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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 12, 2002
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The emergence of Asia: Development of studies of Asia in one Australian school

John Buchanan
University of Technology, Sydney
The need for an understanding of Asia has attracted increasing attention in Australia in recent years. One strategy in response to the need for greater Asia literacy has been the development of networks of Access Asia schools. The Asia Education Foundation (AEF) supports Access Asia schools in their efforts to increase and improve the Asia content in their curricula. This paper reports on the development of studies of Asia in one western Sydney primary school, which is a member of an Access Asia network. The project adopts a case study approach and attempts to provide comprehensive observations on the forces which drive and constrain the introduction of curricular change in this school. The study also features dialectic hermeneutic circles, seeking diverse opinions of various staff members, such as the Access Asia coordinator and the librarian, ascertaining factors such as the amount and availability of resources, and the attitudes of the school staff. In particular, the research pointed to the centrality of teacher practice in implementing change in schools, and the interplay between teachers and curriculum. It found that while some staff members have expended great energy in producing resources and encouraging others to undertake studies of Asia, the teaching of Asia related material in the school is somewhat sporadic.

Studies of Asia in Australia

The study of "the countries and environments of the region generally called 'Asia'" (Asia Education Foundation, 1998, p.2) has attracted increasing attention in Australia in recent years. In the words of Baumgart, Halse and Buchanan (1998, p.47) "The importance for Australians of understanding Asia can scarcely be overstated". It is reasonable to assert that Australia's geography, economy and demography all necessitate attention to Asia. This is taking place at a time when the world's attention is being increasingly directed towards Asia (FitzGerald, 1997), and when Australia is reassessing its position in the Asia-Pacific region. Asia literacy, then, can be seen in the context of a widening global education. Singh (1995, p.8) asserts that,
Studies of Asia may provide an opportunity to retool the curriculum, to enable students to construct new social networks, to see themselves as part of new border zones, to engage in new types of boundary crossings and to participate in new global relations.
FitzGerald (1991, p.21-22) describes Asia literacy, within the Australian context, as follows.
An Asia-literate person is one who at the end of schooling will know sufficient of the history, geography, politics, economics and culture of Asia so that they may: be simply well informed; be confident regional citizens, be 'at ease' in Asia; understand the dynamics of the region and in particular Australia's place in it; make informed decisions on their own behalf and through national decision-making processes to have a productive interaction with Asia.
Orton (1995) likens the study of a culture to that of a language, enabling the learner to negotiate with and through the target society, with its different set of meanings. Like language, though, culture is not static. Such a view interprets culture not as "a site of belonging", but "a process of transition and becoming" (Chambers, 1996: 53).

The concept of Asia is largely a western social and psychological construct (Said, 1987; Clarke, 1997). Understanding of another culture is likely to be compounded by essentialism, which according to Nozaki and Inokuchi (1996, p.73) "defends the 'essence'" of a culture, "rather than promoting a full knowledge of it", thereby sustaining shallow stereotypes and overlooking changes through time and space, in the search for a "single dominant paradigm" (Hooper, 1992, p.105). A pedagogy of Asia needs to identify the "multiple and contradictory" identities of other individuals, nations and regions (Nozaki & Inokuchi, 1996, p.74). It must recognise tensions and changes in other societies.

The rhetorical rationale for Australia's engagement with Asia is premised largely on commerce, as evidenced by titles such as Asian languages and Australia's economic future (Council of Australian Governments, 1994). In reality some prominent instances of Australia's engagement with Asia have been military in nature, and the recent conflict over East Timor has served to reinforce stereotypes on both sides.

For some time, state, territory and Federal governments have set about addressing the need for raising the 'Asia literacy' levels of Australian students (Asian Studies Council, 1988; Curriculum Corporation, 2001). The transition has not been uniformly smooth, however, and some government initiatives have featured an ambition unmatched by funds and strategies. While funding is neither the sole problem nor solution, disconcertingly low levels of Asia literacy among secondary school graduates in Australia have been identified (Hill & Thomas, 1998; Andresson, 1997).

