AFSSSE Discovering Democracy
Teacher Focus Group Project 1997-1998


  1. Introduction
  3. Activities
  4. Reports
  6. Implications
  7. Conclusion

The project forms part of the National Activities element of Discovering Democracy, the Commonwealth Government’s national programme of civics and citizenship education activities. AFSSSE has implemented civics and citizenship education focus groups for teachers across Australia through national professional associations and state/territory-based organisations of teachers with a focus on Curriculum Corporation teaching materials for the Discovering Democracy programme.

1.0 Introduction
The AFSSSE Discovering Democracy Teacher Focus Group project aimed to:

In August 1997, a management group consisting of the AFSSSE Chair, an AFSSSE nominee, and the appointed Project Officer was formed to co-ordinate the project. The management group reported regularly to the AFSSSE Board, DEETYA and Curriculum Corporation.

This paper provides a brief summary of the strategies used to achieve the aims. It also provides a brief description of issues identified.

The Australian Federation of Societies for Studies of Society and Environment (AFSSSE) is a federation of five existing national professional associations of teachers of social education, environmental education, history, geography and commerce/business education. It developed in response to decisions taken by the Commonwealth and state/territories to introduce Key Learning Areas.

3.0 Activities
During August 1997, the three AFSSSE officers organised meetings in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to gain immediate feedback on the overview of the units. These meetings were not part of the original proposal, but AFSSSE believed feedback from teachers was vital in the early part of the materials development project. DEETYA and Curriculum Corporation agreed to the meetings being conducted. The timing was crucial as writers were being briefed at Curriculum Corporation on work to be completed.

The management group identified key people from SOSE consortiums in all states and territories and worked with these co-ordinators to develop a strategy for evaluating the eighteen units of Discovering Democracy materials to be used in years 4 to 10. The subsequent meetings allowed teachers to provide constructive feedback on the Discovering Democracy units to Curriculum Corporation and DEETYA within strict timelines. In all states except New South Wales the designated professional association was a SOSE consortium. The co-ordinator was an executive member of the consortium or an employee of the executive, and a management fee was paid to each association. In New South Wales, the History teachers association accepted responsibility for organising the meeting.

The co-ordinators were provided with guidelines which outlined timelines, numbers of teachers, balance (with respect to employing authorities, primary and secondary teachers, professional association representation, teachers from project trial schools) and which stressed the need for participants to be practising class room teachers. A slight bias towards representation by History teachers was planned and achieved. Co-ordinators were also provided with documentation for collecting information on the units and the focus group process.

A total of 41 teachers attended the August meetings and 209 teachers attended the March/April meetings. This was slightly over the 230 target, but within budget. Other participants included representatives from Curriculum Corporation at all meetings, representatives from DEETYA at some meetings, and AFSSSE Board members or Project Officer at all meetings. The AFSSSE project aimed to assist states/territory subject associations, to provide them with a profile in relation to Discovering Democracy and the servicing of professional development needs of local teachers.

Eleven meetings were conducted. One meeting was held in each of the following state/territories: Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, ACT and Northern Territory. Two meetings were held in New South Wales and Victoria. Three meetings were held in Queensland, two in Brisbane and one in Townsville to allow teachers in more remote areas to attend. The implementation process developed and strengthened relationships between state/territory associations and AFSSSE.

4.0 Reports
As well as contractual reports provided to DEETYA, the following reports were circulated and some were placed on the AFSSSE web site.

Report on the Initial Teacher Focus Groups August 1997
Teachers worked in small groups depending on their teaching area (middle primary, upper primary, lower secondary, middle secondary). They were provided with a copy of the matrix outlining the content areas and relevant overviews of units of work. Annotated copies of these materials were provided to Curriculum Corporation immediately. Curriculum Corporation and DEETYA received a typed version of teacher comments within one week of each meeting being held.

Preliminary Summary Notes March-April 1998
These reports contained comments from teachers who reviewed the more extensive draft units.

Reports of the Teacher Focus Groups March-April 1998
Each state and territory co-ordinator provided a summary of teachers’ comments on the Discovering Democracy materials, the process used to gain information, and suggestions for future professional development when using the materials.

Practitioner reports
Five practitioners (three secondary and two primary) were provided with relevant units and were asked to comment on the appropriateness of each unit, the clarity and purpose of each unit, the content, the activities, the language level, and the resources.

