Historical Empathy: Ethical and Culturally Responsive Teaching

Abstract: History education in Australia has historically been positioned as the ideal subject for developing civics and citizenship, where there must be opportunities to guide student growth as well-rounded citizens in this time of social division globally. Focusing specifically on the concept of historical empathy, this article explores how we deal with controversial topics, traumatic pasts, and uncomfortable truths about world history as well as the implications of these ideas when dealing with our own contested past in the Australian context, calling on history teacher educators to explicitly consider ethical issues in history teaching.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21081
Languages: English

See the corresponding PHW Focus Interview with the authors

In early 2022, media coverage[1] of a racist assessment task set at a Lake Macquarie high school (near Newcastle, NSW) has highlighted an important, and continuing, misunderstanding about controversial issues in schools, particularly teaching historical empathy and the challenging ethical issues associated with culturally responsive curriculum approaches.

Two Scenarios

This involved the distribution of an assessment in which students were given the option of two scenarios in which they could report on the continuation of the Atlantic Slave Trade assuming the role of either a US Minister for the economy (arguing for the continuation of the slave trade) or a US Minister for Human Rights (arguing for the end of the slave trade).[2] Notably, there was no option for students to consider African or slave perspectives, privileging a slave trader and owner perspective and contributing to the positioning of African peoples as commodities in this context. This task, its impact on Sudanese students in the class,[3] and the public response have demonstrated the importance of the ethical imperative to evaluate history assessments for appropriateness, educational value, and conflicting needs of stakeholders, including for the potential for harm.[4]

Defining Historical Empathy

Historical empathy is a concept often advocated in history education as a means of actively engaging students in historical inquiry and understandings of historical contexts. Yilmaz defines historical empathy as:

the ability to see and judge the past in its own terms by trying to understand the mentality, frames of reference, beliefs, values, intentions, and actions of historical agents using a variety of historical evidence. Empathy is the skill to re-enact the thought of a historical agent in one’s mind or the ability to view the world as it was seen by the people in the past without imposing today’s values on the past.[5]

In a similar vein, Endacott and Brooks draw together theories of pedagogical approaches to historical empathy, arguing that the following three aspects must be present if a historical investigation is to be considered historical empathy: historical contextualisation, perspective taking, and affective connection.[6] While historical empathy can be a valuable tool to explore perspectives different to our own, it is imperative that history educators emphasise plurality of views, to be sure to avoid exclusion or devaluing of Others’ views.[7]

Analysis of Case Study

The case outlined above provides an opportunity for history educators to consider the ethical implications of a poorly designed empathy task or assessment, and the negative consequences for Australia’s multicultural classrooms. Though preferencing of oppressor perspectives – Ministers of either Slave Trade or Human Rights – in the prescribed task might mistakenly be defended on the principle of ‘fairness’, students are unable to explore the experiences of the slaves in this context. This is the explicit aim of the relevant NSW History syllabus content point in the topic noted in the assessment outline, stating “students select an individual slave sent to the Americas, or a convict or free settler who came to Australia and use sources to construct the story of their experiences.”[8]

Most importantly, this task failed to protect students from harm. As Pope, Green, Johnson and Mitchell explain, “In education, do no harm requires that teachers act in such a way as to avoid causing harm to students as well as other individuals in schools.”[9] The design of such a task should have considered students’ needs, with racism and bullying already recorded against families of African-Australian descent and in particular, the media reports that the affected family has now been isolated by others at the school. The task itself asks students to “empathise” as ministers – which perpetuates the idea that slaves themselves are not human but rather a commodity to trade. Ethically, this is a failure to account for the social environment and student contexts[10] in the implementation of assessment.

