Literacy, numeracy, information computer technologies and the explicit teaching model have been central to the education system in many Australian schools, particularly over the last couple of years. Teachers are expected to manage these very important areas of practice. They are easily measured with ample qualitative data.

Simultaneously with family and cultural influences, students begin to develop their own personal values, build relationships and develop personal choices and interests. Teachers have the valuable opportunity to elicit students’ own passions, social justice interests and help establish their own philosophical and ethical values through their teaching and through learning units and activities.

These intangible factors are more difficult to measure but are just as important for teachers to facilitate, as students move through upper primary school to a secondary school setting. 

One way students develop their own moral compass is through social platforms, the online materials they consume and the accounts they follow. Young activist or hashtag campaigners are becoming younger and younger. Why can’t young people voice their opinions? How should schools accommodate this? 

Voicing your opinion, taking the lead and showing concern for social issues in school was once reserved strictly for the school representative council, junior school council, sustainability team or other formal committees, often set up by schools and run by teachers for causes or reasons dictated at the discretion of the school.

These forums had student representation and the purpose of these roles was usually for facilitating small changes to the school or school grounds, or for making minor decisions such as selecting an organisation to receive the proceeds of a free dress day. 

Committees like this still exist in schools but with technological advancements and online forums such as Facebook and Twitter, wider issues are becoming important in schools. Being active online is another platform to voice your own thoughts, views and opinion and has consequently taken on its own dimension.

Although they are primarily social platforms, they are also spaces for students, teachers, parents, friends and families to ‘tweet’, ‘post’, ‘like’ and ‘share’ information. Ethical and philosophical issues are discussed, and spill over to become a narrative of the classroom and family discussion. It is not unusual for a school to use these as official school platforms for coursework too.

The Humanist Society of Victoria taught ethical understanding to some state primary schools during 2014 and 2015. The organisation initiated a trial introduction of ethic lessons, called Community of Ethical Inquiry which helped form the 2015 report titled Bringing Ethical Understanding to Primary Schools.

As demonstrated in three upper primary schools in Victoria, and as reported in The Age newspaper on October 1, 2015 “some of the big questions Year 5 and 6 students have been tackling at three Melbourne primary schools’ include ‘should drug smugglers be executed? Is it OK to lie, and what is love?’” It’s no wonder that ethics will be explicitly taught as a component of the new Victorian curriculum, released in 2015 by the Department of Education and Training (yet to be implemented in schools).

Night of the Notables is another project-based learning task that is student oriented and directed. Students select a notable character that may or may not be famous for their life or work. Through a number of mediums including research carried out through the internet, they develop their own project.

Over a series of weeks, students create a written or electronic project that they can   showcase to their community. Some design web pages, type their research and others create visual displays. It can be successfully run across a wide range of cohorts, from senior primary to middle high.

It originally began in the late 1990s for gifted and talent students and has since been used as a program to benefit entire cohorts. The rationale, as written by Greg Smith, says ,“The program aims to engender identification with the chosen notable. The dynamic is that increased knowledge will lead to empathy with that chosen person. A second intended result is to increase self-knowledge within the student and so focus his or her energies to set goals for achievement in the real world. A third is the attainment of life long research and communication skills. Students attain these goals according to their needs, capacities and commitment. With this in-built elasticity, the program has been successfully adapted for use by whole cohorts”.

Smith, who wrote Our Gifted Children and Equity, Elites and Eminence, suggested “Night of the Notables is an exemplary program on the lives of the eminent and famous for gifted and talented boys and girls for use in schools. In it, many optimal features of gifted education (demanding research skills, longer time spans, deeper studies, wider research, flexible pacing, integrate study across the subjects, advanced communication skills, personal creativity) are featured”.

Students are provided parameters such as time frame but otherwise, they can present and research at their own pace with the assistance of a teacher and are encouraged to work with their own learning style in mind. They select and research their own notable individual which may include notable characters who campaigned for change or altered the course of society through their work, such as Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa or Coco Chanel. As students develop an interest in notable characters, it often sparks interest in other areas too.

