The Inquiry Approach, Direct Instruction and Teaching the Humanities

The idea of inquiry, or a student-driven approach to learning, is a fundamental one in modern Humanities education. As the predominant method of teaching the Humanities, it is important to closely scrutinise its effectiveness of the inquiry method of teaching. The inquiry method has a few key characteristics. Firstly, it is a student-directed form of learning, involving minimal guidance from the teacher. Secondly, students solve ‘authentic’ or real-world problems through investigation This method, particularly among University educators of Humanities teachers is taught also exclusively, at the expense of more teacher-directed approaches. Inquiry-based teaching has something of a ‘sacred-cow’ status within the education of Humanities teachers. It is taught virtually uncritically in university teaching courses. Inquiry-based learning is also embedded within the Australian Curriculum for History, effectively mandating its use in the classroom by teachers. Despite this, educational research casts doubt on claims on the superiority of inquiry-based learning.

There is mounting evidence that the inquiry approach may not be the most effective way for students to learn. This evidence applies across all subjects, but is a particularly relevant finding for the Humanities, where inquiry-based models of learning are particularly prominent. As is the case in any subject area, content knowledge and understanding is essential to any in-depth understanding of Humanities concepts. In the case of History, this means learning about key dates, persons, events and more. The simplest way to do this is typically to have the teacher simply tell the students this, or have students work through a textbook to familiarise themselves with key historical concepts and knowledge. This direct-instruction based approach is often dismissed as being boring or not engaging for students, and as a result is not always seen as an effective or worthwhile way of instructing students.

The insistence on lessons always being exciting and fun from a students’ perspective, as David Didau argues in a recent post on education website Learning Spy, is potentially misguided. The conventional wisdom is that if students are engaged through ‘entertaining’ lessons, learning will inevitably be enhanced. However, recent research suggests that this may not be the case. Indeed, it is more likely that improved performance and success is what enhances a student’s motivation and enjoyment of a subject, not the other way around as assumed. For teachers, the implication of this is simple. The focus should be on the subject content and teaching it effectively, even if that involves approaches other than ‘inquiry’ based learning.

One of the arguments against inquiry-based learning is that novice learners of a subject are not equipped to both learn new information and apply it to complex scenarios simultaneously, as is what occurs in inquiry-based learning. Cognitive science has shown that children, particularly in the initial stages of learning, learn much more effectively through extensive guided instruction. Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006) argue that the inquiry method places an excess pressure on working memory in children, which becomes detrimental to meaningful learning in the long term. The most efficient learning, studies show, occurs when students are given examples, in-depth explanation followed by activities which closely replicate the information given. In the case of history, this means answering specific questions, guided by a teacher. Only when a significant amount of knowledge has been built up can students be expected to effectively utilise inquiry approaches to learning in History. Research by Professor John Hattie has also shown a much stronger correlation between direct instruction and student achievement than inquiry or problem-based learning approaches and achievement. In this research, factors such as teacher feedback, direct instruction and formative evaluation has shown the strongest correlation to student achievement across all subjects. By contrast, inquiry-based learning has relatively little positive correlation to student achievement.

To be clear, engaging lessons are an important part of teaching. The inquiry approach, by extension, clearly has some place in the Humanities classroom. In order for it to be effective, however, students must first have a strong foundation of knowledge. Without this, students have a severely diminished capacity to learn effectively through inquiry.


The Economic Case for Humanities Education

The humanities subjects (History, Geography, Civics, Economics) are often maligned and underappreciated in the context of modern education. The lack of a simple, quantifiable measurement of their importance often results in these subjects being given relatively little attention compared to other core subjects such as English, Maths and Science. This is despite the Humanities, particularly History, being a core subject in the Australian Curriculum. To address this issue and to help promote the importance of Humanities education, a pragmatic line of argument, highlighting economic benefits as well as civic and cultural benefits is required.

The most common argument made against humanities educations in schools is that it holds no relevance to the ‘real world’ or has a clear economic benefit compared to subjects such as maths and science. This argument, however, is beginning to change within the business community. As the economy transitions from a traditional, manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge economy based on technical expertise and overall knowledge of business processes, the skills demanded by employers are changing. Soft skills, such as verbal and written communication skills are more and more in demand. A recent Conversation article found that miscommunication because of a lack of soft skills such as written and verbal communication as well as adaptable thinking, skills which Humanities subjects emphasize, costs businesses hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Addressing these skill shortages is a top priority among all industries. Humanities subjects, particularly subjects such as History, Civics and Economics are crucial in this regard. Mark Cuban, the billionaire investor, is one business leader who subscribes to this argument. He believes that in the future, liberal arts college majors and the soft skills they develop will be in ever-increasing demand by employers.