Culturally Responsible Curriculum

Historical empathy tasks can present an opportunity for successful intercultural and anti-racist education,[11] particularly as this approach can assist in working towards intercultural literacy, essential for living and working in cross-cultural settings in our globalised society. However, teaching about issues of race and slavery require careful planning and reflection to ensure sensitivity and understanding for students who may feel threatened to minimise chances of harm, including acknowledgement of the potential discomfort topics such as this may cause students (and their teachers), either through white fragility, or experiences of racism.[12] It is argued that through reflection on these ideas, history teacher educators should provide our pre-service history teachers with the tools to confidently explore ethical issues from the past and promote ethical understanding through history education to ensure a plurality of perspectives are explored through culturally safe approaches.


Further Reading

  • Melanie Innes, Heather Sharp, “Historical Empathy and Museum Culture,” Journal of Museum Education, 46:3 (2021), 307-320, DOI: 10.1080/10598650.2021.1954771
  • Kaya Yilmaz, “Historical Empathy and Its Implications for Classroom Practices in Schools.” The History Teacher 40, no. 3 (2007): 331–337.

Web Resources


[1] Examples of media articles reporting on this task: News.comhttps://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/school-life/nsw-school-investigated-over-proslavery-assignment/news-story/41c0d720489de501eceec6590e6e4f27Newcastle Heraldhttps://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/7669970/enraged-and-confused-slavery-assignment-backlash-leaves-students-feeling-isolated/%20 (last accessed 16 January 2023).
[2] It is noted that as a republic, there are no ministerial titles the US context
[3] Ethan Hamilton, “Enraged and confused’: Slavery assignment backlash leaves students feeling isolated,” Newcastle Herald March 23 2021, https://www.newcastleherald.com.au/story/7669970/enraged-and confused-slavery-assignment-backlash-leaves-students-feeling-isolated/ (last accessed 18 January 2023).
[4] Bruce Maxwell, Kevin McDonough and David I. Waddington, “Teachers’ Freedom of Speech in the Classroom,” in Encyclopedia of Teacher Education, ed. M.A. Peters, (Singapore: Springer, 2019), 3; Nakia Pope, Susan Green, Robert Johnson and Mark Mitchell, “Examining teacher ethical dilemmas in classroom assessment,” Teaching and Teacher Education 25 (2008): 780.
[5] Kaya Yilmaz, “Historical empathy and its implications for classroom practices in schools,” The History Teacher 40, vol. 3 (2007): 331.
[6] Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks, “An updated theoretical and practical model for promoting historical empathy,” Social Studies Research and Practice 8, vol. 1 (2013): 43.
[7] Sylvia Edling, Heather Sharp, Jan Löfström and Niklas Ammert, “Why is ethics important in history education? A dialogue between the various ways of understanding the relationship between ethics and historical consciousness,” Ethics & Education 15, vol. 3 (2020): 337.
[8] Board of Studies NSW, History K-10 Syllabus, Volume 2: History, years 7-10. (Sydney: Board of Studies NSW, 2012): 85.
[9] Pope, Green, Johnson and Mitchell, “Examining teacher ethical dilemmas,” 779.
[10] Maxwell, Mc Donough and Waddington, “Teachers’ freedom of speech,” 3.
[11] Michalinos Zembylas and Elena Papamichel, “Pedagogies of discomfort and empathy in multicultural teacher education,” Intercultural Education 28, vol. 1 (2017): 15.
[12] Winston C. Thompson, “Considerations for the ethical implementation of culturally responsive curriclula,” in Democratic Discord in schools: Cases and commentaries in educational ethics, ed. Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay (Cambridge: Harvard Educational Press, 2019), 161-163.


Image Credits

A Mile in My Shoes by Empathy Museum © 2018 Alprimrose CC BY-SA-4.0 via Commons.

Recommended Citation

Innes, Melanie, Daniella Forster, Sarah Gurr, Heather Sharp: Historical Empathy: Ethical and Culturally Responsive Teaching. In: Public History Weekly 11 (2023) 1, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21081.

Editorial Responsibility

Tanya Evans

Copyright © 2023 by De Gruyter Oldenbourg and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact the editor-in-chief (see here). All articles are reliably referenced via a DOI, which includes all comments that are considered an integral part of the publication.