A recently released book titled A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara covers a range of social, cultural and environmental issues. The book provides a gentle introduction to the concepts of a range of social justice issues.  On the website,  it describes the book as “an ABC board book for the next generation of progressives: Families that want their kids to grow up in a space that is unapologetic about activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights, and so on”.

It is a multicultural book suitable for all and touches on a range of social, cultural and ethical issues and is available in a number of languages. One way younger students learn about phonics is through words and objects that they are familiar with. An example of this is the phonics song ‘A is for apple, B is for ball’ but older students may like the relevance of a non-fiction alphabet-related text that is about the community that themselves, their parents, family and friends are a part of.

There are a number of not-for-profit organisations that work with students to develop and implement their own self-directed learning. The environmental organisation Kids Teaching Kids does just that. It allows kids to teach other students and empower them to direct their own learning.

With teacher guidance and input, students prepare a workshop for other students. It might be for their year level or school, or students might participate in one of the in-demand conferences such as the 2016 Melbourne Kids Teaching Kids Conference. It is an excellent example of an organisation that provides teachers and students with a workshop toolkit to run environmental sessions for kids. The workshop toolkit is available online for teachers. 

As is stated on the website, the organisation “promotes positive wellbeing and helps build resilience in young people. It raises awareness and drives action on local and global environmental issues, bringing communities together to solve common challenges and help the next generation of leaders who will take collective responsibility for our future”.

The organisation’s ethos has been recognised with numerous Australian awards, including the 2012 – Telstra Australia Business Awards and News Limited Micro-Business Award. 

Teachers can use an inquiry topic or philosophical debate and link a final action to the final learning task. An example of this was run by three graduate teachers at a Melbourne-based public primary school for a Grade 2 cohort. For their inquiry unit on ‘Water’ the students learnt about the chemical composition of water, the lack of access to fresh water worldwide and reasons why the world needs water.

To culminate their learning, the teachers organised a walk to the Yarra River with the entire year level (with the assistance of parent helpers). Parents, teachers and friends sponsored their children and more than $2000 was raised that went directly to a local organisation.

Civic engagement or social or political activism goes well beyond the narrow ‘60s and ‘70s stereotypes of protests and signing petitions, a landscape which has often been dominated by adults.  Brian Martin, writer of the Encyclopaedia of Activism and Social Justice Activism, says it is ‘action on behalf of a cause, action that goes beyond what is conventional or routine’ and ‘the cause might be women’s rights, opposition to a factory, or world peace’.

More specifically, Sandor Vegh divides online activism into three main categories which include ‘awareness and advocacy, organisation and mobilisation and   action and reaction’ all which can occur directly through social platforms. 

Schools are progressively acting on the learning and realisations and integrating them into the curriculum. Students learn about world issues through debates, researching projects and inquiry units. They are introduced to a wide variety of social issues and they must consider their own thoughts and opinions.

Students often have to articulate and write about them with issues and current affairs in English classes. In the classroom, students are introduced to a variety of different reading materials and study units to discover and learn and draw their own conclusions.

Students in Prep can learn the basic structure of a persuasive text and argue why trees ‘should or shouldn’t be cut down’ or argue ‘why school kids should have longer playtime’. Students in primary school or high school may research a topic in a specialist science filed or inquiry unit. School projects are another way students self-direct their learning and research a specific area of interest to them.

Students learn to make their own choices and discover what they are passionate about. It is an important foundation for students to discover what their interests are.

Recently, Victorian branch Australian Education Union president Meredith Peace again commented on the ‘crowded curriculum’ that has plagued teaching for close to two decades, a wider issue that was also highlighted in the ‘93 Moneghetti Report.

What are teachers to do, how and where do they draw the line? How can they move beyond literacy and numeracy? If teachers want to broaden their horizons beyond the curriculum, they can start by downloading resources, curriculum materials and lessons plans that relate to an excursion or inquiry unit of the curriculum.

From there, there may be wider issues for students to focus on or become interested in, in the future. Students could fundraise for a specific cause or can educate other students, raise awareness and create actions as a result of the learning that has occurred.