Compounding this reluctance to embrace Asia, stated government policy has not always successfully negotiated the crossover into popular thinking and practice. Fry, Baumgart, Elliott and Martin (1995) note that the study of Asia in Australian schools has not fared well. It has largely been relegated to studies of languages and the social sciences. For a number of reasons, among them the 'crowded curriculum', an across-the-curriculum approach is a more effective way to immerse Australian students in the mosaic which is Asia (Fry et al., 1995; Curriculum Corporation, 2001; FitzGerald, 1997). For this to take place, both the curriculum and teachers need to be equipped and sufficiently flexible to facilitate the necessary changes.

The place of Asia in the Australian psyche is problematic (Singh, 1996, Rudd, 1996), and efforts to change traditional attitudes are likely to challenge long held views of a monolithic, hostile Asian 'other' (Broinowski, 1992; Mohanty, 1994). In the context of tertiary education, Malin (1999, p.1) notes that "prejudice and discrimination are not only very difficult concepts to teach; they are also very confronting ones to learn". She speaks of a trend towards national unity, with "notions of superiority and inferiority which characterised the previous racism ... being replaced by notions of the threat of 'aliens' (most commonly Asian) to the nation's social cohesion". She speaks of three stages in the 'journey' to freedom from prejudice. These are: denial and resistance (an unawareness of subliminal stereotyping, accompanied by criticism of the complaints of minority group members); disequilibrium (characterised by confusion, frustration, rationalisation, anger etc); transformation (acceptance of new attitudes, values and behaviours, and a recognition of systemic discrimination).

It can be argued that teachers are the linchpin of educational change (eg Hargreaves, 1994). Unless teachers understand and embrace government mandated policies, little change will be effected in the classroom. Halse (1996, p.5) warns that

there is a danger that the conceptual divide between Asia and Australia will be perpetuated through future generations if the perspectives of teachers are constrained by stereotyped preconceptions and understandings of Asian people, cultures and societies.

Teacher renewal and curricular change

Calls for a recognition of Australia's wider educational contexts are not new. The Auchmuty Report (Commonwealth of Australia, 1980) for example, refers to Australia's emerging multiculturalism, but makes few apparent references to Australia's place in the Asia Pacific region. Indeed, at the time, British and European settlers accounted for 96.8% of total immigration (p.14). Marsh (1997), however, highlights the contested nature of curriculum in the hands of federal and state government bodies. Moreover, as Goodson (1994, p.16) asserts, "curriculum is a social artifact"; just as government edicts do not inevitably lead to changes in popular thinking, neither do changes to the educational structure necessarily lead to new pedagogical attitudes (Hargreaves, 1994). Impediments to professional change in educational communities have been reported extensively in the literature. Responses to change include resistance (Schön, 1983), a regression to minimalism (Sikes, 1992) and to old behaviour patterns (Apple & Jungck, 1992). These factors are exacerbated by an ageing teacher profession (Dinham, 1991), the physical and psychological isolation of teachers (Giroux, 1991), increasing workloads and a decrease in the profession's esteem (Hargreaves, 1997). Further compounding this, professional development courses have at times adopted a deficit approach to teachers and their needs.

Potential frustrations accompany to any proposed change in educational practice and delivery. According to Noonan (2000, p.7S)

The outlook for progressive change at present seems rather bleak. The main stakeholders are at odds: an irritable government with a short fused parent constituency, seemingly unable to prevent the steady drift of students from the State to the private system; the universities with their diminishing interest in running courses as unfashionable as teaching; the teachers, testy and suspicious even of the sorts of modest change being proposed by the department, with a union determined not to give up a single note of its considerable power.
The above comments were made in the context of an industrial dispute between teachers in New South Wales and their employer. The dynamics identified by Noonan, however, "'go underground' (but are not dead)" once particular disputes have been resolved.

