Principles of psychology and service to engage students with history

Peer reviewed article

In this research article David Nally uses a case study to show how using psychological theory and service-learning principles can encourage students to experience a more authentic variety of learning.

This article documents the evolution of how history was taught in a Stage 5 Mandatory History unit, 'Rights and Freedoms'. During 2016-2018, the pedagogy shifted from being focused on project based learning and using case studies of human rights, to allowing students the opportunity to understand how their own relationships, preferences and prejudices are somewhat influenced by principles of group psychology. This personal focus was used as the starting point for inquiry to connect with the anti-racism messages embedded in the unit of work. The impact of this latter approach allowed students to connect more effectively with the motives and impacts of activists who they studied, and develop deep knowledge about dynamics of exclusion and inclusion.

Australians and democracy

During late 2009, a discussion paper commissioned by the Whitlam Institute found that voters between 18-29 were dissatisfied with Australian democracy, perceiving that formal political structures involved a culture of ‘conflict, cynicism and distrust’ (Arvanitakis & Marren, 2009). Later, in 2016, a survey was conducted by the Australian National University, which revealed that more than 40% of all respondents surveyed indicated they were ‘not satisfied with democracy’ (McAllister et al., 2016). The Lowy Institute recorded that in the age group between 18-29, only 39% felt that democracy was the most preferable form of government, with more than 50% selecting that the form of government ‘doesn’t matter’ (Oliver, 2014). Notably, these findings are largely applicable to Australians between 18-29 who do not actively participate in formal political structures, such as by being a member of a political party. Yet in spite of this attitude, a study published in 2016 by Clive Hamilton concluded that participation in local community groups has drastically increased in the last decade (Hamilton, 2016). Where all four studies agreed, was on the point that tangible and immediate results at a local level empowered the local community. In this sense, the positive impact that community groups had, ranging from environmentally focused ones, to community heritage groups, extended beyond their membership group to those who lived in the general area.

Similar to these sociological observations, there has been a groundswell in educational research which argues that student wellbeing issues can be partly resolved by empowering them in society. Since Conrad and Hedin’s 1991 study, authors in the United States, such as Shelley Billig, have surveyed a wide variety of schools, with the finding that linking activities in school environments with ways to tangibly address social issues resulted in a higher completion rate of homework as well as an increased level of engagement in the classroom (Billig, 2000). The influence of such studies has begun to seep into Australia, where academics such as Dorothy Bottrell, Kerry Freebody and Susan Goodwin have described how ‘service learning’ can be a possible outlet for refocusing the energies of students experiencing mental issues, such as depression and anxiety, by providing a tangible way to contribute to positive change in their environment or other peoples’ lives (Bottrell, Freebody & Goodwin, 2011). Their conclusion is that this form of student engagement functions most effectively where a school’s purpose is envisioned as a community hub, rather than chiefly as an educational facility (Sanders, Allen-Jones & Abel, 2002). Moreover, this message must be taken on board by all staff and students to reach its optimum potential. This ‘service’ in an Australian context must also be directed by a coherent policy with tangible and projected benefits, which are clear to all participants from the outset.

A case study in Rights and Freedoms

This case study began with an attempt to teach one of the core Stage 5 units (Rights and Freedoms) in a way that empowered both Indigenous (first nation) and non-Indigenous students, to see the value of civics education and apply it to the way they participated in democracy in the future. This approach was driven by an intent to create literacy activities that would embody how standards of assessment, such as NAPLAN, could enable students’ academic performance as well as respond to the recent decrease of youth engagement with democratic processes, by showing that their participation in these processes can bring about equitable and positive social change.

To bring these aims to fruition, the unit structure focused on psychological theories that inspired activists to mobilise community groups with a highly localised political impact, so they were a part of a larger body of interest groups that, together, produced macro-level political change. The focus began with looking at the trends in how change in students’ relationships took place within the classroom, which was discussed as a microcosm of how society works as a whole. Figure 1 demonstrates each process that is involved in a sustained effort in creating social and political change.

Stages of social change

Figure 1: Stages of social change that are instigated by activist groups.

In a classroom context, these five steps were outlined as being applicable to acquaintances who enter a new school: they participate non-violently, encounter some degree of acceptance and rejection, before being accepted by either certain groups in a grade, or many. It was noted in the delivery in the classroom however, that such processes that can eventually foster inclusion must be balanced with efforts to reduce behaviours of social exclusion. Without this combined effort, the inclusion that any student experiences within their social groups would not eventuate. This approach therefore puts the student’s own experiences as a starting point, for connecting macro-issues, such as forms of discrimination that are experienced by Australian Indigenous groups.

