Historical empathy activities in Australian history textbooks: An assessment tool to examine disciplinary and cognitive domains

Debra Donnelly, Heather Sharp


Historians study what has already happened and so must have a mechanism to reconstruct the past in the present. The past is revived via the historian’s imagination and perspective, as Parfitt (2001, p.7) asserts, “to imagine something is to make that thing present and real for ourselves.” To empathize in history is founded on the assumption that the past can be reconstructed—at least in part—and accessed so that the thoughts, intentions, and actions of historical actors can be understood and so connect the past and the present. This paper examines activities in Australian high school history textbooks that include empathy activities to engage students in learning history, focusing on the Australian civil rights movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders throughout the 20th century. The paper introduces an assessment tool which incorporates Ashby and Lee’s (1987) levels of empathetic understanding and Biggs and Tang’s (2007) Structured of Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO) taxonomy to aid in evaluating historical empathy activities included in textbooks designed for the Australian Curriculum: History. Data shows that the majority of historical empathy tasks require only low level empathetic responses and cognitive complexity. This paper concludes, that although modern-day textbooks have opportunities to provide a rich array of multimodal sources to inform historical empathy tasks, they predominately call on students to produce unsubstantiated and ahistorical responses.


Historical Thinking; Historical Empathy

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Copyright (c) 2021 Debra Donnelly, Heather Sharp

Historical Encounters is a double blind peer-reviewed, open access, interdisciplinary journal dedicated to the empirical and theoretical study of historical consciousness, historical cultures, and history education.

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