Groundwater-Smith and White (1995, p.96) describe curriculum work as "the substance which lies between the teacher and the learners", adding that it covers the "knowing how and knowing that" components of teaching and learning, that is to say, process and content. They ask five questions of a school's curriculum (pp.105 ff): What are the priorities (and silences), and how were they determined (and are there inconsistencies)? What is the context of these curricular priorities? How have curricular decisions been implemented at school, grade or class levels? How adequate is the implementation? What implications are there for future directions? This study was guided in part by these questions, in the context of Asia literacy.

According to Groundwater-Smith and White (1995), understanding curriculum is a function of three factors: text (the curriculum itself and the social interaction which produces it); the context in which it is implemented, and; pretext (rationale for curricular decision making). Gerber (1995) takes a phenomenographic approach to curriculum, in recognising different concurrent constructs thereof. He claims that past research assumed that curriculum could be unproblematically defined (by researchers, if not by teachers). Instead, he says, curriculum as reported to researchers depends on "reflective collective memory" (p.35), and suggests the best way to deal with this is through three lines of investigation: who are the main players; what are their roles; what were the outcomes? This triptych of questions makes for an interesting interplay with those posed by Groundwater-Smith and White, above, as outlined, in modified form, below.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Three factors in the understanding of curriculum

1. For the purposes of this study, 'reference texts' ie those other than curricular documents
such as scope and sequence etc, are principally treated as part of the context and pretext.

As implied by this flow chart, the intended outcomes are devised by key players in their socio-educational context. This results in a text or set of texts (syllabus, scope and sequence etc), which effect student outcomes, whether or not these coincide with the intended outcomes. There exist opportunities for mismatches between intentions and eventual outcomes, as the former are mediated through classroom activities and texts.

Conduct of the study

This case study examines some of the above dynamics in the context of one government primary school in New South Wales. The study set out to 'map' the interaction between some of the key players and their social environment, and to identify the obstacles and opportunities for promoting the study of Asia in an Australian school, as observed by informants, and to investigate the reactions of players to those obstacles and opportunities. In all, six teachers provided information for the study.

Some research approaches have been criticised in the past for the relationships which developed between researcher and 'subject'. Stringer (1996) calls on researchers to assume a more humanist, collaborative, egalitarian and liberating approach. This investigation adopted a case study approach. The methodology for this study conformed largely to the process of dialectic hermeneutic circles (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, pp.151-155). Central to this processes was the use of various informants' views on Asia literacy and policies in the school. The first informant, having given feedback, was asked to nominate another informant within the school who was likely to have significantly different views to those of the first informant, regarding studies of Asia at the school. Member checks were conducted with informants, providing the opportunity for them to offer corrections, clarifications or elaborations. The second informant nominated a third, and so the process continued. In adopting such an approach, the researcher's desire for egalitarianism must be genuine, as the process is laden with opportunities for debilitating conflict among informants. On the other hand, this approach exposes the researcher to a variety of attitudes and constructs, which, it is to be hoped, counters the effects of researcher and informant bias. Interviews were semi-structured, initially asking respondents to discuss studies of Asia they had undertaken in class, outcomes for students and difficulties encountered.

The school

The primary school is located in outer western Sydney, and caters for a relatively comfortable socioeconomic clientele. It is known as an Access Asia school. Access Asia schools are provided with support such as release time for staff and funds for special projects designed to promote and facilitate the study of Asia in their curriculum [http://www.accessasia.edu.au/, viewed 2 Feb 2001]. The current Access Asia coordinator, Alison (a pseudonym) has held the position for one year. Prior to that, Beth, the librarian, held the position since the program's inception, a period of about six years.

Only about ten percent of the school's children are identified as being from a non English speaking background (NESB). Of these there are "more Asians than others, depending on how you define 'Asian'", according to one of the school's administrative staff members. Alison was able to identify Indian, Thai and Filipino families among the children. The school's chosen language other than English (LOTE) is French, because of the qualifications of staff.

