Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Transcending the ethically silent space of New Zealand’s social studies curriculum

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posted on 2021-11-14, 11:41 authored by Milligan, Andrea

This is a largely theoretical thesis about social studies education in New Zealand. Its aim is to consider how learners’ ‘ethical decision-making and action’ (to paraphrase the curriculum) could be better supported by proposing a broad theoretical orientation to this curriculum requirement. It argues that although ethics is central to learners’ lives and to the purposes of social studies education, this has hitherto been minimally communicated and elucidated through New Zealand curriculum documentation. It takes the view that while providing pedagogical guidance to teachers is urgent and vital, theoretical considerations should be a first priority. The thesis begins by offering a partly stipulative definition for ethics and foregrounds the complexities of ethical decision-making and action in our everyday lives and in academic ethics. It then considers the relationship between ethics and the purposes of social studies education, and uses a form of content analysis to describe the curricular meanings that have been implicitly ascribed to ethics over time. It explores how the present New Zealand social studies curriculum is framed theoretically and what could be possible within this framing to better support learners to navigate in their ethical worlds. Three adjustments to the curriculum’s framing are proposed: social studies as issues-based education, as counter-socialisation, and as engagement with the philosophy of ethics. These are defended as a matter of social justice, and on the basis of their contribution to a range of social studies outcomes. The thesis then considers the theoretical underpinnings of these proposed adjustments in greater depth. It explores whether an ethically reflexive orientation would better support social studies learners’ ethical decision-making and action, through three analytic moves: charting reflexivity’s tropes in the social sciences and social theory literature, developing an understanding of ethical reflexivity, and questioning the work this concept could do in social studies education. The thesis argues that an ethically reflexive orientation is a theoretical space in the literature worthy of attention, not least because it maps onto the contemporary ethical space in which learners find themselves. The considerable challenges ahead for such an orientation are readily acknowledged, but the thesis finds within the literature, and from the perspectives of a small group of social studies teachers and learners, some optimism that a reflexive orientation could transcend the ethically silent space of New Zealand social studies education.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970113 Expanding Knowledge in Education

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Education


Neyland, Jim; Cornforth, Sue; Strathdee, Rob