How can we teach for transformative disciplinary learning in history and social studies in a high-autonomy curriculum?

Dr Mark Sheehan and Dr Bronwyn Wood, Victoria University of Wellington

New Zealand’s 2007 curriculum reform has received international attention for its high level of curricular autonomy, learner-centred ideologies and adoption of 21st-century skills, competencies and procedural learning (Priestley & Sinnema, 2014). In this blog post, we reflect on our recent article in the Curriculum Journal (Wood & Sheehan) which identifies a number of challenges to this ‘new curriculum’ approach.

What we explored

Our article focused on the strategies, practices and processes that support (or undermine) disciplinary learning in the social sciences in the context of a curriculum model with little clear direction or guidance on content choice for teachers. The question of what transformative disciplinary learning looks like in history and social studies has taken on some urgency in New Zealand given recent initiatives such as a compulsory history curriculum (which includes Māori perspectives on the past [Ahern & Hipkins, 2019]) and the reshaping of the qualifications system to give greater priority to disciplinary knowledge (Kōrero Mātauranga, n.d.).

An immediate challenge for us was how to conceptualise deep, disciplinary learning in history and social studies, given that defining ‘what counts’ for disciplinary learning has been difficult in both of these subjects. While history and social studies differ in purpose and approach, in the paper we develop a framework to convey the idea of a transformative disciplinary approach to history and social studies curricula. This approach goes beyond simply transmitting ideas and involves a commitment to a more just, equal and inclusive society and the development of active, critical citizens. We used this framework to evaluate experiences of history and social studies learning in New Zealand classrooms.

What we found

Our research found that historical thinking approaches in history and social inquiry processes in social studies provided some coherence to developing research skills and understandings in these subjects. However, in the absence of any mandated content, such learning was potentially undermined by weak content choices (by teachers and students) and/or low levels of teacher guidance into effective contexts for deeper learning studies. In both subjects we found that significant weight was placed on student interest and student engagement, often at the expense of broader and deeper knowledge.

For history, weak choice of topics provided few opportunities for exposure to controversial issues or discussions on the contemporary implications of historical ideas (such as New Zealanders in a settler colonial society), thus reducing more transformative citizenship reflections and responses. In contrast, while social studies maintained a focus on democratic participation, unless there was a concerted focus on selecting effective content and developing in-depth content knowledge, the impact, significance and sustainability of students’ transformative disciplinary knowledge and engagements was similarly weakened.

Our analysis confirmed the significance of content selection when developing a curriculum that supports citizenship education and ‘opportunities for widening [students’] horizons, transforming their perspectives, and cultivating their moral sensitivity’ (Deng, 2018, p. 377). In the absence of effective content and knowledge choices, students could experience highly variable learning opportunities in history and social studies – with the end result a markedly unequal education. This is also an emerging concern for the new Welsh curriculum (Power et al., 2020).


In sum, while the competency-based, constructivist New Zealand curriculum has encouraged a great deal of freedom and teacher autonomy, far too little attention has been paid to the type of knowledge that might deepen students’ learning in social studies and history. In addition, the high-autonomy curriculum model relies on a highly trained professional teaching workforce able to select rich contexts for deep learning – yet in New Zealand, no resourcing or professional development has been given to do this in disciplinary subjects. What young people actually learn in history and social studies matters if their learning is to challenge assumptions and unconscious biases, and to equip them with the skills to tackle social issues that threaten our ability to live well together.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Transformative disciplinary learning in history and social studies: Lessons from a high autonomy curriculum in New Zealand’ by Bronwyn E. Wood and Mark Sheehan, published in the Curriculum Journal. The journal article has been made temporarily free-to-view to those without a subscription, courtesy of the publisher, Wiley. 

Cover image by 14995841 from Pixabay 

Dr Mark Sheehan is an Adjunct Research Fellow of Victoria University of Wellington. He has been involved in education matters since the 1980s as a teacher, lecturer, textbook writer, researcher, museum educator and curriculum designer. Mark conducts research on critical/historical thinking, boys’ education, the place of knowledge in 21st century curricula and the role of history in reconciliation (especially in regard to memory and remembrance).

Dr Bronwyn Wood is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Victoria University of Wellington. She has a background in social science education (geography and social studies) and textbook, curriculum and resource development in this area. Bronwyn researches in the fields of education policy, citizenship education, youth sociology, youth politics and geographies.

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