The assessments in this article reflect only the perspective of the author. PHW considers itself as a pluralistic debate journal, contributions to discussions are very welcome. Please note our commentary guidelines (https://public-history-weekly.degruyter.com/contribute/).

Categories: 11 (2023) 1
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2023-21081

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  1.  To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    Historical empathy: If you’re going to do it, do it right

    My biggest worry in reading this paper is that it may inadvertently provide ammunition for teachers to place the teaching of historical empathy in the ‘too hard’ basket. This would be unfortunate. Already, an ideological suspicion of the concept of ‘empathy’ (and perhaps an acknowledgement of the challenges of assessing it) means that this word has been edited out of version 9.0 (2022) of the Australian Curriculum: History as a central disciplinary concept. Rather it has been kicked (in diluted form) into the long grass of an ‘Ethical Understanding’ General Capability where sadly few teachers venture to tread. One of the most important skills promoted by historical inquiry is that of empathy: a capacity to mentally walk in the shoes of other people from different time periods and cultures. School history comes alive when it is an affective and not entirely a cognitive exercise.

    Clumsy and crass historical empathy exercises which make it through to a deservedly critical mauling in the media are not new. Conservative critics in England utilised the following trial exam paper example in the late 1980s in deriding the concept of historical empathy: ‘Write a speech to be made by a representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. This speech will justify the actions: the hijacking of an aircraft to Jordan in 1970, the shootings at Tel Aviv airport, and the attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic Games’. When educators get empathy tasks wrong, it can be seriously wrong. Critics on the right of politics at this time argued that empathy questions were too often about supporting freedom-fighting underdogs and minorities and had a left-wing political motivation. However, it is important not to seize upon poor and maladroit practice to rubbish the whole concept of historical empathy. A salutary reminder is that empathy is not the same thing as sympathy.

    To avoid stereotypical or presentist responses and for empathetic exercises in the classroom to be successful, students must be immersed in a historical event through the study of sources, site visits, viewing of filmic representations and/or teacher-led discussions. Cunningham (2004, p. 25) noted that students’ attempts to develop empathy must be disciplined by historical evidence: ‘When teachers set up exercises that did not require students to reference sources directly in reaching conclusions, pupils showed a tendency to abandon them rapidly and rely on their own ideas’.

    Without this immersion, in an Australian history context, empathy exercises are likely to provoke superficial responses. In the Australian History curriculum there are sustained opportunities to study history from the perspective of Australia’s indigenous peoples. Students are encouraged, for example, to examine and explore the impact of British colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their pursuit of citizenship rights and the impact of government policies on the development of Australia as a culturally diverse nation. Such work (which often has the cultivation of moral sensibility and empathy at its heart) cannot be rushed. Similarly, if they are lacking any substantive knowledge base and contextualisation, attempts to craft convict communications home, in-role letters from the trenches of Gallipoli or the Western Front or to recreate historical re-enactment of key events such as the Eureka Stockade will remain as imaginative English/Drama activities rather than being rooted in historical inquiry.

    The author’s call for pre-service teachers to appreciate a plurality of perspectives on historical events and to be fully inducted into what constitutes culturally safe and unsafe approaches is to be commended. Historical empathy feeds a sense of tolerant and inclusive everyday empathy which is healthy for democracy. It can indeed contribute to empathetic citizenship (Brett, 2018). Some excellent recent research in this area has been published by Dutch history teacher educators and I commend their work to interested readers (Bartelds et al., 2020; De Leur et al., 2017; Huijgen et al., 2017).


    Bartelds, H., Savenije,G.M. & van Boxtel, C. (2020). Students’ and teachers’ beliefs about historical empathy in secondary history education, Theory & Research in Social Education, 48(4), 529-551.
    Brett, P. (2018). “Retrieving the civic dimension in history”: Creating meaningful and memorable links between History and Civics and Citizenship in primary classrooms”, The Social Educator, 36(2) 15-29.
    Cunningham, D. (2004). Empathy without illusions. Teaching History, 114, 24–9.
    De Leur, T., Van Boxtel, C. & Wilschut, A. (2017) ‘I Saw Angry People and Broken Statues’: Historical Empathy in Secondary History Education, British Journal of Educational Studies, 65(3), 331-352.
    Huijgen, T., van Boxtel, C., van de Grift, W., & Holthuis, P. (2017). Toward historical perspective taking: Students’ reasoning when contextualizing the actions of people in the past. Theory & Research in Social Education, 45(1), 110–141.