The cross-cultural knowledge which humanities subjects provides is also important in this argument. As the world becomes more and more globalised, an awareness of world nations and cultures is increasingly important. To be able to effectively do business with and communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds, a detailed knowledge of history, society and civics is imperative. Without this knowledge, businesses cannot adapt as well to the unique circumstances and requirements of each country and society with which it trades and interacts with, costing sales, output and more.

The challenge for humanities educators to prosecute the case for the humanities is clear. As Humanities educators, we are all aware of the benefits of an in-depth Humanities education, in terms of enriching students’ understanding of the world around them and their overall civic knowledge. This argument alone, however, is not a sufficient defence of the Humanities. It is important to also clearly and explicitly explain the economic and business benefits of Humanities majors to policy makers as well as the wider community. Only by doing this will the respect and attention the Humanities requires in relation to the Australian curriculum requires occur.

2016 US Election -Donald Trump as US President

Donald Trump is the new President of the United States. This statement, thought impossible by most political pundits, pollsters, journalists as well as much of the Western world, has come true. In what some commentators and political websites are describing as the biggest political upset in American history, Trump defied the odds and has become the new POTUS.

As outsiders observing the US election from afar, it can seem perplexing at first glance to see Trump elected as POTUS. Unlike traditional presidential candidates, his policy details are often lacking, sometimes even incoherent. He has been embroiled in innumerable personal controversies which seemingly would have disqualified other candidates from being in the conversation as a serious candidate for POTUS. I am among those who think that Donald Trump is not a worthy candidate for POTUS for these reasons (for what it’s worth, I think the same of Hillary Clinton). Despite this, it is important to note the context for how a candidate as deeply flawed as Donald Trump managed to become POTUS. Only by taking a serious, measured look at these circumstances can the necessary lessons be learned to ensure another candidate as inept and unqualified as Donald Trump does not get elected POTUS.

Firstly, despite a level of recovery since the financial crisis of 2008, many Americans are still in a precarious economic situation. Half of all Americans have no savings at all, and 70% of Americans have less than a thousand dollars in the bank. Whilst Americans in metropolitan centres have largely resumed living at a pre-crisis standard, this has not been the case in rural America, which Trump virtually swept in the final vote. Jobs are scarce and opportunity to advance in life is even more scarce. The rural/city divide extends to cultural issues. In rural America, people felt alienated and forgotten, lacking control over their lives. In many instances, these Trump voters had voted for Obama four and eight years ago. Despite this, having felt ignored by the current administration and the nation at large, they felt no other option but to vote for Trump, despite often having reservations about specific policy issues and his personal character.

The big question now is what exactly a Trump administration will look like. His presidential campaign was based on challenging Republican policy orthodoxy, particularly on key issues such as trade, immigration and America’s place in the world. In all these instances, Trump won the rhetorical debate first against the Republican establishment and ultimately the voters. On trade, Trump promised to put America first, including promises to rip up or renegotiate trade deals as well as taking measures to prevent jobs from leaving the country. On immigration, Trump has argued against current immigration levels and has promised to build a wall along the southern border of the United States to help deal with illegal immigration from the Mexican border. Trump has also repudiated America’s role as the world’s foremost power on international issues, particularly in relation to issues such as the Middle East and Russian involvement throughout Eastern Europe. This is in sharp contrast to the neoconservative doctrine which has been a GOP staple since the presidency of George W Bush.

Whether Trump will firstly follow through on these specific policies or policy directions and whether he can make significant reform in these areas remains to be seen. Throughout the Republican Primary and the general election, Trump has taken several different positions on a variety of issues, including cornerstone issues of his campaign such as immigration and trade. Many of his policies, including many of his proposals on tax are either unworkable or would require significant adjustment to be feasible. Other proposals which Trump has raised, particularly in relation to combating terrorism would be in violation of the United States Constitution. Examples of these include his proposals for torture and to place a blanket ban on Muslim immigration from the Middle East.  More importantly, despite the Republican Party having a majority in both the Senate and Congress, he may face significant opposition to many of his proposals. Many Republicans in both the Senate and Congress are opposed to Trump ideologically and may vote against his policies on a variety of issues.

