Academic journal article Curriculum Matters

Social Sciences in the New Zealand Curriculum: Mixed Messages

Academic journal article Curriculum Matters

Social Sciences in the New Zealand Curriculum: Mixed Messages

Article excerpt


The official document that is The New Zealand Curriculum (NZC, Ministry of Education, 2007) reflects shifting ideas about teaching and learning in the 21st century and about teaching and learning in the social sciences. The following discussion is underpinned by the assumption that official curricula are inherently sites of ideological contestation, created within specific political and social contexts and informed by different disciplinary traditions. These traditions reflect different notions of what constitutes valuable knowledge and what learning could and should entail within different subjects.

Social Sciences in NZC is a learning area rather than a specific subject. It is an amalgamation of subjects under a broad disciplinary umbrella. This raises questions about the messages provided in NZC about what constitutes valuable knowledge in the Social Sciences learning area, about similarities and differences between constitutive disciplines and about how these messages might be interpreted in practice.

Curriculum development is a process of ongoing negotiation that takes place at different sites and within different contexts. It involves both top-down (policy-directed) and bottom-up (practice-defined) processes. Contests between ideas take place during the creation of the formal curriculum that is official policy, in the interpretation of that policy via enacted curricula and in the hidden curricula of daily interactions and classroom life (Apple, 1999; McGee & Fraser, 2001). Goodson (1988) describes the process of curriculum creation as the collision of current practice with the historical inheritance of official curriculum guidelines and previous practice. To this collision might be added the actions of teacher practitioners, who may seek to maintain the status quo or to change, reform or transform the curriculum that is enacted and experienced in classrooms.

The official curriculum provides policy direction for teaching and learning in social sciences classrooms, as decided by those who were engaged in the production of officially sanctioned curriculum documents. Policy developments can be expected to reflect both new educational ideas and older practices and disciplinary traditions, and these policy directions are interpreted and enacted by teachers in schools. Social sciences teachers are thus central to the development of curriculum in practice in as much as they are actively engaged in curriculum construction and negotiation in schools and classrooms (Bruner, 1996; Hargreaves, 1994; McGee & Fraser, 2001). Policy in the form of NZC is important, though, for the way it enables teaching and learning processes, signals shifts in purpose and meaning and influences the "sense making" of those who implement the curriculum (Aitken, 2006).

Also underpinning this discussion is the notion that the knowledge that is defined through curriculum documents as being valuable and worth knowing is neither absolute nor arbitrary. This idea is articulated by Young (2010), who argues that the knowledge that is passed on in educational contexts constitutes "'available sets of meaning', which in any context do not merely 'emerge' but are collectively 'given'" (p. 37). He further argues that academic curricula involve assumptions that some knowledge and some knowledge domains are much more worthwhile than others, and that syllabus (curriculum) construction involves efforts to enhance or maintain academic legitimacy.

This article focuses on the official curriculum and the signals it provides to social sciences teachers. It asks what is new or different in the Social Sciences learning area in NZC and how these developments might be understood. It draws together various threads from the literature to explore the shifts in thinking that are signalled in NZC in relation to social sciences. The purpose is not to present answers, but to reflect on broad issues relating to the social sciences curriculum that may be relevant for teachers and the training of teachers of social sciences, teacher educators and other academics as they seek a theoretical understanding of recent curriculum developments. …

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