Creating active citizens? Interpreting, implementing and assessing ‘personal social action’ in NCEA social studies

Funding year: 
2 years
Victoria University of Wellington
School sector
Project start date: 
January 2015
Project end date: 
March 2017
Principal investigator(s): 
Dr. Bronwyn Wood
Research team members: 
Dr Rowena Taylor and Rose Atkins (Massey University Institute of Education), Dr Michael Johnston (Victoria University of Wellington)
Research partners: 
Joanne Wilson, Palmerston North Girls’ High; Kathy Grey, Horowhenua College; Caroline Wallis, Paraparaumu College; Amy Perkins, Bishop Viard College; Mary Greenland, Nayland College.

Project description

This project examined how the NCEA senior Social Studies ‘personal social action’ achievement standards are interpreted and implemented by teachers and students. The introduction of these standards has provided New Zealand students with a unique and valuable opportunity to examine social issues, design and implement social actions, and reflect upon the impact of their actions and decisions. Working with teachers and students at five schools we gathered evidence of strategies and approaches that have the potential to support students to engage in critical and transformative social action.


The following questions guided the research:
1. What factors influence teachers’ decision to offer (or not offer) the personal social action achievement standards?
2. What challenges and opportunities arise when implementing and assessing the personal social action achievement standards?
3. What pedagogical approaches enable critical and transformative social actions?
4. What do students understand the NCEA social action requirements to be and what are their views on the value of the personal social action standards?

Why is this research important?

The introduction of personal social action achievement standards can be seen as part of a wider commitment towards promoting active citizens and enacting learning. Early evidence however, suggests that teachers are now avoiding these performative achievement standards. Furthermore, prior research indicates that while many social studies teachers embrace the transformative potential of social action, they also hold concerns about the risks associated with students taking social action. Research in this area will help to clarify how teachers and students are interpreting and implementing these personal social action standards, and the strategies and approaches which support critical and transformative social action.

What we did

We used a mixed method approach which included:
1. An analysis of NZQA data on student enrolments and performance in NCEA social studies achievement standards in 2014 and 2015.
2. A survey of social studies teachers’ perceptions of social action and current practices (n=141).
3. Forming a partnership with five teachers where we conducted school-based research that involved classroom observations, individual teacher inquiries into aspects of the social action process, and shared reflections and collaborative planning at three Hui.
4. Focus group interviews with students (n=93).

Key Findings and Implications

The NCEA personal social action standards (Levels 1-3) are receiving steady growth in uptake and in 2015, around 5000 students completed these. The study found that when students were well supported, undertaking the NCEA personal social action standards was viewed by students and teachers as a highly valuable form of learning about society and social issues, and the social action process provided skills for civic and community engagement. To enable the social action process to be as meaningful as possible, teachers needed to encourage students to take action on issues that were personally significant for them and to ensure that students had strong knowledge and citizenship skills to undertake effective social action. Teacher guidance in the form of prompts, advice, and questioning throughout the social action/inquiry process enhanced the depth and significance of the social action process.

Our partners

The researchers from Victoria University of Wellington and Massey University established a collaborative partnership with five experienced teachers from diverse schools to conduct the research.
Joanne Wilson, Palmerston North Girls’ High School, Palmerston North
Kathy Grey, Horowhenua College, Levin
Caroline Wallis, Paraparaumu College, Paraparaumu
Amy Perkins, Bishop Viard College, Porirua, Wellington
Mary Greenland, Nayland College, Nelson

The diversity within the research team and school characteristics will provide opportunities to explore the complexities and new possibilities of implementing and assessing personal social action.

Contact details

Dr Bronwyn Wood (Principal Investigator), Faculty of Education, Victoria University of Wellington,; Ph: (04) 463 9611


Publications and Presentations

Practitioner Community Outputs


Wood, B., Atkins, R., Taylor, R., Perkins, Wallis, C., & Wilson, J. (2017). Taking social action in Social Studies: What can we learn from current research to support students to take meaningful social action?  Workshop 2 for Secondary School Social Studies Teachers, 21 February, 2017. Pukeahu Education Centre, Wellington, NZ.

Wood, B. (January, 2017) Student voice: What are some risks and rewards? Keynote Presentation to teachers from Thorndon School and Clyde Quay School for their Teacher-led Innovation Initiative.

Wood, B (24 May, 2017). Creating active, young citizens: How well is New Zealand doing? Keynote presentation for the Stout Research Centre/School of Education Seminar Series.


Taylor, R.M. (2016). We need to talk about civics education. Editorial New Zealand Federation of Graduate Women [NZFGW] News 95, August 2016, pp 1-2.

Wood, B., Atkins, R., Taylor, R., Greenland, M., Wallis, C., & Wilson, J. (2016). Taking social action in Social Studies: What can we learn from current research to support students to take meaningful social action?  Workshop 1 for Secondary School Social Studies Teachers, 18 November, 2016. Massey University Manawatū Campus, NZ.