The library is well resourced with Asia related materials. Ready-to-use units of work have been compiled by Beth and Alison, with contributions from other teachers. These units, in kit form, have been cross referenced with resources from the teachers' library, and include a range of other resources, including artefacts such as coins or works of art and craft. This allows teachers to readily put their hands on resources needed for their classes.

Findings and implications

An inspection of the school's artefacts reveals a wealth of Asia related materials. According to the school's HSIE (Human Society and Its Environment, known in other states and territories as SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment) scope and sequence, each grade-related stage[1] covers two Asian countries in thematic fashion, meaning that students in each year explore one Asian country. The library and teachers' resource centre are richly stocked with Asian teaching resources, and Alison (the Access Asia coordinator) and Beth (the librarian and previous coordinator) carry in their heads a wealth of information on Asia, as well as resources and methods related to the teaching thereof, including the resources available at the school. At this level, the school appears to have been very successful with the implementation of Asia studies across the curriculum.

Further investigation reveals that these successes have come at considerable cost to (some of) the staff, however. Moreover, it appears that implementation of the Asia related scope and sequence has not been universal. One teacher in particular outlined what she saw as some of the central problems with regard to implementing studies of Asia across the curriculum: Jenni came into the staffroom looking tired from the day's teaching. Her comments were terse. Without being asked a question, she said,

The trouble with new initiatives is there's too little time. I'm not against teaching about the outside world, but these kids are too young, and the outcomes don't parallel HSIE [/SOSE] outcomes. My class is still meeting stage one (local) outcomes. This is a very Anglo school, and here's another thing to teach.
After summing up the arguments above, she left the room. While Jenni's comment was more strident in its tone than those of the other teachers, she raised some very pertinent issues that the literature also addresses, as reported earlier, with regard to the difficulties of implementing studies of Asia. Moreover, other teachers raised similar issues in less forceful terms. These contextual and pretextual issues include matches and mismatches between It is possible that Jenni's comments mask a lack of confidence on her part to teach about Asia. It is unfair to impute such a motive to Jenni, however, particularly since she claims to have no objection per se to the teaching of "the outside world". Nevertheless, it is probably reasonable to conclude that there is a 'crisis of confidence', of whatever cause or causes, which may constrain Jenni in her teaching about Asia. Jenni's comments roughly parallel the contextual/pretextual concerns, implementation of curriculum and eventual outcomes outlined in the model earlier. Each of these three issues will be dealt with in turn. One other matter worthy of comment is the relative silence on the part of the informants other than Alison and Beth. They volunteered little information other than their responses to direct questions.

Contextual and pretextual issues

All of the teachers who were interviewed made passing references to the time constraints of trying to accommodate all the content demands of the curriculum. Other than Jenni, though, the teachers tended to be philosophical about this problem, and questioning did not reveal that studies of Asia suffered more from this than did other elements of the curriculum. There were, however, teachers who were disregarding the Asia studies scope and sequence. This will be taken up in a subsequent section.

Time emerged as a critical factor in other aspects, however. Alison and Beth both spoke highly of Curriculum Corporation resources (such as the Access Asia Primary Teaching and Learning Units, Curriculum Corporation, 1996). Such resources allow for comparison between various Asian countries and Australia. Nevertheless, these resources are designed to cater for national outcomes, and their 'stage appropriateness' (ie level of difficulty) and content matter do not necessarily correspond to the NSW outcomes. Both Alison and Beth praised the initial funding they received when the school achieved Access Asia status[2]. Much of the material in the library at the time, according to Beth, was outdated, biased and/or unattractive.

Alison and Beth were critical, however, of the current lack of AEF (Asia Education Foundation) funds for purchasing resources. These funds are now used for the development of materials by teachers in Access Asia schools. Both teachers feel that they are 'reinventing the wheel' to a certain extent, in developing their own resources, but they were particularly critical of the demanding accountability expectations which accompany the spending of money granted by the AEF. Having spent considerable amounts of time producing resources, they felt that additional time spent in documenting processes could be more wisely and productively spent. Alison and Beth also reported that they had not had the opportunity to see other schools' resources developed under this scheme, and recommended that such cross-pollination of ideas would be very valuable. Many of their own units of work on Asia are literature based, using materials such as Asian folk tales as their starting point.