  2. To all readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 22 languages. Just copy and paste.


    One of the most difficult tasks

    This article engages with one of the most difficult tasks set for history teachers in schools: teaching the concept of historical empathy. A challenging aspect of history pedagogy embedded, not only in Australia’s national History curriculum, but in the teaching of historical conflict, trauma, and the questionable motivations of people in the past across the contemporary world (Sharp, 2022). Historical empathy, in my experience, requires not only a sophisticated understanding by teachers of developing students’ historical thinking and historical consciousness, but also teachers’ committed focus on the closely related concept of ‘perspective’.

    For esteemed history educators and historians, such as (the late) Stuart McIntyre and Tony Taylor, (writers of the shaping paper for the first national History curriculum in Australia), historical empathy was ‘less about logic and structure and more about feelings’ (Taylor, 2003) and, ‘this is why, historical empathy’, was ‘separated from the cognitive act of understanding the past context and connected to the moral domain of historical consciousness’ (Retz, 2018, p. 211; Rüsen, 2005). Today, Sharp et al. make the case, that historical empathy requires a comprehensive knowledge and awareness of the context of past events, and the beliefs and values that influence the actions of significant individuals, groups and cultures (Sharp, 2022). Both interpretations demonstrate the complexity of the concept.

    Fundamentally, ‘history’ and ‘empathy’ have experienced a problematic relationship since R.J. Collingwood’s notions of ‘re-enactment’, in the 1970’s were relabelled as ‘empathy’ (Retz, 2018, p. 10). The article at hand takes a critical view of a contemporary assessment task, which utilises such notions. Designed to test the capacity of students at a NSW high school, by engaging with the concept of historical empathy to show their understanding of the Atlantic Slave Trade, the ‘poorly designed’ task (as described by the authors), was underpinned by the ‘re-enactment’ of the perspective of the oppressors only, making absent the perspective of the oppressed. The media backlash that the article reports on is not surprising. It is even less surprising that our most racialised group of students in Australian schools  – students of African heritage (Molla, 2021; Priest, 2019) – responded to the task with cultural dismay and concern for the loss of the voice of their ancestors. What is not surprising, for this reviewer, is twofold.

    Firstly, despite agreeing that historical empathy is primarily about feelings, the comprehensive contextualisation of people and events is just as crucial. Therefore, in my opinion, the continued rolling out of ‘re-enactment’ tasks to test students’ historical empathy is troubling. Often there is little evaluation or consideration of racial competency or cultural responsivity applied to the design of such tasks. ‘Re-enactment’ populates the glossy pages of history textbooks, and as in this case, often assumes that everyone in the history classroom is white. Secondly, the concept of historical empathy requires a deep understanding of the relationship between empathy and history which, arguably, struggles with objectivity (Retz, 2018). So why do we continue to ask young enthusiastic students, who may one day be future historians, to position themselves as an actor in the past? I argue that this, more often than not, leads to even less unfettered versions of history, simply because ‘historical empathy’ is often misinterpreted by students to be about how they feel, rather than a gathering of authentic and multiple ‘perspectives’.

    This article contributes a great deal to highlighting these troubles. It also demonstrates how history educators and curriculum writers understand the responsibility of the History curriculum to protect students from harm – or not. History is a discipline that often mirrors not only the nation’s (ill)preparedness for historical empathy, but that of the individuals in control of writing and delivering the lessons of the past. For example, it is pointed out in the article that the NSW History syllabus notes the inclusion of the voice of the oppressed in the delivery of the History curriculum. However, research in this area shows, we cannot exact what this looks like in History classrooms, how it is interpreted, or who has time to question how it is delivered. Particularly when it comes to the concept of interculturality which pierces the core of historical empathy within the discipline (Garrard, 2022). It is very encouraging to see the strong alignment drawn by the authors between interculturality, challenging ethical issues and the construction of assessment tasks for the discipline. Although, as this article proves, there is a long way to go to protect students from the allure of the trusted dominant narratives which continue to shape tasks similar to the one described here.

