Strengthening human rights education in the geography curriculum
Recommendations on Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Geography
7 July 2011
The Australian Human Rights Commission welcomes the development of a national
school curriculum (the Curriculum). We believe that the development of the
Curriculum is a unique opportunity to ensure all young Australians develop an
understanding and appreciation for human rights.
The Commission congratulates the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and
Reporting Authority (ACARA) on the first steps taken to incorporate human rights
into the Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Geography (released in
January 2011) (Shape Paper). The Shape Paper includes many elements supporting a
focus on human rights education, particularly through relevant general
capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities. The Commission previously provided
suggestions to ACARA regarding how human rights can be integrated into the
geography curriculum and is pleased to see many of these suggestions reflected
in the Shape Paper.
Geography is an inter-disciplinary subject that encourages a strong focus on
human relations and social justice issues. The explanations in the Shape Paper
of the links between the general capabilities on ‘ethical
behaviour’, ‘personal and social competence’ and
‘intercultural understanding’, as well as the three cross-curriculum
priorities, reflect an understanding of the importance of a focus on human
rights and social justice to the geography curriculum. It is, however, the
Commission’s view that the focus on human rights can be further
strengthened and integrated into all stages of the geography curriculum
- Strengthening and fully integrating relevant general capabilities and
- Inclusion of relevant human rights examples and
Following is an elaboration of these recommendations and
suggestions for how this could be achieved.
2 Strengthening and fully
integrating relevant general capabilities and cross-curriculum
The Shape Paper correctly conveys the importance and central relevance of
geography as a vehicle for conveying a rich understanding of the general
capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities. Specifically, geography can convey
a strong appreciation for:
- ethical principles (including human rights)
- inter-cultural understanding
- personal and social competence
- the three cross-curriculum priorities.
Following are specific
suggestions for further strengthening the descriptions of the links between the
general capabilities and the geography curriculum. We also include a broader
suggestion for ensuring the cross-curriculum priorities and general capabilities
outlined above are better integrated into the entire geography curriculum.
2.1 Strengthening the
descriptions of the links between the general capabilities and cross-curriculum
The interconnections between place, space and environment in the geography
curriculum encourages engagement in ethical considerations. An awareness of
oneself and one’s impact on the built and natural environment heightens
individual awareness of everyone’s role in ensuring a just society today
and in the future.
The overview of the relevance of the general capability focused on ethical
behaviour for geography emphasises the importance of evaluating findings against
the criteria of environmental sustainability, economic viability, and social
justice. It correctly highlights that these considerations will raise ethical
questions about human rights and citizenship, such as who bears the costs and
who gains the benefits, and about group and personal responsibilities.
The Commission recommends that the geography curriculum also encourage
students to investigate geographical events using an ethical lens to illuminate
the ethical dimensions of human interaction with the built and natural
environment as well as the differential impact of ecological and environmental
changes on different groups of people. Approaching geographical inquiry in this
way will further strengthen students understanding of their role in creating a
just and human rights-respecting society.
(b) Personal and social
The emphasis on questioning and inquiry as a mode of learning in the
geography curriculum illustrates how students can positively influence their
world as active citizens locally, nationally and globally. As the overview on
the relevance of the general capability on personal and social competence points
out, students learn to respect and appreciate different perspectives and
opinions and understand how these are shaped by the context in which people
The Commission recommends that the process of learning to respect and
appreciate difference should also encourage students to develop empathy for
others. Empathy is an important aspect of developing human rights awareness and
can be fostered through developing an understanding and appreciation for the
different experiences of groups of people, and in turn an understanding of
one’s responsibility to respect the dignity of others and treat them with
respect. Empathy is also a critical step in developing a sense of one’s
role in positively improving the situation of others (active citizenship).
By examining local, national and global contexts, students gain an
understanding and appreciation for difference between peoples and cultures in
Australia and globally. As the overview on the relevance of the general
capability focused on inter-cultural understanding to geography highlights,
geography can assist to dispel stereotypes about different places and groups of
The Commission recommends, that in addition to assisting students to
understand why people in other places may see and construct the world
differently, it should also clearly aim to foster an appreciation, valuing and
respect for these differences. The curriculum is an important opportunity to
also develop an understanding of the commonalities between the underlying values
across all cultures including human rights values.