At a school level, provision of funds is also an important practical and psychological impetus for the promotion of curricular content. There is no specific allocation of funds within the school for Asia related resources, and these are purchased from Key Learning Area (KLA) budgets. Alison and Beth (the current and previous Access Asia coordinators) bemoaned the resulting lack of parity with other KLA committees, which makes it difficult to enthuse a committee, since they have no specific imprimatur to spend money.

As in any school, the presence of enthusiastic and qualified personnel is essential for developing and maintaining programs. Alison said that it is invaluable having a librarian such as Beth, who is enthusiastic about Asia. Beth said that she valued the support of the Principal, which gave authority to her previous position as Access Asia coordinator. On the other hand, she mentioned several key teachers who had been engaged in studies of Asia with their classes, but who had subsequently left the school, necessitating energy and vision for enthusing and training new arrivals on staff. Beth also cited 'burnout' as another factor in the attrition rate of teachers studying Asia, again hinting at the effort and energy required for such study, in the absence of mandates to study the topic. Other staff displayed a range of enthusiasm levels. Carla shared some of her misgivings about teaching studies of Asia. She began by saying, "I religiously teach it" with a tone of resignation.

Beth explained that the AEF was concerned that materials were being produced by schools, potentially to be left unused by teachers and students. In response to this, the AEF has put forward a policy of providing children with 'experiences' of Asia. Provision of such experiences is not without its problems, however. Beth spent considerable time in coordinating an excursion to various places of worship in the Fairfield local government area. She explained that many such places have telephones which are attended for only a few hours per week, and there are few people available who speak English, rendering the coordination of such events difficult and time consuming.

Not surprisingly, competition for resources is strong and budgets are limited. Alison indicated that Beth, the librarian, had at times reported that teachers are not seeking out existing Asian resources in the library, meaning that current funds were likely to be spent elsewhere. Alison and another teacher, Helen, pointed out, though, that substantial funds had recently been raised through a walkathon, and responded with scepticism to claims that the school has no money for Asian resources.

The need for appropriate resources was echoed by other teachers, such as Carla, who said that while she normally hates kits, some of the school's 'ready to go' resources would be very useful. She added that some of the resources created when the school first joined the Access Asia network were starting to become dated, and needed revising. While there was considerable time for teacher relief for creating the initial resources, no such relief exists now. Alison also indicated that multimedia kits, including for example the national anthems of various countries, would be valuable.

The professional development of the teaching staff is an important prerequisite for effective teaching. Such training can address issues of teacher confidence to deal with Asia content. Helen hinted at this, confessing that she sometimes asked herself if she was "teaching it right", with regard to Asia. She added that having travelled widely in Asia gave her more confidence, as well as artefacts such as money from various countries. She observed that teachers without such travel experience might struggle to present authentic lessons, however. Helen is a new member of staff, and was only vaguely aware of the status of teaching Asia in the school. She said that, confronted with the expectation to teach a unit of work on Asia, her first questions would be, "Do I have what's needed? And who can I ask?" Alison (the Access Asia coordinator) lamented funding levels for some aspects of professional development. Beyond this, professional development did not appear to be a significant issue for the other teachers. Some felt that other areas of PD (Professional Development) were a higher priority, however. Sarah, for example, said that while she would like "more knowledge about things Asian", she felt that "such training is a luxury, compared to English etc". It is perhaps such a 'core and lobe' dichotomy in the minds of other teachers with regard to various KLAs that leads them to overlook any possible gaps in studies of Asia PD provision. A 'shortfall' in PD provision is a subjective matter, and arguably only emerges in the context of perceived teacher needs.

