A conscious view of history

Associate Professor Robert Parkes is an internationally recognised education researcher who examines how history teachers own thinking shapes their way of teaching history. He also is an expert in the history of martial arts.

Robert Parkes is a thought leader in the field of history education and his contributions to field of curriculum and pedagogy studies (with a particular focus on History, Humanities, and Social Science Education) have been internationally heralded.

Robert is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the independent journal Historical Encounters, a double-blind peer-reviewed, open access, interdisciplinary journal dedicated to the empirical and theoretical study of historical consciousness, historical cultures, and history education. Published by the University of Newcastle’s History Education Research Network (HERMES) the journal has achieved an outstanding milestone in 2020 with a Q1 ranking in the Scimago Journal Rankings.

Historical consciousness and the translation of history

Robert is convenor of the internationally respected History Education Research Network (HERMES) which focuses on historical media and representation; historical consciousness, public history; curriculum history and the history of education.

Robert says the concept of hermeneutics is central to the HERMES group.

“Hermeneutics is about translation and that is vital to the enterprise of history education,” he said. “It’s about recognising the interpreter’s perspective and how it shapes the interpretation as much as the object they are interpreting.”

“I’m interested in the way pre-service history teachers think about the nature of history and how that influences their teaching.”

“Take mathematics for example, there is a finite number of formulas you can use to solve a problem. But in history there could be many narratives that are seen as legitimate by those people that hold the narrative, which makes for many stories of the past. This is a problem that confronts history teachers in terms of how they should navigate rival histories of the same past.”

“A key part of my work is to help pre-service teachers understand how the narrative being presented has arisen. For example, why do we have a peaceful settlement narrative of Australia but also have an invasion narrative of Australia? How have those narratives arisen and what methodologies have been used to produce those narratives?”

“It’s also about interrogating one’s own perspective or historical consciousness.”

Robert co-edited a book on this topic in 2019, titled Historical Thinking for History Teachers A New Approach to Engaging Students and Developing Historical Consciousness.

The book is about the state of historical thinking in Australia and demonstrates the vibrancy of the current history education research field in Australia.

“My personal contribution to the book deals with the big debates that history teachers have to come to terms with. Where do they stand on single versus multiple narrative questions, where do they stand on the idea of history being its own subject or part of a broader social studies curriculum.”

Engaging with Traumatic Pasts

Robert is leading a new research program that aims to address the significant challenges that engaging with traumatic pasts poses for educators.

He and his HERMES colleagues plan to conduct research which identifies the most effective pedagogies for engaging with national histories of trauma, and best prepares pre-service and in-service teachers to provide inclusive education about traumatic pasts and for students with histories of trauma.

“We’ll also be examining how children’s literature, film and new technologies such as virtual reality can be used to effectively engage with traumatic pasts and what effects they have on the students.”

Robert and his team have previously done research which highlighted concerning trends in how pre-service teachers engage with Australia’s history; trends which have the potential to strip away a sense of agency from Indigenous people.

“We found that pre-service teachers often uncritically mobilise narratives from both sides of the political divide, frequently rehearsing dominant media discourses that result in depictions of Australia’s colonial past without reference to Aboriginal resistance, representing our first nation peoples exclusively as victims of White oppression and thus complicit in constructing a form of historical consciousness that has the potential to re-traumatise through a kind of ‘epistemic violence’,” Robert said.

“This new project aims to find ways of engaging with traumatic pasts that support and assist our teachers in their engagement with traumatic histories.”

Robert will be leading a strand of research within the project that empirically tests a theoretical model of epistemic cognition of history teachers.

“Epistemic cognition refers to the process of thinking about one's forms of knowledge and ways of knowing,” Robert said. “How pre-service teachers understand history themselves shapes how they teach history. If they see it as a bundle of facts, they teach it very differently than if they see it as a discipline to interrogate narratives.”

“My research interest and teaching interests overlap in that I’m keen to help teachers develop an awareness of their own historical consciousness and know what is shaping the way they think and how that influences the way they read the narratives they encounter.”

Historical empathy

One of the concepts that Robert’s teaching and research focuses on is historical empathy. He explains it as being “the ability of the historian to step into the shoes of someone in the past and understand their decision-making process.”

“For example, it could be about stepping into the shoes of our ancestors and asking why they came to Australia?” he said.

Having grown up without connection to his father, Robert Parkes was drawn to learn about his own family history to fill that gap in his knowledge. He discovered many of his ancestors came to Australia in the 1840s which led him to question why so many came at that time?

“I looked into the big historical trends of that time. My ancestors were making decisions which for them were individual decisions but were part of a grand current. My dad was 10-pound pom, along with my paternal grandparents, and part of a big movement of English people to Australia after World War Two. Theirs was a personal decision that was facilitated by the historical context, in which England was still recovering from WWII, and Australia was pitched as a brighter prospect. History is a really powerful tool to help us understand how people think and make decisions the way they do,” Robert said.

“Even in the 1840s and 1850s, there was a lot of poverty in England and the new world in Australia offered opportunities. Gold had been discovered and it was the beginning of free settlement rather than convict transportation. When you use historical empathy, it becomes easier to understand historical decisions.” Robert is currently engaged in a project with his colleague Associate Professor Heather Sharp, examining historical empathy exercises in school history textbooks.

Martial arts history

Robert is a martial arts teacher and has black belts in Chinese, Japanese and Filipino martial arts. He is also studying capoeira, the Brazilian martial art that combines dance, acrobatics and music.

“I’m researching the pedagogy of capoeira.  It has some very interesting logic behind it. It’s a game based martial art that influences the way the artist sees the world.  That game philosophy translates into how the artist interacts with other people.”

“I’m interested in martial arts in terms of self-transformation and tactical thinking. I’ve been exploring the best way to teach that.”

“I’m also looking at how the many different martial arts that exist have come about as an answer to a perceived problem of their time.”

“For example, Southern Chinese martial arts were often an answer to invading Northern forces. In Japan the margin when you are evading a sword is very close because they used to wear amour. In comparison in the Philippines evasion is more important because they weren’t wearing amour and if you got nicked by a sword you could get infected in the tropical climate.”


Robert is also part of a team with UON colleagues Emma Shaw and Debra Donnelly working on a project to examine different groups involved in historical re-enactment and their relationship to history.

“We are delving into Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) groups which are thoroughly serious about recreating with historical accuracy the boxing and fencing systems taught in the Renaissance. We’re also looking at Light Action Role Play (LARP) groups who dress up as medieval characters and use history to engage in fantasy.”

Robert and the team are in the process of surveying people from those backgrounds with the aim of finding out how they engage with history and fantasy.

“I’m interested in how these different groups play with history in the present and what that does to their understanding of history. We are asking how they think about history as a result of the activities they are participating in.”

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