What’s the point of studying social sciences?

By Rose Langridge – English and History Teacher, High School

History is about analyzing the past. It is never finished. The way we remember things over time changes and the things that are really important to us are not always important to the people around us. Ᾱkonga (students) navigate their way through a full history and do not just engage with the good. We include many voices in the narrative of history and we discuss which voices dominate and which voices are left out. Ᾱkonga learn to find empathy for people from the past and also how to critically evaluate the world the way it was in the past.

In senior social studies the emphasis is on now and the future. How can we change the world and solve its ‘wicked’ problems? A ‘wicked’ problem is a social or cultural problem that is either difficult or impossible to solve. There is no template to follow when tackling a wicked problem, although history may provide a guide. In the words of Mark Sheehan a senior lecturer at Victoria University, “knowing about the past is the business of informed citizens”.

Maria Montessori spoke in the same way with the world in turmoil in 1948. She saw the importance of adolescents understanding the government and said that, “It is necessary that the human personality should be prepared for the unforeseen, not only for the conditions that can be anticipated by prudence and foresight … but should develop at the same time the power of adapting itself quickly and easily”. This is the aim of the social sciences, to guide the adolescent and give them the tools to adapt to the world around them.

Most social problems such as political instability, poverty, disease and famine are wicked because they cannot be ‘fixed’. These wicked problems can be seen as happening somewhere else. Whilst the ākonga at Wā Ora are in the lucky position to help others, there are wicked problems that they will face as they leave school – climate change, global youth unemployment, growing social inequality and battling multinational and voter suppression, just to name a few.

And this is also important in the workforce. Managers around the world, when quizzed, said the main thing they were looking for in a prospective employee was someone who can solve unstructured problems with strong interpersonal skills.

We can help ākonga learn how to be designers of change. Though they may not fix the problems, they can indeed mitigate the negative consequences of these problems. In a time when the pursuit of happiness is such a fundamental part of people’s expectations of the world, learning about the problems of the world and engaging in how to help should be a fundamental part of education. We need to empower ākonga to ask difficult questions and to find ways to develop skills to become social change makers.