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Why is the curriculum in Australian schools a political issue?

The curriculum in Australian schools is a highly contentious and political issue. As a consequence of the
recent introduction of the National Curriculum, the debate within the social sciences regarding the shift from
Studies of Society and the Environment (SOSE), which was introduced in South Australia less than 20 years
ago as one of the eight Key Learning Areas, to separate subjects of History and Geography, has been ignited
further. While proponents of both approaches agree that education should prepare students for the future,
there is a lack of consensus regarding how this should be achieved and what kind of preparation is necessary.
This essay will critically examine these two social science approaches in the context of lower secondary
schools in Australia and in the final paragraph, will identify the preferred method of teaching within this
discipline.

There is a long history of dispute regarding the humanities and social science curriculum, particularly in
relation to the content. While the goal of social education has always been positioned as providing what a
man will need to know in the future (Pendleton & Washborne, 1923, p.233), it is the what that is
differentiated within differing orientations of curriculum. The Australian education system is positioned within a
neoclassical ideology of curriculum, whereby the goal of education is to meet the needs of the marketplace
(Kemmis, Cole & Suggett, 1983, pp. 9-10). In contrast, a more progressive or socially critical ideology would
see that education is to prepare students to actively participate in all aspects of society and engage in lifelong
learning (Kemmis, Cole & Suggett, 1983, pp. 11-14). Curriculum ideology shapes curriculum organization, the
syllabus and the roles of teachers and students (Kemmis, Cole & Suggett, 1983).

In line with a progressive/ socially critical ideology, SOSE incorporates a range of disciplines including, but not
limited to, economics, geography, history, Aboriginal studies, Asian studies, legal studies, politics and social
studies (Department of Education & Childrens Services, DECS, 2009). Advocates for SOSE contend that
students will be prepared to deal with current issues and engage as active and informed global citizens
through examining such issues through these multiple disciplinary lenses (Henderson, 2005; Marsh, 2004;
Schultz, 2007; Tudball, 2007; Tudball & Knight, 2007). For example, contemporary issues such as
globalisation; climate change and natural disasters; and, terrorism cannot be viewed simply from
economic,geographical or political perspectives respectively. Rather, multiple disciplines contribute to

understanding in these topics. As will be discussed later, knowledge cannot be confined to specific disciplines
(Tudball, 2010).

However, others (e.g. Bolt, 2000; Donnelly cited in Henderson, 2005; Lidstone, 2000) argue that SOSE is too
politically-correct and does not provide students with the knowledge needed in the future. While Stewart
(2008) contends that the diverse content of SOSE does not help students understand the world in which they
live,

Lidstone (2000) goes as far as describing SOSE as a watered-down diet of two internationally

recognised subjects (p. 21). This interesting perspective suggests Lidstones (2000) philosophy regarding a
hierarchy of knowledge which is determined by international standards. In the international context, history
and geography are well-established fields of study. Opponents to SOSE maintain that for students to be
prepared for the global marketplace, education in Australia should reflect international trends and standards in
terms of subjects taught, academic rigour, accountability and national curriculum (Taylor, 2008; Yates &
Collins, 2000).

Interestingly, history and geography are seeing political resurgence within the secondary school curriculum as
consequence of concern regarding poor national identity, a perceived deficit in knowledge and comparative
international rankings of such knowledge (Harris-Hart, 2009). For example, the Canadian Council for
Geographic Education (n.d.) and Gilbert M Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education (n.d.) call for schools
to re-prioritise the teaching of geography because Canadians and Americans are falling behind in terms of
geographic literacy when compared to other nations. Several authors define such a deficit as a threat to the
country (e.g. Canadian Council for Geographic Education, n.d.; Winter, 2006) and decline in quality of life
(Gilbert M Grosvenor Center for Geographic Education, n.d.).

A similar justification for the national curriculums focus on Australian history was made by the Australian
government (Clark, 2004; Harris & Bateman, 2008, p. 25). It was proposed that both Australian-born and new
Australian (immigrants and refugees) students must have a strong understanding of Australias history as it is
synonymous with a national identity. This may be summarised in a question: how can a student be Australian
without having the facts about the nation? Again, such an approach reflects a specific underlying philosophy
regarding what knowledge is. Moreover, Klee (2002) puts forward that an understanding of history is
necessary for support and reassurance of current events.

