Christine Harris

Concern that social decision-making skills may not develop in sequential stages for many primary school students sparked interest in exploring social decision-making data from the 1997 and the 2001 NEMP assessments of social studies. Social decision-making is about students developing the necessary skills to address problems they might encounter in their daily lives. It involves a degree of critical thinking that needs to be taught to students and not just assumed that it will occur as part of cognitive development. This study focused on the ability of Year 4 and Year 8 children participating in NEMP to perform three skills defined in the New Zealand Social Studies Curriculum as achievement indicators for social decision-making. These were identifying a problem/issue, suggesting solutions, and deciding on the best solution.

From the 44 NEMP social studies tasks showing some evidence of social decision-making skills, four tasks were identified that provided equal opportunity for the three skills to be evident. The tasks were ‘We Need a Leader’, ‘Tree Troubles’, ‘Saikaloni’, and ‘Playground’. Videotaped recordings of 200 children (50 per task), randomly selected from all students tested during 1997 and 2001, as they worked on these tasks, were then examined. The performances of the Year 4 and Year 8 children and the performances of the children tested in 1997 and those tested in 2001 were then compared.

• Across the two age levels and year spans, the skill the children were most proficient at was suggesting a possible action or solution, with 70% of students able to do this. Only 40% were able to decide on an appropriate action.

• Overall, the Year 8 students were better than the Year 4 students at the three skills. This was particularly so for the decision-making aspect of the process.
  • Over the four years, the Year 4 students showed an increase in skill achievement, while the Year 8 students showed a slight decrease.

• The skill achievement of the 2001 Year 4 students was better than that of their 1997 counterparts. The achievement of the 2001 Year 8 students was slightly poorer than that of the 1997 Year 8 students.

• The results indicate that while social decision-making skills increase steadily with age and time, deciding a solution is the skill where students make slowest progress, probably because it requires more higher order thinking.

• There needs to be a stronger focus on decision-making at all levels of the social studies curriculum.

• Social studies programmes should provide opportunities for students to work in real situations that are relevant to their environment and their chronological age. For example, an appropriate scenario at Level 1 might be: “What if no one fed the fish in the class aquarium? How can we make sure that the fish are always fed?’

  • There is a case for more in-depth as opposed to breadth of coverage of social studies topics across the five strands.

• Micro-teaching should focus on teaching the skills of social decision-making as separate entities.

• Teachers’ pre- and in-service programmes should focus on strategies that enable teachers to teach social decision-making skills more effectively.

• Teaching children the types of thinking skills that enable them to participate in social decision-making (e.g., how to establish criteria for judging the merits of various solutions to a problem) would provide some skill consolidation and extension in this area.


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