From an Australian perspective, a Trump presidency could have significant ramifications for the Australia-United States alliance. Trade deals will likely have to be re-negotiated, quite possibly on terms less favourable for Australia. On significant geopolitical issues, such as the ongoing situation with China, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward China, if followed through in policy and action, would leave Australia in a particularly precarious position. Australia has major trade ties with China despite being allied closely with the United States and were America to engage in a trade war or a military conflict over the South China Sea, to name two examples, Australia would be in a severely compromised position, being obligated to side with America in these circumstances. So far, the Australian Government has been diplomatic and insisted relations with the United States will not change. It is hard to imagine, however, if Trump is serious about his positions on international relations, how a reworking of the Australian-American alliance will not occur.

Racial Discrimination Act, 18c and the free speech debate

The debate around the Racial Discrimination Act, specifically section 18c, has been a hotly debated topic in Australian politics for an extensive period of time. The issue has once again come into the spotlight in recent weeks as backbench Coalition senators have again raised the issue, citing 18c specifically as having a ‘chilling’ effect on free speech. Section 18c, among other things, declares unlawful ‘offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin’. One recent case in particular has re-energised conservative members of the Coalition in repealing Section 18c. The case in question involves a former employee at the University of Queensland Technology suing the university and students at the school. The incident in question occurred in 2013, when the employee removed students from a computer lab designated for Indigenous students. The students then took to Facebook to complain about the incident. The posts made by the students were deemed racially offensive by the employee and sought damages totalling nearly $250,000. Three years later, the case is still yet to be resolved.

Supporters of the law argue that Section 18c is a necessary component of the Racial Discrimination Act, on grounds of alleviating racial abuse and discrimination and as a way of curtailing hateful speech towards minorities. On the issue of potentially curtailing free speech, advocates for 18c cite the following provision, 18d, as a counter-argument against these concerns. 18d states that ‘18c does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith’. For supporters of the current legislation, the combination of both Section 18c and 18d of the Racial Discrimination Act strike the balance between protecting minorities against racial vilification and maintaining freedom of speech.

The desire to eliminate racial discrimination and vilification is, of course, a noble and worthy goal. No sensible person would argue otherwise. However, the current manner in which Section 18c is written, as well as cases such as the aforementioned case, can at times cause unintended consequences and potentially stifles discussion on sensitive issues. In particular, the terms ‘offend and insult’ within the wording of 18c can be stifling. Acting New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Ronald Sackville AO argues that this wording requires amendment. He cites Section 2A of the Racial Discrimination Act as being a legal safeguard against racially hateful actions. Section 18c and 18d, he argues, are vague and subjective in their wording, making establishing an objective and consistent legal standard for what is permissible and what isn’t permissible impossible. As a result, he argues, free speech is compromised, as there isn’t currently an objective standard to what could be considered as insulting or offensive.   Although the issue of amending the law is primarily favoured by right-leaning politicians and commentators, support for amendment can also be found among the Left, for this reason. Prominent progressive lawyers and commentators such as Julian Burnside, David Marr and Phillip Adams all support reform of the legislation on grounds of it stifling freedom of speech.

The issue of the Racial Discrimination Act and 18c in particular will likely not be a priority for the Coalition in the near future, with Malcolm Turnbull ruling out any amendment for the time being. The Act is a source of discontent for many backbenchers within the Government, however, and the broader debate of free speech and racially sensitive issues is one which will not go away. When the time comes that the Racial Discrimination Act is put forth for amendment, a mature, nuanced and comprehensive debate is required. A complex, sensitive piece of legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act requires careful examination of all the potential legal ramifications and precedents.

South China Sea Dispute

Historical Context

The South and East China seas have long been a source of dispute between China and surrounding nations, including Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan. Disputes on territory have been ongoing since as far back as the late nineteenth century, with a dispute over the Diaoyu and Senkakus Islands during the Sino-Japanese war of 1894. More recently, China’s claims to territory in the region rest on what China has termed the ‘Nine-Dash Line’, an area within the South China Sea marked by nine dashes (See Figure 1). These dashes were first put on a map by the Chinese in 1947. Much of the territory within the dashes is disputed among several nations.

Figure 1: Map highlighting the disputed area (Source:


The region is an important area in a geopolitcal sense, for several reasons. The area serves as an important trade route and is important both for exports and the importation of essential raw materials and fuels for the countries in this region. It is one of the major economic corridors of the world, with a myriad of nations using this area to pass through.