Such personalised experiences lie in comparison with Figure 1, which propose that political relationships have the capacity to evolve over time to focus on inclusion, similar to students’ own experiences of building respect and trust, as well as their experiences of exclusion. Thus, Figure 1 can be used to show students that democratic processes are in a sense, driven by human relationships, since they empower many citizens who understand how to participate in them effectively. Therefore, the message students will likely take away is they must be familiar with the way activists of various backgrounds have worked successfully to advocate for themselves as well as for interest groups they represent. Furthermore, the figure can be used to set classroom behavioural expectations. It provides a clear end goal: that students stand to gain by building a micro-community based on restorative justice. In this environment the impact is to show the negative impacts of exclusionary behaviours (such as the racism that is at the forefront of ‘Rights and Freedoms’) which are exemplified by sense of privilege and hierarchy that developed amongst many of Australia’s non-Indigenous peoples. A case in point is the Assimilation policies which were deployed against Indigenous peoples as well as any migrants who were not considered able to fit with an Anglocentric ‘Australian’ image that persisted into the late-1960s and early 1970s (Jordens, 1995). As a result, this starting point for teaching history makes the subject more personalised for all students, since it is not dependent on cultural backgrounds or barriers, while also showing how students’ wellbeing can benefit within the context of a school.

What this case study will attempt to show is that students are capable of producing tangible suggestions for how to address issues, that they see within their local context, by using the psychology underpinning racism as a starting point. The intended impact of this approach was to reduce the amount of negative discourse and increase the amount of solutions-focused thinking. In the teaching of the unit, ‘Rights and Freedoms’, the program was split into three parts, each of which featured short project-based learning activities:

Background and issues

Mobilisation and psychology


Account for the development of Indigenous and Civil Rights from 1788-1938.

How did activist strategies develop, based on knowledge about group psychology?

Evaluate recent ‘attempts’ by one human rights activist in advocating solutions to specific human rights issues (1965-present).

During 2016-2018, the approach worked to help students see their own friendship groups, families and communities as part of a broader Australian society. Initially, the students from these Year 10 cohorts filled in a survey with one question: ‘How much are your actions influenced by your groups?’ Before learning about psychological processes and activism, students’ responses included shorter writing extracts, such as those listed in Sample 1 below. The following were taken from the 2018 cohort:

Sample 1: Student responses to ‘How much are your actions influenced by your groups?’ in October, 2018.

‘My actions are influenced by the people that I surround myself around and learn from. Such as family and friends. When they teach you, you learn new life lessons and values which impact upon the way you think and the things you do. This is because you believe that what you are doing is right as you may have seen someone like a role model do it.’

‘Actions of an individual vary depending on who they are with. Most of my actions do vary around who I am with, if I am with someone who I am close with I will usually act normal and more open. But if I am with someone who I know, but not too well I will act more quiet and shy.’

‘My group doesn't influence my actions, however, sometimes I may follow them for reasons. An example could be my friends going to the library at lunch to work on assessments. I may not need to go to the library but I will still go with my group so I'm not left alone.’

These responses demonstrate that student motivations for behaviours include a desire to belong, to not be left out, a motivation for ‘doing right’, as well as fit in with the attitudes of those around them at any given time. They were selected due to their representing the sentiments of the class, as well as being from the low-B/high-C range of academic achievement. In terms of length, these responses were on-par with the students who scored an A in their previous assessments. The discriminating factor was that the degree to which the answer focused on their own experiences, with the A-level demonstrating slightly more abstract reasoning. Moreover, the samples ranged from those students who did not watch or read news articles, to those who were able to demonstrate a knowledge of current events.

After these responses were gathered, students watched the 1985 CBS recording of Jane Eliot’s ‘A Class Divided’, which was, in turn, based on a 1963 thought experiment that was designed to combat racism. The purpose of this viewing was to demonstrate how effective group psychology can be at shaping perspectives, particularly with regard to how privileges and forms of hierarchical control directed forms of discrimination even amongst students who were eight-nine years old. In the post-viewing discussion, there was a focus on how Eliot’s experiment demonstrated that discriminatory behaviours became more prevalent in her pupils when there were privileges for students who did wear collars and a clear depreciation of self-worth in those who did not.