    To genuinely progress historical empathy in our students, we might focus on authentic, intercultural multiperspectivity, that grows histories rather than allegiance to familiar tropes of a history. Articles such as this one are necessary to give voice to the continued problem we have in allowing all students to explore the marginalised histories of the world. It also begs the question of how History curriculum and its agencies might teach the lived experiences, actions, decisions and values attributed to those in the past, without asking our students to be time travellers.


    Garrard, K. A. (2022). Finding a way in for interculturality: analysing History teachers’ conceptualisations at the secondary school level. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 1-13. doi:10.1080/01596306.2020.1825288

    Molla, T. (2021). Advancing Learning in Racially Diverse Classrooms Research for Education Impact/School, Deakin University

    Priest, N., Chong, S., Truong, M., Sharif, M., Dunn, K., Paradies, Y. C., Nelson, J., Alam, O., & Kavanagh, A. M. (2019). Findings from the 2017 Speak Out Against Racism (SOAR) student and staff surveys. . Retrieved from https://csrm.cass.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/docs/2019/8/CSRM-WP-SOAR_PUBLISH_1_0.pdf

    Retz, T. (2018). Empathy & History: historical understanding in re-enactment, hermeneutics and education. New York: Berhahn Books.

    Rüsen, J. (2005). History: Narration – Interpretation – Orientation. Canada: Berghahn Books.

    Sharp, H., Dallimore, J., Bedford, A., Kerby, M., Goulding, J., Heath, T., Von Guttner, D., Zarmati, L. (2022). Teaching Secondary History. Melbourne, Australia: Cambridge University Press.

    Taylor, T. (2003). Trying to Connect: Moving from Bad History to Historical Literacy in Schools. Australian Cultural History, 23, 184.


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    Supporting Developments

    Employing a case study example, this valuable article raises important responsibilities for educators when teaching sensitive historical issues that aim to support the development of young people’s historical empathy. If we are to meet Goal 2 of the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration where: “All young Australians become confident and creative individuals, successful lifelong learners, and active and informed members of the community”, then teaching historical empathy is “central to contributing to Australia’s knowledge-based economy”[1] and builds social cohesion[2] to address global issues of social division as raised in the article. As highlighted, Australia has a traumatic history and if we are to pay homage to this, then educators need the skills, confidence, and pedagogical knowledge to design and implement ethical and culturally responsive history teaching. Such educational practice, for instance, aims to ensure that “all students learn about the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, and to seeing all young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples thrive in their education and all facets of life”.[3] The case study emphasises the significance of developing historical empathy that empowers students to “develop a sense of solidarity with others through imagining the perspectives and experiences of others as if they were their own”.[4] The authors argue that students first need to understand and have their own history, beliefs and culture valued and acknowledged. However, as evidenced in this case study, planning for this is often challenging given the paradox between the increasingly diverse educational community and reported mono-cultural curriculum and pedagogy that continues to be employed. Such practice has been cautioned to advantage some students while excluding others.[5]

    The presented case study provides an excellent example to explicitly critique the important responsibility for educators in determining how to enact the intended curriculum with the imperative ethical lens of historical empathy. For instance, learners were exploring the lived experiences of an individual slave sent to America. For learners to be engaged and learning to be effective, the enactment of the curriculum needs to connect with their lifeworlds. Therefore, knowing the learners in your context and providing learning opportunities that build on their virtual backpacks will ensure that learning is relevant and values all learner’s cultural beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences. Employing historical empathy and culturally responsive pedagogies was reported to play a critical role, particularly in being mindful of how the case study may unintentionally privilege certain perspectives while ignoring others, and/or presenting conflicting needs of stakeholders, thus creating potential for harm.