The UN Ruling on the dispute

Recently, the already tense situation surrounding the South China Sea became escalated further. A United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling on territorial claims between the Philippines and China ruled almost exclusively in favour of the Philippines and against China. The ruling found that China’s claims to territory in the region were unfounded under international law. As much of the maritime territory China was claiming were rocks, low tide elevations and submerged banks, not islands, China was not entitled to claim the territory surrounding these geographical features. This is an important distinction legally, as these geographical features only carry with them a right to the surrounding 12-mile radius is territory. Islands, on the other hand, entitle the claimant to the surrounding 200-mile radius of territory. The ruling therefore strongly undermines China’s claim to territory in the area. Though a favourable decision towards the Philippines was anticipated by many experts on the region, the extent to which China’s claims were dismissed by The Hague has taken many by surprise.

Australian Interests in the dispute

Australia, as a close trading partner of most of the nations involved in the dispute, as well as a close ally of the United States, which is strongly opposed to China’s increasingly assertive stance in the region, finds itself in a precarious position. This has been exacerbated by a scathing editorial in Chinese state newspaper The Global Times which harshly denounced Australia’s position on the ruling. The paper labelled Australia a ‘paper cat’ and took aim at Australia’s ‘inglorious history’, making reference to Australia’s colonial past, among other things. The paper argued that Australia, by voicing ‘delirious’ support for The Hague’s ruling, was making itself a ‘pioneer of hurting China’s interest’.

Though The Global Times has a relatively small circulation in China, the fact that this rhetoric came from a government-ran media source is cause for concern from an Australian standpoint. As the dispute escalates, Australia will at some point have to take some action and stake a definitive stance on the issue. Though Australia is not a direct player in the dispute, the region is still important from an Australian strategic perspective. As is the case for the countries geographically adjacent to the South China Sea, Australia has economic interests in the South China Sea remaining accessible and free from escalated conflict between regional interests. If tensions were to escalate further, one possible course of action for Australia could be to resume Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), similar to exercises the United States has performed in the recent past. Such an exercise would strike a balance between showing assertiveness on our part whilst also not being an excessive provocation toward China. Though China is an essential economic partner for Australia, it is unreasonable to expect Australia to neglect its own reasonable interests in the region in order to satisfy the Chinese’s demands in the South China Sea.

This dispute, along with the broader relationship between Australia and China as well as the United States in the region, is one of the key geopolitical issues of our time, despite it receiving relatively little media attention. As Australia further increases its engagement with the Asian region, issues such as these will become more and more important towards Australia’s foreign policy. A measured, yet assertive response from an Australian perspective, as outlined above, will go a long way in ensuring crucial economic partnerships are not impacted whilst Australian strategic interests are also upheld.



A Few Thoughts: Federal Election 2016

Australia’s recent federal election was a very tightly contested one, more so than most polling, commentary and voters expected. As of the time of writing this post, a full week and a half after Australians went to the polls on July 2nd, the vote still has not been fully finalised, with a few seats still in the balance. Though Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal-Nationals Coalition have been effectively returned to power, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten yesterday conceding defeat,  their position is a lot more precarious than it was. This is due to having lost a host of seats to the opposition Labor Party as well as to a variety of independents and minor party candidates, such as those of the Nick Xenophon Team.

As a result of the significantly reduced majority in the Lower House, as well as the further increase of crossbenchers in the Senate, most of whom differ significantly ideologically from the Coalition, passing legislation could be a tall order. In particular, passing key budget measures and reducing the budget deficit will prove to be difficult. Unlike the Coalition, much of the crossbench is economically protectionist on issues such as free trade, which will make passing legislation related to these issues difficult for the government. Other key economic measures which Turnbull has championed, including cuts to the company tax rate and changes to superannuation, look set to be either blocked entirely or severely compromised by the Senate opposition and crossbench.

The result also leaves Turnbull in somewhat of a precarious position as leader of the Liberal Party. Though the election has been won, the majority in the House of Representatives is almost wiped out. As a result, prominent conservatives, both within and outside the Liberal party have been questioning Turnbull’s leadership. Leading conservative commentators including Andrew Bolt and Rowan Dean have called on Turnbull to resign, with Bolt claiming that the result proved he was not fit to lead the party and that he had abandoned the party’s conservative voting base.

The election results, though not to the same degree as in the United States and in Europe, highlight somewhat of a disruption the usual political culture in Australia. Crossbenchers and minor parties are steadily gaining influence and seats in Parliament. Overall, there is a slow yet noticeable shift from a traditional two-party system similar to those of the United States and the United Kingdom, with the rise of parties such as the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) and the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Both the NXT and One Nation espouse economic protectionism, more so than both the Liberal Party and the Labor opposition, with both parties being sceptical of free trade agreements. Both parties also show scepticism towards immigration, particularly One Nation, which argues in its party manifesto against multiculturalism and high levels of immigration, instead arguing for an approach which emphasises assimilation and nationalism. This policy approach from One Nation reflects similar nationalist movements such as those in Europe as well as in America through Republican nominee Donald Trump and his ‘America First’ approach to issues of trade and immigration.