The school is part of a local Access Asia network. Alison spoke highly of the Access Asia network leader, her enthusiasm, her dedication to the role and her expertise in Asian culture. The network is geographically vast, however, and the coordinator's school is about 60 kilometres away, or over an hour by car, from Alison's school. During the research period, Alison's school hosted a professional development session on teaching Asian arts. Alison said that this was well attended, and was encouraging, partly because of the good attendance[3]. The corollary, she said, is that low attendances have left her feeling drained and wondering if the organisational effort is worth it. Alison felt that it should be an expectation that all network members attend all Access Asia network meetings. On the other hand, she felt that the network leader's enthusiasm was at times a little "other worldly", an enthusiasm which Alison finds difficult to emulate in her own teaching environment.

The school has taken advantage of a twin city arrangement between the municipal council and Fujieda, in Japan. Visitors from Fujieda came to the school, and took part in activities such as getting the children to write their names in kanji characters. The school has also called on the expertise of a teacher at a nearby school, who has lived in Indonesia. The school once hosted an Indonesian music show.

Curricular material is limited to the extent that students are able to make sense of it. Helen, who was new to teaching and to the school, echoed some of Jenni's strident concerns, musing, "You wonder how much of [Asia content] the kids absorb". Alison said that "the few Asian kids we've got usually want to blend in with their non-Asian peers, and don't like talking about where they come from". One boy told Alison he wasn't able to attend the school camp, as his family was saving up to go back to Thailand during the summer holidays. "Don't tell anyone about it, though", he said to her. Alison feels that parents sometimes emphasise the bad points about the 'old country' and the reasons they brought the children to Australia. This being the case, it is perhaps understandable that some children are not keen to speak about their country of origin. She compared this to other schools, with higher NESB populations, where she felt that children were more willing to discuss their backgrounds. On the other hand, Helen said that in her class, one Filipino boy showed a great deal of enthusiasm to study Asia, as did some other children of non-Asian background. Another teacher, Carla, said that the children enjoy the hands-on nature of craft activities. She added that years ago she had observed anti-Asian comments on the part of some students, but none now. Alison explained that she has a "difficult" class this year, making it harder to find the energy and opportunities to introduce and promote Asia related learning experiences.

The school sponsors a Filipino child through a relief agency. Alison reflected, however, that when she asked the staff if anyone would get their class to write to the child, no one replied. When asked why this might be, Alison replied that this was probably due to busyness on the part of teachers, rather than an unwillingness to be confronted with phenomena such as otherness or poverty. When further questioned, Alison claimed that the staff does not display any symptoms of anti-Asian sentiment. She said, "they are not resistant to [the notion of teaching Asia]. They're more resistant to other, mandatory elements such as child protection ... mainly because they're not confident to teach [child protection]". While this was said in defence of the staff's willingness to embrace studies of Asia, it is interesting that Alison placed it on the same continuum that includes the most feared curricular topic. The dynamics affecting Asia studies may be similar to those impinging on child protection. It could be inferred that these dynamics include the one nominated by Alison, ie, lack of confidence.

Of intentions, curricular texts and their implementation

Helen, who is new to teaching, mused, "what do I teach and how do I teach it?" The school's Human Society and its Environment (HSIE) scope and sequence targets two Asian countries for each developmental 'stage', which means that theoretically each class in each year studies one Asian country. Alison observed, however, that "once you get into your classroom and close the classroom door, it's hard to know what anyone's teaching". She added that while some teachers "put a fair bit into it", others indulge in "a bit of tokenism". To illustrate this, she said that only one of the previous year's year three teachers had covered Indonesia, the nominated country for that year. She said that, "the presumption is that everyone embraces it, but in reality...". Beyond this scope and sequence document, little specific direction is given to the teachers with regard to the teaching of studies of Asia, apart from support from the resource kits. It is significant to note, then, that the overlaying of an Asia specific set of content outcomes onto an existing HSIE Scope and sequence has not guaranteed a universal embrace of Asia content material on the part of the staff.

