Head of History

Every year on Australia Day I  listen to the acceptance speech given by the  Australian of the Year. This year, Scientia Professor of Quantum Physics, Michelle Simmons, gave an outstanding address, but there was one particular component that really struck a chord with me. She was talking about her experiences in education and how she only excelled as a learner when taken outside her comfort zone by inspirational teachers. In a speech that seemed to be directed at teachers and students, Professor Simmons made it clear that teachers need to set the bar high and tell their students constantly that it is their role to jump over it. Her most powerful statement was: “it is better to do the things that have the greatest reward; things that are hard, not easy.”

A week or so later  a Ted Talk popped up in my Twitter feed from psychologist, Dr Susan David, titled ‘The gift and power of emotional courage.’ Dr David says a number of quite profound things in the talk, but one sentence again stuck out for me. She said, “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” This made me think again of Simmons’ words and the applicability of this idea to education. From both of these talks it was easy to gather that teachers have a responsibility to help students understand that discomfort is useful and “normal”. (“Normal” is Dr David’s term, which suggests that most people view discomfort as a negatively invasive and detrimental force.)

A couple of months later there was an interesting article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled, “HSC students abandoning high-level subjects.” As I read the article I thought about our History students at Loreto Normanhurst and whether they were following this trend. It was clear as I read through the article that many of the assertions being made certainly did not apply to our students, which was obviously pleasing. In the article, Dr Sue Thomson of the Australian Council of Education Research (ACER) made the statement that “kids only choose subjects they know they’ll be successful in.” If this quote has been accurately depicted, I felt this was quite a simplistic and broad general assertion. This idea of being “successful” is so layered with varied meaning. If she was asserting that students only think in terms of the immediate “success” of achieving a high ATAR, she may be right, but are there students who are the exception to this? Do some define “success” differently?

This made me reflect on students in Years 11 and 12 who choose to do History Extension here at Loreto Normanhurst. The History Extension course is not about studying events in history. It is a course that focuses on historiography, the way history is constructed and the philosophy of history. Accompanying this is a research essay prepared over a year which is devised and composed by students with academic supervision. This is a serious undertaking for any high school student, but the figures both state-wide and at Loreto show that things may be unfolding differently to what was implied in the article mentioned above. Across NSW, 1,866 students took the History Extension course in 2016, and in 2017,  and upward trajectory of  2,008 students enrolled in the course. At Loreto Normanhurst, our numbers have risen significantly in the past few years from six in 2015, 19 in 2016, 17 in 2017 and we currently have 19 students enrolled for the 2018 HSC.

Students undertaking the History Extension course at Loreto are told from the outset the challenges they will face – there is absolutely no sugar-coating, in fact the opposite is true. But students are still willing to undertake this challenge. There could be lots of reasons for this bucking of the trend in History Extension across the state and here at Loreto, but it is clear to see that broad assertions about students avoiding difficulty are not always accurate. Students are more savvy than politicians and reform makers often give them credit for. They do consider “success” as a vital key performance indicator when choosing a subject, but there are many other factors they weigh up that have equal value. Maybe some of them are even hearing the message of Professor Michelle Simmons and Dr Susan David and are choosing subjects that present “discomfort” and “are hard, not easy” because they see being fully prepared for life beyond the gates of Loreto Normanhurst as the “greatest reward” they could gain from their education.


Mr Marco Scali

Head of History