Social Science Education: Perennial Challenges, Emerging Issues and Curriculum Change

By Gilbert, Rob | New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Social Science Education: Perennial Challenges, Emerging Issues and Curriculum Change


Gilbert, Rob, New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies


Introduction

It is in the nature of education that changing social contexts and approaches to knowledge produce new demands on schools, teachers and researchers, requiring continuing research, analysis, evaluation and debate. In no aspect of education is this more salient than in the development of the curriculum. This series of papers addresses key issues in the social sciences curriculum. It is rich with echoes of longstanding issues, but illustrates new ways of thinking about them which offer valuable possibilities for improving curricula and teaching.

This is important at a time when, as Morgan (this issue) notes, educational discussion has been more about pedagogy and strategies for effective learning rather than curriculum content or the conceptions of society upon which social science teaching is based. Mutch (this issue) points out that curriculum discussion in New Zealand (and, I would argue, elsewhere) has been more pragmatic than theoretical, leaving unasked the basic curriculum questions of what knowledge is worthwhile and most appropriate to the current and long term future needs of society. Both these authors show how curriculum policy changes with broader social and economic trends. The social science curriculum, in particular, has been overshadowed by national agendas, which, as a number of authors here observe, currently promote a largely economic agenda, and a generic skills approach to literacy, numeracy and technology, rather than the deeper learnings available in the discourses and concepts of knowledge fields. This paper is a response to some key issues raised in the foregoing articles. It is written from a perspective that sees social science education as central to the educational enterprise, making its curriculum theory, policy and practice crucial to enhancing students' lives as autonomous citizens in a democratic and just community. While the comments attempt to present a general perspective grounded in international research, they are also informed by recent experiences in the Australian curriculum.

Skills, knowledge and curriculum purposes

An important impetus to the revival of curriculum questions has been the development of the twenty-first century (C21) skills movement. In this volume, Abbiss sees the adoption of C21 skills rhetoric as problematic, since it glosses over the contestable nature of notions of civic and financial literacy, driven as it is by economic goals relating to human capital, rather than broader educational goals, such as citizenship education or the recognition of different perspectives on knowledge. This economic agenda has certainly been evident in the Australian move to C21 skills, including the following statement, one of whose authors is the Director of the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority.

Economic growth depends on a synergy between new knowledge and human capital.... The information-based role of education in developing twenty-first century skills in an information or knowledge economy has become indisputable. (Griffin, Care, & McGaw, 2012, p. 4)

According to this argument, analyses of emerging global economic, social and technological change point to the need for a more dynamic, instrumental and engaged curriculum than the traditional subject based curriculum has generally provided (Cisco Systems, 2010). The degree of change advocated varies, but a typical view is that by Binkley et al. (2012, p. 18) who argue that:

[N]ew standards for what students should be able to do must replace the basic skills and knowledge expectations of the past. To meet this challenge, schools must be transformed in ways that will enable students to acquire the sophisticated thinking, flexible problem solving, and collaboration and communication skills they will need to be successful in work and life.

Some authors have tried to dissolve conflicts often seen between C21 skills and the critical understanding associated with deep learning. …

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