Another challenge with stage specific treatment of different countries is the difficulty in obtaining resources which are of an appropriate level of difficulty. Alison and Beth reported, however, that they have become adept at adapting existing materials to suit the needs of their students. Nevertheless, other issues remain in the potential for mismatches between classroom practice and the syllabus mandated stage specific content. Moreover, HSIE curriculum consultants and Access Asia support personnel have expressed frustration at the tendency for teachers to allow resources, rather than the syllabus, to drive their teaching practice [personal conversations]. On the other hand, the mandated outcomes are rather generic in nature, and are capable of accommodating the incorporation of Asian studies.

Beth explained how she had tapped into existing units of work in HSIE. For example, while teaching European exploration of Australia, she made reference to Dutch colonisation of present day Indonesia, hence the arrival of Dutch explorers on Australia's west coast. Some teachers in the school have adopted a thematic approach to studies of Asia, developing or using units such as "Breakfast around the world". By contrast, Alison said that some teachers become too "boxy" rather than maximising osmosis between key learning areas. Her view reflects Hargreaves' (1994) notion of Balkanisation, wherein mutually hostile subject related empires develop in a school. Again, though, the state mandated, and at times mutually exclusive KLA specific outcomes may serve to make such integration across subject areas problematic.

In the past, 'Asia week', organised by the AEF, coincided with Book Week, which added impetus to a literature based approach to studies of Asia. Now, however, the school adopts a more informal approach to celebrating Asian culture and achievements during the year. Each year the school adopts a country for thematic study for Education week. In 2000, the school chose Belgium as a country of study. While Alison sees this as a logical consequence of having French as the school LOTE, she feels that it represents a lost opportunity to promote Asia in the school and to the wider community. Nevertheless, other issues remain, in that the syllabus mandates stage specific content outcomes, as well as behavioural outcomes.

Learning outcomes

An observation of one stage three class conducting research on various Asian countries revealed that the students' knowledge and abilities were more than adequate to deal with the demands of the activities. The students appeared to have a sound understanding of the position of the countries with respect to each other and to Australia. It appeared that the students were successfully applying generic skills and knowledge (eg terminology such as north, etc) to this situation. The only instance of apparent confusion concerned the status of the capital city of South Korea. This appeared to stem from the text being used, which was titled "Korea", dealt exclusively with South Korea, but included a map showing North and South Korea with their respective capitals.

An inspection of the finished work samples equally revealed a good, broad understanding of the countries under study. Arguably, some of the students' statements (eg "Koreans like to dress in fancy clothes for special occasions") were so applicable to any cultural group as to have little meaning. On the other hand, such comments reflect similarities which transcend particular cultures. Statements which were factually dubious (eg "Most Thai people don't eat spicey [sic] food") were quite rare. An inspection of stage one (year two) work samples on Indonesia demonstrated a sound understanding of basic facts with regard to Indonesia's geography, climate etc, despite some possible over generalisations ("The weather is very hot but it rains in the afternoon all the time"). Based on the small sample of work samples viewed, it appears that the children are coping creditably with the Asia related material they are presented with. As this section suggests, however, there was difficulty in finding current and recent Asia related teaching and work samples. Moreover, it could be argued that the study was exclusively of 'physical phenomena' such as geography, food etc, to the exclusion of an examination of worldviews.

Helen, who claimed to, "religiously teach" studies of Asia wondered "how much of it the kids absorb". It must be accepted, then, that students of those teachers who are more indifferent to studies of Asia may find themselves far from its epicentre. Overall, the school has admirably equipped itself to give its students positive and contemporary experiences of Asia, and an inventory of the school's 'Asia credentials' and related resources reveals a creditably high profile of studies of Asia. Classroom practice does not universally reflect this, however. Moreover, the promotion of Asia has come at considerable cost, particularly to the staff involved. Beth mused, "Is it worth it? I don't know. You're often preaching to the converted." Reflecting on this comment, Alison said, "It's more like preaching to the apathetic". With reference to the AEF's accountability requirements, Beth said, "You have to jump through 99,050 hoops for five cents". She did note, however, that the demands on accountability had been reduced, perhaps in response to schools opting out of the program. Beth said that, "For funds, you work for 32 hours and sell your soul". She added, "It takes time to write, implement and evaluate the units, then do the paper work". This raises the issue as to whether the demands placed on teaching staff are realistic, vis-à-vis the support offered. One way of increasing the dividends for participating teachers, according to Alison and Beth, is an increased dissemination of teacher devised resources.

