one point, Emma and Ryan meet a Chinese tourist who tells them about the Chinese Labour Corps. They hear about refugees from Syria and wonder whether there were refugees in World War I too,” Dr Sharp said.

“By inquiring and questioning, Emma and Ryan learn about the past through the personal history of their great grandfather, but they’re also learning about the present, understanding that refugees are a result of conflict and that the Chinese community were involved in World War One.”

The book is sold at the Australian War Memorial, Fort Scratchley in Newcastle, Sydney’s Hyde Park War Memorial, selected bookstores, and at the Passchendaele Memorial Museum in Belgium.

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.