“Humanitas, Quo Vadis?”
At SNC, Humanities and Social Sciences teachers implement strategies throughout Years 7 to 12 through technology, hands-on learning activities and real-life case scenarios to engage students in this area of study so important for the future of our society and community.
When possible, students are given learning opportunities beyond the classroom – such as group-activities, excursions, incursions and community commemorations. This is a great achievement for a school, that should not be given for granted.
Here, SNC HASS teacher Dr Alberto Runco (pictured far right with students on a tour to Italy in 2019), provides a summary of the learning area in 2019, as he poses the question: “Humanities, where are you going?”.
As in previous years, in 2019 the Year 7 to 10 levels average results in Economics (Term 1) Geography (Term 2) and History (Term 3) have been sufficiently achieved or above. However, in the Civics and Citizenship Unit students often struggle more, and the Year level average is lowered. Academic debate on the reasons behind this are on-going: probably affected by being taught at the end of year, with students’ mindset understandably less receptive for many; or maybe because there is less effective teaching time during Term 4. At the end of the day, such debate is far from being solved, so it is quite important for us to be aware that this trend is not only at St Norbert College. In the 2017 Global Democracy Index Australia ranked eighth in the world – not a bad score by any means – but another report, released in December, found that fewer Australians have trust in their democracy. This may help to contextualise an evident change in the approach of Australians (and their children) towards Civics & Citizenship. According to a report by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, satisfaction with the way democracy works in Australia has fallen significantly over the last decade:
- In 2007, 86 per cent of voters were satisfied with Australia’s democracy, but
- that figure dropped to 72 per cent by 2010, and then
- it went into freefall from 2013, plummeting to 41 per cetn between 2013 and 2018.
The most recent National Assessment Program on Civics and Citizenship report, which is used to measure students’ knowledge of government, judiciary and democratic processes found that just 55% of Year 6 Australian students achieved at or above the standard. For our College this means that when we start teaching this subject in Year 7, we should not give for granted the level of course content students are expected to be, and possibly teachers start the academic year with an informal assessment of the Year 7 class average undersetting of the humanities basics. Furthermore, according to the University of Canberra, the rate of Year 10 students attaining sufficient standards was just 38 per cent – the lowest result on record. While at SNC results are more comforting, the Civics and Citizenship curriculum is indeed the one within the HASS that show lowest average results. However, this does not imply that SNC students are not interested in political or juridical pathways, and in fact the Year 11 Politics and Law General will run from 2020.
While maintaining high standards of teaching and learning, as evident in the consistent results achieved with ATAR results in the past few years, from 2020 both Senior School both Geography and History courses will not run at SNC due to numbers dropping. This does not mean that they will not return in the future, but unfortunately it seems at the moment SNC is reflecting a general trend evident across both our State and Australia: a deflation of students choosing Humanities literacy-based subjects in Senior School.
In 2020, the Year 11 Politics and Law General course will run for the first time at SNC. Having a General course will provide Year 10 students with the possibility to select a subject relevant to their career pathways and useful to their own growth as individuals. According to Southern Cross University: “If you imagine doing business without any legal means to protect your best interests, you’ll understand why the rule of law is important to business. The rule of law gives everyone a framework for how to act and operate. This course will allow students to develop their communication, decision-making, conflict resolution and leadership skills, learning to appreciate the insights and perspectives of others. Welcome to SNC, Politics and Law!
Despite its relevance not only in regard to sustainability and environmental issues, but also to professional outcomes and technological nature, Geography has shown a steady decline in number of students selecting it nationwide. A possible explanation may be seen in the scepticism/unawareness of its usefulness in future careers as perceived, generally speaking, by families and students. Such ‘unclear role’, however, can and should be seen as the strength of this subject. The Theory of Reflexivity is used to consider whether Geography is understood to be enabled or constrained within the HASS Learning Area or within the subject grouping of STEM. However, exploring the enabling and/or constraining influences to understand where Geography is situated amongst other subjects is probably not the answer to respond to the national trend that has been taken form throughout the past decade. Ultimately, it can be concluded that Geography is both enabled and constrained within HASS and STEM, a bridge between the two. The future of Geography stands on its pedagogical versatility and technology based.
History is showing similar trends across Australia. Martin, in “Debating History in the Australia Curriculum: A Clash of Paradigms?” (2016) argues that a factor that probably has affected the development and implementation of the History curriculum is the excessive focus on the content, rather than on organising resources and optimising strategies more effectively for schools. Cyclically, History becomes a point of political and public contention defined by the clash of two approaches:
- The ‘heritage’ paradigm
Tending to be biased in its purpose of persuasion, it seeks to educate and reaffirm certain narratives about the nation’s past in order to cultivate a “shared identity and sense of civic duty”.
- The ‘disciplinary’ paradigm.
Expose and examine myriad perspectives of the past, with the purpose of interpreting and understanding longer term solutions to push the human community into the future.