Reflecting on the frustrations she's had in trying to change the attitudes of other teachers, Alison said that she has to get used to the fact that "what's important to me isn't necessarily important to someone else". She felt that "no one else is very motivated". This raises the issue of the interplay between curriculum, its creators and its implementors, as referred to by Groundwater-Smith and White (1995) and Gerber (1995) above. Alison observed that while she has a good deal of responsibility to ensure that studies of Asia are pursued, neither she nor the Asia curriculum has much in the way of official status, and the implementation of the program relies on factors such as the goodwill, confidence, time and energy priorities of teachers in the context of myriad competing demands, many of which have higher real or perceived standing.


The various teachers' responses, and particularly those of Alison and Beth, immediately above, demonstrate that there is a vast spectrum of enthusiasm and engagement levels for studies of Asia in the school. Moreover, this is taking place in a school with few students of Asian background, while studies of Asia vie for space in an overstocked curriculum. Australian students are in need of informed and contemporary perspectives on Asia, regardless of their schools' demography. Findings from this study suggest that schools with few students of Asian background have particular problems with regard to introducing studies of Asia. Despite the above constraints, it does not appear that studies of Asia have been avoided more rigorously than other 'challenging' curricular components.

There is an apparent hiatus between the written text of the school's Asia studies scope and sequence and rationale, and the manner and context in which this curriculum document operates. The way in which the players and their roles shape this document is likely to have an impact on the student outcomes. Observation of such outcomes in classes selected by the school formed only a small component of this study, in terms of assessing students' knowledge bank of Asia. Nevertheless, student interest appeared to be high, and it may be that feelings of student resistance are a misconception on the part of some teachers. Other pretextual and contextual issues remain, such as the state mandated curriculum, and, perhaps most importantly, the crowded curriculum.

If, as Groundwater-Smith (1995) contends, the locus of curriculum is between teacher and student, it is here where curriculum change needs to centre itself. Provision of external funds does not guarantee this. Similarly, the existence of enthusiastic promoters of studies of Asia in the school, while important, does not universally change classroom practice with regard to its study. It may be that devolving responsibility and funds to various KLA committee coordinators in the school would broaden the appeal of studies of Asia and would more evenly apportion the burden for its implementation. The extent to which studies of Asia can be treated as a 'priority amongst priorities', is dependent on many factors, including mindfulness of external curricular givens. Nevertheless, change will be effected more efficiently by operating primarily on, rather than at several degrees of abstraction from, the nexus between teacher and learners.


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I would like to thank Alison, Beth and the other staff members who spent their time sharing information and insights with me. I'd also like to thank the year two and year five students who shared with me their work samples and their enthusiasm for learning.


  1. In NSW the stages are: Kindergarten: early stage one; years 1, 2: stage one; years 3, 4: stage two; years 5, 6: stage three.
  2. The Access Asia program was known as the Magnet Schools program when the school originally undertook to participate in the mid 1990s.
  3. Only Beth and Alison from the host school attended, however.
Author: John Buchanan lectures in social and environmental education at the University of Technology, Sydney, and coordinates the Graduate Certificate in Teaching Studies of Asia. His research interests include studies of Asia, global education and values acquisition. Email: john.buchanan@uts.edu.au

Please cite as: Buchanan, J. (2002). The emergence of Asia: Development of studies of Asia in one Australian school. Issues In Educational Research, 12(1), 1-18. http://www.iier.org.au/iier12/buchanan.html

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