2.2 More consistent
integration of relevant general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities
throughout the geography curriculum
The descriptions in the Shape Paper of the general capabilities and
cross-curriculum priorities reflect an appreciation for their important place in
the geography curriculum. The Commission recommends that the remaining sections
outlining the structure, scope and sequence of the geography curriculum could
better reflect the important place of the general capabilities and
cross-curriculum priorities in the geography curriculum. The general
capabilities on ethical understanding, personal and social competence and
intercultural understanding could be more fully integrated into these sections
to reflect their importance and provide further guidance on their relevance and
application to different areas of the geography curriculum. For example, while
‘ethical considerations’ is specifically mentioned for Years 7-10,
it is not clearly articulated as a priority for earlier stages of learning. The
Commission suggests that the focus on ‘human themes’ and
‘human characteristics’ in Years 7-10 could be introduced earlier in
the learning sequence to enable a greater focus on ethical considerations in
The Commission recommends that the relevance of the general capabilities on
‘ethical understanding’, ‘personal and social
competence’ and ‘inter-cultural understanding’ to each stage
of schooling be clearly explained.
Following are some suggestions for additional topics of study for each stage
of schooling in the geography curriculum which would assist the integration of
the general capabilities and cross-curriculum priorities in the Curriculum:
Foundation to Year 2:
Included in the topic on local places could be a specific focus on learning
about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures in the
students’ local area as well as gaining an awareness of the differences in
the way people live in the local area.
Years 3 – 4:
In considering the topic of how people have changed the environment of a
place, students could examine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities’ relationship to the land.
Topics should also enable students to investigate the differences between
people in their community including in terms of culture and language and
developing an understanding and appreciation for this diversity and the
importance of inclusivity.
Years 5 – 6:
In considering the topic of environmental consequences of urban development,
personal travel and household consumption, students could consider the ethical
dimensions of such decisions including, the differing impact on groups and
differing ability of groups to affect changes because of their specific identity
(for example, socio-economic status or prejudices based on their race,
ethnicity, sex or any other status).
In considering the topic of adaptations to the risks of earthquakes and
volcanic eruptions, students could also consider ethical dimensions including
who lives in high-risk areas and their ability to mitigate the danger to them
and their community. This is part of developing an understanding of different
groups of peoples’ ability to influence their natural and built
environment because of factors such as their social and economic status, where
they live or other factors (for example sex or disability).
In Year 7, the focus on weather and water could encourage an exploration of
inequalities around water distribution and usage globally and nationally.
Similarly, the focus on weather hazards could encourage an exploration of the
differential impact of weather hazards on different groups of people. It could
also support a focus on investigating and explaining the challenges faced by
environmental refugees through the study of recent or current movements. The
focus on population change, migration and mobility could encourage an
understanding of why people migrate, the challenges faced by migrants and asylum
seekers, the rights of migrants, responsibilities of the state as well as all
society towards migrants and the value of diversity in our community.
In Year 8, the focus on biotic life could encourage an exploration of the
role of everyone in shaping the natural and built environment around them and
the rights and responsibilities that accompany this to bring about a fair and
just society and world. The focus on settlement could also encompass an
examination of the impact of rural and urban settlement on the enjoyment of
human rights and the responsibility of the state to balance competing rights and
ensure the enjoyment of the rights of all communities.
In Year 9, the focus on landscapes and resources could support an exploration
of concepts of privilege, disadvantage, equality and discrimination in the
context of inequality in access to and distribution of resources and
socio-economic rights. For example, comparing the situation of rural and urban
communities in Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
and/or developed and developing countries. The focus on economic geography also
supports an examination of global inequalities and human rights.
In Year 10, the focus on environment sustainability could encompass an
exploration of the responsibility to respect the environment and natural
environment in the context of unequal access to and enjoyment of resources. The
focus on human well-being also supports a detailed examination of critical human
rights and social justice concerns including an understanding of how inequality
and discrimination contribute to differences in economic and social wellbeing.
3 Inclusion of relevant
human rights examples and issues
To assist teachers to reflect a focus on the general capabilities and
cross-curriculum priorities that highlight human rights concerns, it will be
important to include focuses for study in each stage of learning that
demonstrate how teachers can bring attention to critical human rights issues.
For example, a focus on a global refugee crises (such as the famine crises in
Eritrea) could be used as a lens for highlighting the close relationship between
the natural environment and human settlement, the impact of power imbalances,
and the roles and responsibilities of different actors in creating and
mitigating such humanitarian disasters. Also important, are examples from
Australia and abroad, that allow students to explore the differences between
groups of people’s ability to influence their natural and built
environment because of factors such as their social and economic status, where
they live, and barriers arising from their specific identity (for example, race,
ethnicity, sex, disability or any other status).
Examples have been provided in the section above. Additionally, if ACARA
would value more detailed suggestions on how human rights could be incorporated
into the next stages of the Geography curriculum drafting then please contact
Dr. Annie Pettitt, Director, Community Engagement, firstname.lastname@example.org or Ph: (02) 9284 9806.