Interestingly, the framing paper of the National Curriculum for History (National Curriculum Board, 2009)
identifies the disciplinary interactions within the social sciences. The authors suggest that in order to
understand history, students need knowledge of geography, institutional arrangements, material
circumstances and belief systems (p. 5). Similarly, Roberts (2008, p. 96) outlines the knowledge incorporated
in geography including economics, politics and culture and social studies. So it seems that while advocates
are promoting the study of separate subjects, they are overlooking the interdisciplinary nature of these fields.
As will be discussed below, such an argument justifying stand-alone subjects may be more reflective of
concern regarding professional identity of teachers and practitioners, rather than best meeting the needs of
students to understand and engage with the world in which they live.

The SOSE curriculum explicitly demonstrates interdisciplinary relationships of knowledge (Bradberry &
Reynolds, 2010; DECS, 2009), which, in turn, is the ideal approach within the middle school (Tambyah, 2006).
Beane (1991, p. 10) contends that the middle school curriculum should introduce students to a range of
disciplines rather than focus on specialised subjects; something which certainly occurs within science (Tudball
& Knight, 2007, p. 17). It is well established that increased numbers of students disengage from school during
the middle years. Bradberry and Reynolds (2010) emphasis the need for meaningful learning experiences for
adolescents.

Such learning experiences are possible through SOSE where students can develop

understanding to make sense of their lives and the world around them through relevant content and
productive pedagogies (Gilbert, 2011, p. 12).

Researchers (e.g. Harris-Hart, 2009; Melleuish cited in Harris & Bateman, 2008; Winter, 2006) suggest that
history and geography are not popular choices with students. Yet, Taylor (2008) blames SOSE for the demise
in enrolments in history and geography. He claims that in New South Wales where history and geography
remain as stand- alone subjects across the secondary school, enrolments in Year 12 have been maintained,
which is contrast to the decline noticed in states with SOSE. Such concern in relation to enrolments in the
hard sciences in senior schools is not evident within the literature. There are several possible explanations for
this disparity. First, these findings may be influenced by the neoclassical orientation, competitive academic
curriculum and consequential hierarchy of knowledge where the classics (hard sciences, English and
mathematics) take priority in the school timetable and overcrowded curriculum (Connell, 1998, p. 84).

Second, the reduced connection for students from SOSE to history and geography may reflect a lack of
student engagement with the specific disciplines. As SOSE is comprised of many disciplines, the content is
influenced by teacher choice. Thus, if a teacher lacks the expertise or passion for history or geography, and in
turn, chooses to focus on other disciplines, students may not connect with history and geography resulting in
lower enrolments in year 12 in these subjects.

Certainly, teacher specialisation and expertise is an issue within SOSE. In her study of subject content
knowledge of middle school teachers, Tambyah (2006) found that SOSE teachers have considerable
discretion in relation to the interpretation and implementation of learning outcomes including choice of
content and teaching methods. Furthermore, the wide content base within SOSE has implications for teacher
identity and professionalism (Lidstone, 2000; Tambyah, 2006). SOSE teachers may find it difficult to define
their specialisation or indeed may be seen as lacking expertise (Lidstone, 2000, p. 21). This bold statement
provides further evidence of the philosophy of knowledge being confined to disciplines. However with the
introduction of the national curriculum, there is a need for professional development of SOSE teachers,
particularly for geography and history (Reynolds, 2009; Schultz, 2007) as university training for pre-service
teachers has focused on SOSE rather than the specific disciplines (Halvorsen, 2009; Harris-Hart, 2009).

OBrien and Burgh (2001) concur with earlier suggestions that subject matter knowledge will influence content
and student learning. However, this is based on an assumption regarding the role of the teacher as the fount
of all knowledge which must be transferred to students. As Lane (2007) notes in his review of geography
students, there is an extensive range of knowledge and it is not possible to teach it all within the compulsory
years of education. Therefore, it is important for teachers to employ a constructivist approach to education and
focus on critical thinking and higher order skills so that students are empowered as independent learners to
actively seek, organise and apply their knowledge (Lane, 2007, p. 30)

When discussing the appropriate focus of a social science curriculum, Pendleton and Washbourne (1923, p.
233) suggested that decision-makers should examine what knowledge adults use in their daily lives. While the
authors were more oriented toward educating students in facts, their idea is warranted. Teachers today must
prepare students for an unknown future. Therefore it is important to acknowledge that like life, knowledge
cannot be compartmentalised as currently occurs within the subject-centred curriculum (Beane, 1991, p. 9).

Therefore, an interdisciplinary approach as offered through SOSE is the preferred strategy to meet the goals
of education. Students need a strong grounding in understanding the world and its interrelationships between
various systems, and the skills to critical think and construct their own knowledge. Certainly, the second goal
of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians to develop successful learners and
active and informed citizens (MCEETYA, 2008), is best achieved through an integrated approach in SOSE
rather than the prescriptive and discipline-specific National Curriculum.

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