Reports of the Affiliates of the History Teachers Assoc. Australia May 1998
To be certain feedback had been received from teachers who were expert in teaching history, each history teachers’ association was asked to write a report commenting on the Discovering Democracy units.

Professional Development Report June 1998
This report contains the views of the focus group participants, many of whom also represented subject associations. The report has been shared with state and territory intersystemic professional development committees funded by DEETYA, and has been placed on the AFSSSE website.

Evaluation Report
Teachers commented on the strategies used for this project. The information in the report substantiated the reliability of reporting. The project officer and an external consultant included information in the report which will assist AFSSSE in future similar projects.

Detailed comments can be found in the reports. Teachers welcomed the opportunity to respond to the draft material. However, concerns from teachers and professional associations centred on the suitability of the materials for the intended audience, the prescriptive nature of the materials, and implementation issues.

Respondents found the quality and appeal of the individual units varied significantly. A comment frequently expressed was that the materials, with some adaptation, could be really useful for senior classes. Literacy levels and assessment tasks were seen to be frequently beyond the intended age group audience.

Nature of the materials
It was felt some units did not reflect modern Australia, and minority groups sometimes seemed to be an afterthought, rather than part of the mainstream. Many teachers were concerned about what they perceived as an Anglo-centric outlook or tone in many units. It was suggested that heavy reliance on written communication skills could marginalise some students. Professional development activities seemed imperative given the specificity of terminology.

Trial teachers reported successful outcomes from students, but also stated students treated the trial seriously, and so persisted in their efforts to understand the materials despite the boringly repetitive nature of some of the materials. It was noted the time to complete the units appeared inadequate. The identification of key terms, skills and links in the teacher notes was commended and noted as being essential.

Implementation issues
The sequential nature of the materials and the reliance on prior knowledge led the teachers to perceive the materials as a ‘course’ rather than a resource from which to select. Prior knowledge therefore became an issue for those teachers wanting to use only parts of the materials. Many teachers, but especially history teachers, expressed a concern that the materials failed to recognise that history is about a process of inquiry. The notion of ‘democracy’ seemed to be prescriptive rather than investigative. Teachers suggested methodologies lacked variety, and that the materials needed a more student centred approach.

Teachers were not clear on how to include the materials given current curriculum design and expectations. Concerns were occasionally expressed about access to technology necessary for using some units.

The following quotes have been extracted from the report by the History Teachers Association South Australia, and the report by the Queensland History Teachers Association. Both quotes are representative of the responses generally.

If the units must proceed in their present form perhaps a general formula could be applied to reduce the amount of content, sharpen the focus and consider the students in terms of reading age, needs and interests. If the material does not engage students, teachers won’t use it more than once. If it does not look appealing, teachers won’t use it at all. HTASA

Underlying the whole collection of materials, there appears to be an assumption that students want to learn all about our political systems. The reality is that in the Lower and Middle Secondary school, many students have very little interest in politics and often do not want to learn anything about the political system or our political heritage. Exercising their political rights is not something they see as an immediate priority, no matter what adults might like to convince them of. It is, therefore, disappointing that there are so many sections of the materials which pay little attention to the very real need to catch students’ interests and use their own experiences as a starting point. QHTA

6.0 Implications
Teachers at the focus group meetings were asked to provide suggestions for future professional development activities as the materials are implemented. All groups described professional development as critical if the materials are to be used effectively.

The Executive Summary in the external Evaluation Report states:

The Evaluation Report also made the following recommendations:

The willingness of practitioners to be involved in this project suggests an opportunity and a need for AFSSSE to encourage and maintain this interest and commitment. Teachers, however, are also concerned that the Discovering Democracy materials may not be used to the extent intended because of insufficient time and resources for teachers to adapt the materials to local circumstances and become proficient in using the materials. Teachers will look to professional associations for professional development. It is abundantly clear that professional associations at state/territory and national levels need support to provide this. It is vitally important AFSSSS facilitates the flow of information about Discovering Democracy both in paper format and electronically. Each state/territory is about to embark on professional development activities and AFSSSE has a significant role to play in including professional associations in these activities, and sharing best practice at a national level.

7. Conclusion
The AFSSSE project has provided a forum for the views of expert practising teachers. Feedback to Curriculum Corporation and DEETYA has been timely and extensive. The focus group meetings also identified future professional development needs and established professional association networks so future sharing can occur as the materials are implemented.