The election results and composition of the House of Representatives and the Senate suggest that the upcoming three years of Parliament will be similar to the preceding three. Given the composition of the Senate in particular, significant reform will again likely prove difficult, with Prime Minister Turnbull needing to do much work with crossbench and opposition Senators in order to pass contentious legislation. However, given that Turnbull in his relatively short time as Prime Minister has already suggested then abandoned several key policies, including tax reform and superannuation reform, it remains to be seen whether Turnbull is able to achieve this.

Brexit: What Happens Next?

Yesterday, the United Kingdom voted by a margin of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union (EU), ending a four-decade long membership with the EU. Immediately, global financial markets reacted negatively to the news of Britain’s decision. In the 24 hours following the result being announced, the pound lost value against every currency worldwide, including losing nearly 10% of its value against the Euro, a record loss for a single day of trade. The decision also quickly had political ramifications for both of Britain’s main political parties. Prime Minister David Cameron announced he would resign by October as a result of the decision. Meanwhile, the opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn faces a no confidence motion following criticism for a lacklustre effort to campaign for the Remain vote.

Though the referendum result supported Leave, that is only the first step in a years-long process of EU withdrawl. In order for any process to begin, British parliament must first invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union, formally notifying the EU of its intention of withdrawing from the European Union. Once this article is invoked, a two-year negotiation process between Britain and the EU begins. At the end of the two years, Britain leaves the EU with newly negotiated trade conditions offered to it. If Britain finds these unacceptable, it may extend the negotiating period if a majority of EU nations is willing to extend negotiations. If not, Britain could potentially leave the EU with unfavourable trade conditions. During the two years, EU regulations still apply to Britain, however Britain will have no say in European parliament.

The referendum results highlight a deeply divided UK. The Leave vote came primarily from regional areas and small towns, particularly within England and Wales. Large metropolitan areas, meanwhile, had the majority of the Remain vote. The Leave vote was the majority overall in England and Wales, while Northern Ireland and Scotland had a majority Remain vote. In addition, there was also a marked generational divide on the referendum vote. On the one hand, three-quarters of adults aged between 18 and 25 voted Remain. Conversely, a majority of voters over the age of 50 voted to Leave the EU. There is also a further divide between the level of education attained and voting preference. Analysis has shown those with a college education were more likely to vote Remain, compared to those who did not have a college education, who leaned towards Leave.

As well as leaving the European Union, Brexit may yet also result in the break-up of the United Kingdom as a whole. Immediately following the decision, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued that the decision to leave the EU was against the will of the Scottish people and that a new referendum on Scottish independence is necessary. Northern Ireland, which also voted in a majority for Remain, may also call for reunification with the Republic of Ireland, a EU member state. Sinn Fein, the oldest political party in Ireland, has called for a referendum on the issue along similar lines to those argued by Nicola Sturgeon of Scotland’s Scottish National Party.

These figures reflect a more widespread trend throughout Western nations. In the West, the divide between metropolitan and rural, tertiary educated and non-tertiary educated and generations has become more and more pronounced in recent years. This has manifested itself in a variety of ways, from widespread Euroskepticism and resurgent populism throughout Europe to the rise of political figures such as Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is the latest example of a more widespread discontent with the current state of politics and highlights the fragmentation and slow disintegration of the EU in general.

From an Australian perspective, Brexit will result in a short-term impact on global financial markets, including our own. Looking further into the future, its impact is more uncertain. In a previous piece I wrote on the topic, I highlighted how Brexit may affect our relations with Britain as well as the European Union. Now that Brexit has been realised, and more so in light of the resignation of David Cameron, the notion of a free-trade and movement zone within the Anglosphere is worth re-examining. Leave campaigners, particularly Boris Johnson, who could succeed David Cameron as the next Prime Minister, have argued for renewed ties with ‘Anglosphere’ nations such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. There is a potential for an Anglosphere free-trade zone to occur, similar to the Eurozone, especially if Britain views the leave agreement offered by the EU to be unsatisfactory.

Already in the days and hours since Brexit, there has been considerable political and economic ramifications for Britain. Though things will inevitably settle considerably within days and weeks, the longer-term future carries considerable uncertainty for Britain and the European Union. It is difficult to determine at this early stage whether the decision will be a net benefit or hindrance for Britain in the long run, though it will almost certainly not be the ruinous event for Britain that some columnists have argued it will be.