Social Sciences and '21St Century Education' in Schools: Opportunities and Challenges

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Abstract

Social sciences education in Aotearoa New Zealand schools takes place within broader educational and discourse contexts, including discourses of '21st century education'. This paper explores discourses relating to 21st century education and asks how an understanding of these might inform thinking about social sciences education in New Zealand schools. It is argued that alignment of social sciences education with particular 21st century education discourses provides transformative opportunities for social sciences education. However, it may also present challenges related to the relevance of social sciences education and tensions between the development of disciplinary knowledge and generic skills support in social sciences teaching and learning.

Keywords: 21st century education; 21st century learning; social sciences education; discourses.

Introduction

The interconnected discourses of '21st century education', '21st century learning' and '21st century schooling' are pervasive in educational policy, talk and literature. These terms have become catchphrases that are variously sustained and drawn on to indicate a futures focus for education, provide a rationale for particular education policies, support claims for the teaching of specific subjects or integrated curricula, and to prove the efficacy of different pedagogies. This paper is an exploration of interconnected 21st century education discourses and how they are reflected in literature and discussions pertaining broadly to social sciences education and, more specifically, in relation to the New Zealand curriculum for social sciences. The intention is to place social sciences education in the broader context of discourses of 21st century education and to examine the implications for social sciences education in Aotearoa New Zealand schools.

Discourses are conceptualised in the Foucauldian sense of systems of representation or sets of concepts, beliefs and practices that define and influence thinking on an issue. Discourses are understood to establish taken-for-granted 'truths' and construct limits of acceptable truth by confirming some assertions as truths and excluding others (Graham, 2011). Foucault spoke of regimes of truth; that is, of truth that is "linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it" (Rabinow, 1984, p. 74). This notion highlights the relatedness of historical, social and political context and knowledge construction. Different, related and contradictory discourses may co-exist; there is no simple 'truth' about an issue.

In focusing on discourses of 21st century education, though, the intention is not to collapse everything into discourse and language and to ignore social structures and lived realities. Rather, a critical realist position is taken, similar to that articulated by Clegg (2001), which recognises both the discursive and structural. In societies where computers and information and communication technology (ICT) are ubiquitous and 21st century education is intimately connected with technological knowledge and competence, there is a material reality that makes particular educational practices possible. This is not to say, though, that particular relationships and schooling practices are technologically determined. Rather, people's relationships with ICT and particular schooling practices are understood to be both discursively and structurally produced. The potency of discourse is recognised, but this is located with structures of power and policy arrangement that may make it more or less easy for individuals to contest particular meanings about 21st century education.

At a time when New Zealand government education policy is producing and sustaining regimes of truth that are increasingly focused on the construction of 21st century education, it seems opportune to critically explore the position and value of social sciences education in schools and how this is situated vis-à-vis 21st century education discourses. …