This Special Issue sets out to examine emerging issues and research in New Zealand social science education. It brings together nine papers by New Zealand academics who are involved in this area. These papers are supported by a commentary from an esteemed Australian social science educator, Emeritus Professor Rob Gilbert, who provides a perspective from 'across the ditch'. Collectively, the papers in this issue profile contemporary research in social science education which offers insights and support for classroom practitioners as well as holding the potential to inform debates, research and policy in this area. A Special Issue dedicated to social science education is rare, so at the outset of this introduction, we examine the questions - why social sciences? and why now?
At the outset of the 21st century, the world faces a unique set of interconnected ecological, economic, and social challenges. Social science educators are charged with the task of helping their students to make sense of these complex social challenges, and at the same time enabling them to respond as critical, active and informed citizens. Ironically, it appears that, while these issues have arguably become more complex and pressing in recent years, the social sciences face an increasingly marginal position in the curriculum. Priority in many schools is now given to numeracy and literacy and, at tertiary level, a funding preference for the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is emerging both in New Zealand and internationally.
Yet, in the face of this, the social sciences still have a unique role to play in society. It is through the social sciences that young people will gain knowledge about the significance of the past, and how society operates today and through a variety of social science disciplines they will gain skills that enable them to scrutinise the complex interplay of social, geographic, political and economic forces upon people's decisions, actions and perspectives. It is only by studying people in society and all their complexities, contradictions and conflicts that young people can become better equipped to participate in the world as citizens. Meyer (1998) suggests that "because it is contentious, social [sciences] gives us the ideal set of circumstances for developing young people who are critical thinkers and responsible decision-makers" (p. i). However, wading into the messiness of society and educating young people to negotiate the complexity of contemporary issues is no mean challenge. This is why educators need a growing research base to inform their teaching and to support the development of knowledge, skills and dispositions in the social sciences. As such, it is timely to profile research that sheds light on how social science educators are responding to some of the significant curriculum and pedagogical issues in social sciences education in the early decades of the 21st century - the goal of this Special Issue.
The Special Issue begins with a focus on 21st century learning in the context of social science curricula. Jane Abbiss examines the pervasive rhetoric of 21st century learning that has emerged in schools, policy and literature in recent years. Whilst recognising the opportunities of '21st century learning', she also gives a cautionary message about the continuing need for disciplinary knowledge and a focus on social justice in these 'new' times. This is followed by a paper by John Morgan which enquires into the 'future-focus' of the New Zealand social studies curriculum - just what does this mean to teachers, and what kind of future is envisaged? A further element of 21st century teaching and learning is the growing provision of 'best evidence' research to support 'best practice' for teachers, especially in light of increasingly culturally diverse and pluralistic classrooms. …