Books, book chapter and journal articles


Wood, B. E. (2017). Youth studies, citizenship and transitions: towards a new research agenda. Journal of Youth Studies, 1-15. doi:10.1080/13676261.2017.1316363

Wood, B. E. & Taylor, R.M. (2017). Caring citizens: Emotional engagement and social action in educational settings in New Zealand. In J. Horton & M. Pyer (Eds.). Children, young people and care (pp. 78-92). Oxon/NY: Routledge.


Atkins, R.A., Taylor, R.M., & Wood, B. E. (2016). Planning for critically informed, active citizenship: Lessons from social-studies classrooms. SET: Research information for teachers, 3, 15-22. doi: Access here

Hayward, B., & Wood, B. E. (2016). Editorial. SET: Research information for teachers, 3, 1-3. doi: Access here

Wood, B. E., & Milligan, A. (2016). Citizenship education in New Zealand: Policy and practice. Policy Quarterly, 12(3), 65-73. Access here

Harcourt, M., Milligan, A., & Wood, B. E. (2016). Teaching social studies for critical, active citizenship in Aotearoa New Zealand. Wellington: NZCER Press

Hayward, B. & Wood, B.E. (Eds.). (2016). SET Research Information for Teachers. Special Issue: Civics, citizenship and political literacy. Wellington, NZ: NZCER.

Wood, B. E., & Milligan, A. (2016). Citizenship education in New Zealand: Policy and practice. Policy Quarterly, 12(3), 65-73. Retrieved from

Atkins, R. A., & Rawlins, P. (2016). How to use assessment to enhance learning in social studies. In M. Harcourt, A. Milligan, & B. Wood (Eds.), Teaching social studies for critical active citizenship in Aotearoa New Zealand (pp.134 -151). NZCER Press.

Conference Presentations


Wood, B.E, Taylor, R.M., Atkins, R.A., & Wallis, C. (2016). The politics and pedagogies of transformative, active citizenship education.  Seminar Presentation at the New Zealand Association for Research in Education The politics of learning Nōku anō te Takapau Waranui, Conference, Victoria University of Wellington. 22 November, 2016. Wellington, NZ.

Wood, B. E., & Black, R. (2016). Spatial, relational and affective understandings of citizenship and belonging for young people today: Towards a conceptual framework. Paper presented at the Interrogating belonging in Education Conference, Deakin University, Melbourne. May 30, 2016.

Taylor, R.M. (2016). Engaging teenagers in meaningful social action at school to encourage future participation as active and effective citizens in society. Seminar presentation to Graduate Women International Triennial Conference: Where education, gender and human rights meet; Theme Human rights and education- from teenager to adult in education and active life.  25 August 2016, Cape Town, South Africa.


Atkins, R.A. (2015). Enhancing student achievement within the NCEA ‘personal social action’ standards, 18-20 Nov, 2015.NZARE, Whakatane.

Wood, B. E. (2015). Assessing active citizenship: Pitfalls and possibilities. June 2-4, 2015 at the Redesigning Pedagogies and CitizEd Conference National Institute of Education. NTU, Singapore.

Wood, B. E. (2015). Citizens in Transition: Emotional labour and emotional capital in the classroom. June 10-12, 2015 at the 5th International and Interdisciplinary Emotional Geographies Conference, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Wood, B. E. (2015). Citizens in Transition: Emotional labour and emotional capital in the classroom. June 6, 2015 at Faculty of Education, Cambridge University, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Wood, B. E. (2015) Youth studies, citizenship and transitions: Intersections, divergences and new theoretical spaces. November 23-26 2015 The Australian Sociological Association, Cairns.

Wood, B.E., Taylor, R.M., Atkins, R.A., Greenland, M., & Wilson, J.  (2015). Kick-starting Social Action: A closer look at social action through the eyes of teachers and students.  28 September 2015.SocCon15 New Zealand Social Sciences Conference: Creating Collegial Connections – Inspiring Teachers.


Victoria University (2016). ‘Creating youthful, active citizens’ in Victorious Alumni Magazine, Issue 1. 2016, p. 11

Boyle, J. (2016). The common good: Remedies for civic disengagement. The Education Gazette, Focus: Curriculum Support, 9 November, 2016. 2-4. (incorporating findings and a case study from our TLRI Project).   

Little, J. (2016, November). Active citizenship a new focus in social studies [Media Release] Manawatu, NZ. Retrieved from

Little, J., & Atkins, R. A. (2016, December 6). A new focus for social studies: The importance of active citizenship. Kapiti Independent News (pp. 1-2). Kapiti, NZ. Retrieved from

Radio New Zealand. (2016, November 24). Teaching Kids to be Active Citizens: An interview with Bronwyn Wood. [Radio Interview]. Wellington, NZ. Retrieved from

Opportunities arose during the course of the research to collaborate nationally and internationally. These outputs with members outside our team still drew on TLRI findings and this was acknowledged in these publications.