    Recognising this, the article has articulated the importance of embedding culturally responsive curriculum and assessment. However, to compliment this, the authors argue for the need to also employ culturally responsive pedagogies. This pedagogical approach “encourages educators to see the richness of the complexity within diversity and the importance of drawing on a learner’s assets”,[6] thereby ensuring all learners can see themselves in their learning which potentially increases engagement, academic success and sense of belonging.[7] It is in this way that learners can learn historical empathy as they first recognise that their own histories are visible and valued. Culturally responsive pedagogies are underpinned by (a) high expectations of all students; (b) quality relationships; (c) an understanding that diversity is an asset; (d) learning that is connected to students’ life-worlds; and (e) socio-political consciousness.[8]

    By enacting pedagogy that facilitates a culturally responsive curriculum representative of all learners in our settings, we can ensure that the history we are teaching is relevant to them and their culture and supporting the development of historical empathy.


    [1] [3] Department of Education, Skills and Employment. (2021). The Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration. [online] Available at: https://www.education.gov.au/alice-springs-mparntwe-education-declaration/resources/alice-springs-mparntwe-education-declaration [Accessed 3 January 2023].

    [2] Memon, N.A., Price, D., Green, D., & Chown, D. (2021). Stimulating high intellectual challenge through culturally responsive pedagogy: United Arab Emirates educator perspectives (Chapter 11, pp. 179-195). In N. Bakali & Memon, N.A. (Eds), Teacher Training and Education in the GCC: Unpacking the Complexities and Challenges of Internationalizing Educational Contexts, Lexington Books, London, United Kingdom.

    [4] Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA], nd. Available at: https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/general-capabilities/intercultural-understanding/#:~:text=Empathy%20assists%20students%20to%20develop,’%20feelings%2C%20situations%20and%20motivations [Accessed 1 January 2023].

    [5] Morrison, K. A., Robbins, H. H., & Rose, D. G. (2008). Operationalizing culturally relevant pedagogy: A synthesis of classroom-based research. Equity & Excellence in Education41(4), 433-452.

    [6] Price, D., Green, D., Memon, N., & Chown, D. (2020). Richness of complexity within diversity: Educational engagement and achievement of diverse learners through culturally responsive pedagogies, The Social Educator, 38(1), p. 50.

    [7] [8] Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education53(2), 106-116.



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    De-emphasizing empathy

    As Peter Brett notes, ’empathy’ appears to have been edited out of the most recent version of the Australian Curriculum: History. Unless someone has inside knowledge of the re-writing process, we can’t be certain about the reasons for this change. However, I think it is a move in the right direction and may have more to do with practicalities than any ‘ideological suspicion of the concept’. There appears to be consensus around a number of things: historical empathy is complex and difficult to achieve (not just for 15-year-olds, but evidently for historians of the caliber of Inga Clendinnen), getting anywhere near it requires insightful engagement with a lot of evidence and this takes a lot of time. None of this can be guaranteed in junior history classes, where there is limited time to cover topics and, too often, the possibility of teachers being ‘out of field’. There also must be some concern about well-meaning young teachers being exposed, potentially, to global social media pile-ons when well-intentioned efforts to deal with empathy, as they believe they have been directed to, go wrong. Working with pre-service teachers over a number of years, I have frequently been surprised at the emphasis they give to ’empathy’ – it seems to be something they expect to address and achieve in almost every lesson. Not sure where this obsessive focus comes from, but it is rarely accompanied by an understanding of the complexities involved with historical empathy or an appreciation of a whole range more garden-variety concepts and skills I would place ahead of empathy in importance. Especially given that there are other concepts that allow us to deal with elements of empathy, as other jurisdictions acknowledge, I see the move to de-emphasize it as progress. It is part of the simplification and decluttering of the curriculum that acknowledges the counterproductive overreach of the original skills, concepts and achievement standards.

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