In the classes following this survey, students were encouraged to reflect how each activist group they studied in ‘Rights and Freedoms’ took cues from researchers of group psychology, which mainly focused on psychologists contemporary with the ‘Rights and Freedoms’ time period, such as B.F. Skinner and Mary Ainsworth, to construct thought experiments to show the impact of perceptions on race. This programming choice was made, due to the journalism, sociology and political science degrees that were studied by participants in the Australian Freedom Rides likely influencing their choices in activism (Foley, 2010). In practice, although it was highlighted to students that these behaviouralist theories had largely been discredited, these theories were used to understand the planning and aims of the activists involved in advocating for Indigenous rights in Australia. These links were made via reference to the explicit mentions in the Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) Newsletter, ‘Talkabout’, to their drawing inspiration from Martin Luther King’s publications and activism, especially during 1964 in the lead up to the Freedom Ride (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 2015).

This triangulation between civic action, anti-racism protest and psychology was then mapped to historical events, such as SAFA’s now famous entry to Moree and Kempsey swimming pools in 1965, with the intention of understanding how activists were challenging contemporaneous social and cultural norms in Australia. The aims of this action (and others like it) were to challenge social conformity, compliance with laws that promoted inequality and the entrenched segregation in these towns (Hawley, Hewett & Monaghan, 2018). Within this context, students were encouraged to frame political action in terms of how they promoted awareness of problems in terms of how impacts were experienced by broader sections of Australian society, so that solutions might eventually be sought by those in power. This strategy was particularly effective at making Indigenous rights relevant to the students, especially because there was such a low Indigenous population amongst the cohort.


After this engagement with the psychological theories that influenced the activists they studied, these students’ responses shifted to those that are listed in Sample 2, below:

Sample 2: Student responses to ‘How much are your actions influenced by your groups?’ in early November, 2018.

‘Indefinitely, our actions are influenced by others and groups around us. Research has shown that this is due to our limbic system (our emotional section of the brain), overtakes or over runs our neocortex (our higher order thinking) section of the brain. As a result individuals can no longer think “logically” and consequently make decisions based on what we think would make us feel better emotionally. This can be proven in many psychology experiments such as the Asch Conformity Study conducted by Dr Solomon Asch as it demonstrated that people do conform with others or groups around them even if they know or believe in something else because we want to “fit in” to make us emotionally feel good.’

‘The works of Mary Ainsworth show that different people react to the same situation depending on what they personally feel. By being a part of the group your actions are influenced by your connection with the others in the group. For if you are excluded or parted from the group, Ainsworth’s experiment shows that there are three main responses to this type of situation. A person may either respond in the way of being completely okay with the situation, be distressed and emotional about the situation or a mixture of both where the person is okay about it however they are also upset at the same time. This has been explained to be the reason due to the relation between the group. Therefore, Mary Ainsworth's example shows that it is the connection between a group that influences the response to a situation.’

‘I found out that many different animals can be tested on like in this case rats. I also learnt that animals by repeating and acknowledging what they have done that rewards them it will help them constantly do that action in the future. Skinner was heavily influenced by the work of John B. Watson as well as early behaviourist pioneers Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike which helped him come up with the ideas for his experiments. This can be shown through the similarities between all of their works and experiments and how they all have the same but different ways of working with the same idea. Skinner's experiments help us see that group psychology helps with individuals learning faster and continuing that action in the future.’

The responses that students provided demonstrate a willingness to engage with psychological theories as a way of understanding contemporary 1960s Australia. In turn, the students related these frameworks, especially the Asch paradigm, to understand their own ways of thinking. As the responses of two out of three responses demonstrate (by the presence of ‘us’ in the first response and ‘I also learnt’ in the third response) students were also more likely to personalise the concepts they learned about from the ‘Rights and Freedoms’ case study. This foundation provided the means for students to comprehend several impacts of Indigenous rights movements in Australia:

  • Refining civil rights to be more inclusive created a form of politics better able to represent the interests of the whole country, than previously.
  • Contributions of political activists extended beyond their intended advocacy: Indigenous protesters’ achievements preceded other developments in Australian history, such as the gradual erosion of several pieces of legislation now known as the ‘White Australia Policy’.
  • The treatment of Indigenous Australians by non-Indigenous Australians can be better understood through scientific theories: many schools in the teaching of ‘Rights and Freedoms’ refer to eugenics as the genesis of assimilation policies that were infamously adopted by Protection Boards and portrayed in Phillip Noyce’s 2002 film, ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’. By making more consistent reference to scientific theories from other periods of time (such as the 1960s), students will be able to see a broader range of continuities in history and therefore understand the degree to which racism was embedded in the social context that this activism was trying to rectify. Additionally, over the long term, scientific investigations and human rights concerns worked together in Australian history to shape notions of wellbeing and how to establish social cohesion on this content.
  • Moreover, it helped students understand that although events such as protests or petitions are begun by a minority seeking to rectify their political exclusion and denial of rights, the events themselves are thought experiments that can prompt the middle-ground of society into reconsidering their actions and opinions. Additionally, to be effective, these thought experiments must be part of a concerted, sustained series of actions that target specific issues that are agreed upon by several different groups, rather than broader, big picture concerns (Professor Meagan Davis, quoted in Snow, 2019).
  • That being said, one limitation in these responses is they do not address the issue of racism. To further refine the pre/post-question there would need to be more focus on how group dynamics influence forms of prejudice. In future, an additional question could be posed, such as ‘What could change people with racist attitudes to being more engaged with different cultures?’ This focus on engagement would be intended to inquire into what attitudes towards this form of prejudice exist (which are examined in the unit of work) as well as the extent to which students are engaged (or disengaged) with cultures other than their own.

(Some) conclusions and suggested future directions

This case study was predicated on attempting to help students understand the concerns of people who were not part of their social, cultural or political networks. Another aim was to allow students to understand their own behaviours and attitudes, about inclusion and exclusion, to develop their understanding of how school communities work.

The samples above show that as a result of framing history in psychological theories and explicit teaching about how civic action has been successful in Australia, students developed a more comprehensive understanding of how their attitudes form and what informs their behaviours. Moreover, it goes some way to show how young people will find democratic processes engaging, once they see such political ideas embedded in their own behaviours.

Two critiques that could be levelled at this form of teaching ‘Rights and Freedoms’, is the relevance to the syllabus, as well as its dependency on the maturity level of students in interrogating behaviouralist theories. Yet these theories always underpin the actions of civil rights movements: the Freedom Rides in the USA, as well as those in Australia, were comprised of journalism, psychology and social studies students. Disregarding the role of psychology in promoting human rights would therefore miss an important component of understanding the motives of human rights advocates that students’ study, and these theories provide a clear starting point for students to evaluate the success of civil and human rights movements that feature in Stage 5 history.  Additionally, Jane Eliot’s documentary has been pivotal in the USA as part of a longitudinal study in how schools can promote anti-racist and tolerant attitudes. These student activists who are studied in Rights and Freedoms therefore function as role models for how students can visibly contribute to their local communities, rather than being unable to make any form of difference to issues they hear so much about in other subjects, such as climate change, pollution and forms of inequalities that are studied in the geography syllabus in New South Wales.

The implications of this case study focus on how learning experiences can be made more authentic for students. In this method of teaching Stage 5 history, the authenticity was established by connecting historical circumstances to psychological theories that accounted for human behaviour, as well as how both circumstances and theories were used by Indigenous and human rights activists to coordinate responses to social and political issues in Australia.

These considerations have shown to positively impact student learning and engagement. In future teaching, they could include moving between three categories to show the relevance of the anti-racism focus of ‘Rights and Freedoms’ from a micro to macro scale:

  • Linking tasks to contemporary affairs/immediate relevance: At the time of writing, the appointment of Ken Wyatt being as the first Indigenous Minister of Indigenous Affairs, while Linda Burney has been appointed as Shadow Minister of Indigenous Affairs. That this arrangement, of First Australians having a say in the rights and respect shown to kinship groups, has not happened sooner, is a point of discussion in itself.
  • Linking tasks to ideas that have a personal-context relevance: Theories that explain local concerns can be introduced, such as the behaviouralist psychology in this case study. Alternatively, theories that are more appropriate for the unit could be adapted, such as how military strategy organised education and training, for Stage 5’s other compulsory unit, ‘Australians at War’.
  • Linking tasks to macro-context relevance: A focus on Indigenous peoples worldwide, since there is the consistency in most developed nations that their Indigenous peoples have disproportionately higher incarceration and crime rates than other segments of the population. This statistic is applicable to Australian Indigenous peoples (especially in the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia) as well as the Sami in Sweden. Other cases, such as Indigenous Greenlanders, who currently hold the highest proportion of teenage suicide, globally. Further exploration could be conducted through the LandMark map of Indigenous peoples.


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How to cite this article – Nally, D. (2019). Using principles of psychology and service to engage students with history. Scan 38(7).

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