Middle school social sciences : exploring teachers’ conceptions of essential knowledge
Author(s)Tambyah, Mallihai M.
KeywordsAustralian curriculum, curriculum makers, Dewey, humanities, knowledge base for teaching, middle years, phenomenography, Shulman, social sciences, studies of society and environment (SOSE), teachers’ knowledge
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AbstractThis study examines teachers’ conceptions of essential knowledge in the humanities and social sciences, commonly referred to as "social education", in the middle years of schooling. Social education has long been a highly contested area of the curriculum in Australia. In Queensland, social education comprises the integrated learning area of Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE). However, the new Australian Curriculum marks a return to discipline-based study of history and geography. This phenomenographic study addresses a perceived lack of understanding in the current research literature in Australia of the nature of middle school teachers’ professional knowledge for teaching the social sciences. Teachers are conceptualised in this study as curriculum makers in the classroom and, as such, their conceptions of essential knowledge are significant. Shulman’s (1986, 1987) theory of teachers’ knowledge forms the theoretical foundation of the study, which is contextualised in Federal and State education policies and the literature on the middle phase of schooling. Transcripts of interviews conducted with a group of thirty-one Queensland middle school teachers of SOSE were subjected to phenomenographic analysis, revealing seven qualitatively different categories of description. Essential aspects of knowledge for social education emerging from the study were: (1) discipline-based knowledge; (2) curriculum knowledge; (3) knowledge derived from teaching experience; (4) knowledge of middle years learners; (5) knowledge of integration; (6) knowledge of current affairs; and (7) knowledge invested in teacher identity. The three dimensions of variation that linked and differentiated the categories were: (1) content; (2) inquiry learning; and (3) teacher autonomy. These findings are presented as an outcome space where the categories are grouped as knowledge of the learning area, knowledge of contexts and knowledge of self as teacher. The results of the study suggest that social education teachers’ identity and knowledge of self are critical aspects of their knowledge as curriculum makers. The results illustrate that the professional and personal domains intersect, extending Shulman’s (1986, 1987) original theorisation of teachers’ knowledge into the personal arena. Further, middle years teachers’ conceptions of essential knowledge reveal a practice-based theorisation of knowledge for social education that fits the goals of middle schooling. The research concludes that attention to teacher identity in teacher education and in-service professional development has considerable potential to grow teachers’ knowledge in the social sciences and enhance their capacity for school-based curriculum leadership.