Although the heritage approach is still important in relaying the past to students, the disciplinary paradigm rather “encourages critical examination of various narratives in the pursuit of such explanations”. At SNC, Year 7 to 10 classes program are following disciplinary paradigm, while keeping ‘heritage’ as prominent aspects of our community commemorations (NAIDOC Week, ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day) as well as highlighting it when relevant to the content taught in class. It will be a priority of our Learning Area to continue promoting both Geography and History as optimal subjects for several future academic pathways. The relevance and usefulness of these subject to the future careers and living standards of our students are evident and extensive. If, as a nation, we are not effectively educating students in these issues, the kind of society we want our students to live in, and the kind of people we want them to be is directly impacted.
In 2020 Economics will continue to be the largest Humanities subject in terms of Senior School students’ numbers, despite a slight decrease compared to the start of 2018. It is clear that ECO remains a major Senior School subject of study at St Norbert College, as it provides crucial skills for many of the pathways that students are interested to follow. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publication “Trends Shaping Education 2019” notes that since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 highlighted the extent of global connectedness of the world economies, it is evident school students need to be economically and financially aware. Education is key to students understanding how shifting economic power towards Asian countries, particularly China and India, affects jobs and wages in their own countries. Similarly, education has a significant role in helping students understand interdependence in global marketplaces and global consumption patterns including their own.
Year 11 and 12 Accounting and Finance will run again in 2020, proving to be a continued HASS preference amongst the Senior School student body. Students have developed an understanding of the systems and processes through which financial practices and decision making are carried out, as well as the ethical, social and environmental issues involved. As business-related course, numeracy is crucial which is why, for Year 10 subject selection, it is the only HASS subject with a MER also based on Maths results. At SNC there is the opportunity in Year 10 to select Accounting and Finance as elective, offering students the opportunity to get a broad understanding of the SS requirements. Students continued interest in this subject is often paired with Economics.
Professor Murray Print, in “STEM, HASS and the Australian curriculum: The Case for Active, Informed and Critical Citizens” (2014) stated that STEM and HASS should continue to work and progress together through a continued debate. This will ultimately offer students the best avenues for well-rounded learning experiences that go towards achieving the goals that Australia has identified in the 2008 Melbourne Declaration as being of greatest significance.
According to Dr Lambert from the Australian College of Educators, “the importance of a robust, diverse and flexible education system, and more specifically curriculum, cannot be overstated in order to ensure Australian learners have the best opportunities to develop competencies (as knowledge, skills, attitudes and values) they will need not simply to survive but live and thrive in the complex and constantly changing World we have created for them”. At the same time in is important to consider the approach of parents/guardians towards the professional outcomes of academic pathways, at times influencing students’ engagement in subjects, therefore subject selection in Year 10.
It may be a surprise to many that MIT, the number one university in the world (QS Top Universities 2018) is also the ultimate world leader in STEM education, and is ranked number two world-wide, in facilitating a well-rounded humanities education. Every undergraduate student at MIT, must enrol in eight humanities subjects, in order to graduate. This accumulates to one quarter of a student’s classes. There is an integration of both disciplines in all subjects, for example designing and engineering a printing press as part of a history module about the Renaissance Era.
The ‘why’ to the MIT success formula is embedded in science and disseminated through the humanities. According to Hikaru Takeuchi (2014) in a study of brain structures of students
- Studying sciences: significantly larger regional grey matter volume around the medial prefrontal cortex.
- Studying humanities: significantly larger regional white matter volume, concentrated around the right hippocampus.
This can be explained by the phenomenon where overlearning in a particular area or discipline, can create the Einstellung Effect as known by neurobiologists. ‘Einstellung’ comes from the German language and translates to ‘fixed mindset’, due to embedded and seemingly ‘overused’ neural connections. This phenomenon dictates the way one approaches and perceives a problem and the manner in which the solution is derived. Familiar neural pathways are usually undertaken to the detriment of exploring or recognising new and innovative options. While entrenched neural pathways are relatively prompt, and solutions possibly quick, the Einstellung Effect creates a ‘road block’ to evolution of new ideas that at times can be more effective.
How can we prevent our human inclination to default to the mechanized Einstellung Effect? Students require, a broad education, with a balance of humanities and STEM learning opportunities, encouraged and valued equally and most importantly not separately. In a greater design for our students, HASS need to be considered as an integral component to technological development, not after, not before and not in isolation from the STEM.
Lucy Vogel (Melbourne’s Girls College, Victoria): “The equal split was actually unintentional, but my choices were strategic and very carefully chosen. Having a limit of six subjects in Year 11 was difficult. I have a passion for learning, so spreading myself amongst the two fields, as some people see it, was easy. The unintended benefit for me is immeasurable. I have chosen an array of subjects that will afford me a ‘full education’. As a student, flexibility in learning style will be and is already a strength. There is a clear link between the humanities and scientific innovation and as a global citizen, there is no clear divide between these disciplines, like many tend to believe.”
Aware, thoughtful, critical thinking, especially in a fast and multi-directional age of social media, will constitute the opportunity for the next generations to be good citizen prepared for all good works.
_ (Dr Alberto Runco, 2019)