“What even is modern studies?”
A question often asked by new students and parents: no other subject teacher has to justify the existence of their subject as frequently as those in modern studies.
The most succinct and academically accurate description of our subject – which is distinct to Scotland – is probably the study of “political, social and economic issues in local, national and global contexts”. Unsurprisingly, this reply is often greeted with blank stares and a mental note that they’ll be better off just picking history or geography – after all, you can’t do a degree in modern studies, they might reason, and even if you could, what sort of job would that get you? Modern studies teaching, probably.
Modern studies is available at all secondary school levels in Scotland, from S1-S3 “People and Society” all the way through to Advanced Higher (which is broadly equivalent to A level in England). Despite the fact that the subject has been delivered in most Scottish schools for over a generation, less sympathetic colleagues and parents have been known to deride it as the “watch the news” subject. However snide and unfair, that description does capture some of the double-edged sword that both enthrals and infuriates modern studies teachers.
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On the one hand, there’s always something new and interesting to teach, and lessons never get stale. On the other, your materials are often out of date before they’ve been printed: every modern studies teacher has had the heart-sinking realisation that their brand-spanking-new, cutting-edge, methodology-filled, superb topic has just been rendered obsolete due to some new twist and turn in our ever-changing society. With a general election, a Scottish Parliament election, an EU referendum (not that long after the Scottish independence one), a US presidential election and US midterms all in the past two years, the pressure to keep pace with the most recent examples has been more time-consuming than in most subjects.
The constant need to update and change your lessons, not year to year but day to day, can take its toll when budget cuts in Scottish education are already placing huge strain on teacher time and resources. It’s a constant battle between wanting to provide the best education possible and having the time and resources to provide it.
It doesn’t help that our arguments on the content we teach have changed with the current landscape of British and US politics. How, for example, can we expect pupils to argue that the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system produces strong majority governments when in the past three general elections, this has only happened once? Then again, the current landscapes make for the most interesting lessons: they spark engagement and excitement amongst young people, and they lead to fantastic questions and a true sense of participation.
Teaching modern studies is a minefield
Another danger faced by the modern studies teacher is the contentious nature of emergent topics. We all entered this profession to make a positive difference to the lives of young people, and nowhere else does the moral minefield of who, what and how to teach sensitive and controversial issues loom as large. Our colleagues in English have had had half a decade of reflection on how best to tackle the racially-charged vocabulary in To Kill a Mockingbird; spare a thought for the pupils and teachers who are studying the leader of “a world power you have studied” who cheerfully tweets incendiary vitriol on a daily basis.
Politics has always been central to any modern studies course and improving political literacy is a crusade most teachers of the subject embrace. Our history colleagues are pretty safe – you’d hope – in presenting their lesson with an anti-Nazi bias, and no one seems to care when their geography teacher openly prefers V-shaped valleys over U-shaped ones. Every modern studies teacher’s heart sinks, however, when they're asked “that” question: “Yes or no?”; “Remain or leave?”; “Yellow, green, red or blue?”
Do we pour cold water over genuinely interested young learners with a staid “no comment”, or lay out our heartfelt and genuine views, risking accusations of bias? Of course, no teacher wants their own opinions to colour their students’, they should arrive at their own opinions by themselves – but what if they’re wrong? In the “fake-news” era, the line between fact and opinion is blurred further, students present a wide spectrum of views. More pernicious views, such as the denial of a gender-pay gap, present a conundrum: we don’t want to tell students they’re wrong – this isn’t a maths lesson – but surely we have a duty to provide students with the facts? But then what if we’re wrong? Surely "fact" can’t be a subjective term – or can it?
When the Scottish Qualifications Authority asked Higher students last year to “analyse the potential impact of leaving the European Union”, young people were effectively being asked to do what the government of the day, objectively, cannot. Personally, the teaching of Brexit has represented the nadir of the problem with teaching modern studies. It was highly frustrating trying to explain the differences and practicality of “no-deal backstops” (is that a baseball term?), “alternative arrangements” (some of the kids had these for exams), frictionless borders (sounds messy) and the Malthouse Compromise (sounds tasty). But our frustrations fade into insignificance when compared with the concerns of the young people we teach: could I, for example, reassure a concerned, non-UK student that they will be able to go to university in Scotland?
In short, the “modern” in modern studies has never been more problematic. But without it we’d just be “studies” – and what even is that?
Courtney Dow is acting principal teacher of guidance and a modern studies teacher at Grove Academy in Dundee. Matthew Robertson is principal teacher of modern studies, sociology and politics at Grove Academy