Developing student comprehension of historical significance

As schools implement the next iteration of the Australian Curriculum, the concept of historical significance is consistently alluded to within syllabus documentation. In the year 10 History curriculum, the year level’s inquiry questions provide a guiding framework for teachers’ learning and assessment design, making reference to ‘causes and consequences’ and asking teachers to prompt their students in understanding how Australian society was affected by significant global events and changes in the 20th century (ACARA, 2022a).

Content descriptors also reference an evaluation of the significance of the Second World War on Australian experiences and the evaluation of ‘patterns of continuity and change’ as a historical skill (ACARA, 2022a).

While evaluating significance may come more naturally to some, this is not universal. Therefore, it is important to encourage student thinking which evaluates long-term significance and impacts. In this article, I share some practical methods for promoting historical skills in the classroom and give examples of learning tasks I have conducted with my year 10 History students to develop their understanding of historical significance.

Defining historical significance

To work toward a definition of what historical significance is, it is important to note that contested definitions exist. The Historical Thinking Project offers one clarification for teachers. They state that a historically significant event should result in ‘great change’ over ‘long periods’ for ‘large numbers of people’ (Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness, n.d.).

It is important for students to understand that significance is variable and their individual view of what is historically significant will be shaped by their own perspective and values, in addition to social, cultural, economic, educational and political factors.

However, despite its different perspectives, there are some events in history which are consistently understood as having significance. Understanding why we see the World Wars or the Great Depression, or the French or Russia Revolutions for that matter, as significant world events is an important element of thinking.

Drie and Boxtel (2008) see this idea as students grappling with historical ‘meta-concepts’, where they are not only exploring explicit historical concepts but applying historical modes of thinking to their understanding of the past. We should therefore encourage students to think metacognitively to challenge them to understand how and why we view certain events and periods as more or less important than others.

For students to individually evaluate historical significance, a clear definition needs to be affirmed to refine the concept. One useful student-friendly resource I refer to in my lessons is the History Skills website, where they propose students measure historical significance against a set of criteria. The author proposes a criterion framework using the acronym, ‘NAME’, where students evaluate the event or period regarding its Novelty, Applicability, Memory and Effects. This helps to segment and chunk a broad historical framework into more manageable sections, making the curriculum more accessible.

Building on existing resources and research (Partington, 1980; Philips, 2002; Counsell, 2004), I adapted my own definition to use with students. The phrasing I settled on is:

Historical significance examines the long-term importance of a historical event, period, movement, individual or idea and the impacts it had on modern society.

To ensure a central understanding, a definition needs to be succinct and accessible. Some elements of the definition are broad, such as ‘modern society’ and there are certain definitional distinctions to be drawn between an ‘event’, ‘period’ and ‘movement’. However, the primary aim for an introductory definition is clarity. If questions arise about terminology in class, these are good opportunities to explore historical metalanguage on an individual or deeper one-to-one basis.

For my year 10 History students, the definition provides a durable foundation. It is sometimes better to err on the side of clarity, even at the cost of some initial complexity; for complexity can always be supplemented later in a program, but confusing a student within an introductory phase can have lingering negative impacts.

Unpacking ‘historical significance’ in the classroom

In my classroom, I pair historical skill-based learning with a content overview of the 20th century which is articulated in the curriculum as the ‘historical significance of the period between 1918 and the early 21st century’ (ACARA, 2022b). The content descriptors refer to historical concepts centred around the depth studies of the Second World War, Building Modern Australia and The Globalising World.

To provide students with an introductory overview, I ask them to research these events with reference to historical significance. Segmented into 2, both parts of this task aim to deepen historical knowledge and skills.

The first is a short answer evaluation responding to an opinion article excerpt which presents reasons why the 20th century is important and should be studied. Students then interpret and analyse the passage to answer questions which challenge their thinking about potential bias, perspective and if the source is factually or opinion based. It is valuable learning to explain how although an article may include facts, it can still be opinionated in nature, depending on the author’s intended purpose.

In the second part, students delve into a task which challenges them to put historical significance into practice. I provide a list of 10 events considered amongst the most significant global moments of the 20th century. Some examples include The World Wars, the Great Depression and the 1969 moon landing. I then ask students to rank the events in terms of global significance.

Patterns start to emerge in the students’ thinking. Most will put the World Wars within the top 3 events, while the moon landing is by comparison commonly ranked lower. Students need to write a justification for why they have placed the events in their selected chronological order. In their responses, students discuss impact, with more sophisticated responses exploring the reasons around collective memory. One student, when evaluating the impact of the Second World War, stated:

It led to the reshaping of the geopolitical landscape, the establishment of the United Nations, and contributed to the beginning of the Cold War, fundamentally changing the course of the 20th century.

Complex responses begin to format their thinking into military, social, political, territorial, technological and economic effects, evaluating the merits of each. The students who are able to think along these lines and connect to larger concepts will best demonstrate their understanding of the curriculum. As one student observes:

Modern History is incredibly important because the events still affect us to this day, our current society is the way it is because of what we learned and discovered from recent events. It’s … how we learn about how our current society was born.

It is important to note there is not one singular correct answer for a hierarchical ranking. My grading is based upon a student’s ability to rationalise and explain, because while significance ultimately is subjective, there should be evidence of clear understanding of the concept and its application to the ranking.

The task enables students to apply the historical skill of significance in assessment and to research the scope of major events in the 20th century. Thereby, it aims to expand historical knowledge and understanding, while provoking metacognitive thinking on interpreting significance, causes and consequences.

From a curriculum planning perspective, schools can work toward developing contextual understanding in programs before delving into depth studies. This helps to chronologise events focused on in the curriculum and assists highlighting that events are the result of long- and short-term factors accumulating over time. It is therefore a responsibility for history teachers to give students the context they need to understand the modern world.

Quality historical skill focused tasks provide benefits to students through their engagement, ability to develop historical literacy, and in the case of this example, the contextual introduction they can establish. Such historical skill focused tasks go some distance in developing complexity, engagement and deeper contextual understanding of the legacies of the 20th century and further the implementation of historical significance in the enacted curriculum.

If you’d like to access the student resource I developed for the assignment shared in this article, you can contact me at

References and related resources:

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2022a). History 7-10 – Year 10 Level Description. Retrieved from website: See ‘Level Description: Year 10’ for contextual background and inquiry questions referenced.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2022b). F-10 Curriculum | V9 Australian Curriculum. Retrieved March 17, 2024, from website: See ‘Achievement Standard’ and Content Descriptors AC9HH10S05 and AC9HH10K05 for explicit historical significance curriculum links.

Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness. (n.d.). Historical Significance. Retrieved March 13, 2024, from

Counsell, C. (2004). Looking through a Josephine-Butler-shaped window: focusing pupils’ thinking on historical significance. Teaching History, 114, 30–33.

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. (2023, August 15). Tales of Significance. Retrieved March 8, 2024, from website:

Music and the Holocaust. (n.d.). Criteria Of Significance. Retrieved from This document provides a short and accessible summary of the respective historical significance models of Partington, Counsell and Phillips.

Partington, G. (1980) The Idea of an Historical Education. Slough, N FER & Hunt M

Philips, R. (2002). Historical significance - the Forgotten “Key Element”? Teaching History, 106, 14–19.

van Drie, J., & van Boxtel, C. (2008). Historical reasoning: Towards a framework for analyzing students' reasoning about the past. Educational Psychology Review, 20(2), 87-110. doi:

In this article, Alec Santucci says, ‘To ensure a central understanding, a definition needs to be succinct and accessible’. As a teacher, when you’re introducing a new concept to students, how do you ensure any new definitions are accessible for all students?