existence depends upon compassion and curiosity leading to knowledge,
but curiosity and knowledge without compassion is inhuman and
compassion without curiosity and knowledge is ineffectual."
--Victor Weisskopf, nuclear physicist
responsibility-that is, a personal investment in the well-being
of others and of the planet-doesn't just happen. It takes intention,
attention, and time." -- Sheldon Berman, "Educating
for Social Responsibility," Educational Leadership,
can and should be given opportunities to take part in the significant
events in their world. As teachers, we can create very powerful
opportunities for our students, both in the classroom and extending
into the larger world
.We can help them understand processes
of group decision making and the political process. And, we can
structure ways for them to participate in the empowering experience
of acting to make a real difference in the world." --ESR's
may question Berman's definition of social responsibility. What
constitutes "well-being"? Exactly who are the "others"?
Will the well-being of others be promoted by free trade agreements?
By immigration reform?
may question whether social responsibility can be taught. In two
of Plato's dialogues, Meno and Protagoras, Socrates
considers whether virtue can be taught. In Meno, Socrates
concludes that virtue is not knowledge and therefore cannot be
taught. In Protagoras, he concludes the reverse. Since
virtue has not been clearly defined, Protagoras argues, Socrates
and he need to talk again. But Plato does not record another dialogue
the definition of social responsibility is likely to provoke as
much disagreement as that of virtue, Plato would probably hold
that it cannot be taught as knowledge. But skills and understanding
a student needs to exercise social responsibility--these can be
can learn skills to help them work productively in a group, as
well as skills in organizing, problem-solving, consensus-building
and decision-making. They can learn skills to help them think
critically, to inquire, to engage in dialogue and listen well.
They can learn skills in conflict resolution.
can gain understanding as well. They can learn about our global
interdependence--socially, economically and ecologically. They
can apprehend the complexity of many public issues and multiple
points of view on these issues. They can learn about the power
of individuals and groups to make a difference. They can consider
possible solutions. And they can learn a great deal in the process
of working inside and outside of school to promote those solutions.
if social responsibility can't be taught directly as knowledge,
it can be "caught" in a variety of ways--through observations
of the behavior of parents, friends and others; through reading
and discussions; through a sense of injustice that demands personal
action. It can also be caught through schools that encourage community
service in some form or through immersion in a class project that,
whatever its success, can transform a person's life
to citizenship and social responsibility in schools
don't believe in politics," a Virginia high school student
wrote recently in a prize-winning essay for The Nation.
She undoubtedly speaks for many young people (as well as plenty
of adults) who feel powerless in a world of overwhelming problems
and cynical, often with good reason, about politics and politicians.
A teacher who seeks to develop socially responsible citizens will
not have an easy time. But turned-off students are not the only
challenge. Others may include:
that provide neither guidance on how to promote socially responsible
citizenship nor the time necessary for it
who may be more concerned with orderly classrooms than with
substance of the teaching and learning that takes place in them
whose view of citizenship and social responsibility is confined
to flag pledges, voting, philanthropy, completing assignments
who are fearful about promoting active citizenship (sometimes
with good reason)
and community members who think a school's primary function
is to get students to memorize facts and score well on tests
so they can get into college
and community members who may protest student involvement in
controversial public issues
class project: an introductory discussion
on an issue or problem they have been studying gives students
a chance to learn things they simply can't learn in a classroom.
While the idea of taking action on an issue may excite some students,
it may feel pointless and hopeless to others. It's essential that
teachers deal with these feelings and work to foster students'
teacher might open a dialogue by speaking frankly about his or
her experiences in, and feelings about, taking action on public
issues. The teacher might then propose for discussion or journal
writing, perhaps both, such questions as the following:
you think of a time when you made a difference in someone's
life, perhaps by helping them at a difficult time? What was
the situation? What did you do? How did it make you feel? Were
there obstacles to face? How did you overcome them?
you ever tried to make a difference on a public problem? Have
you raised money for needy people or some cause? Participated
in a petition campaign? Written a letter to an official? Helped
to organize a protest or an event? How did the action make you
feel? What were the results of the action?
it hard to affect the political system? Why? Can you think of
living individuals who have had a significant political impact?
What did they do? With what results? What do students know about
Ralph Nader? Robert Kennedy, Jr.? Jesse Jackson? Marian Wright
Edelman? What about historic figures? What do students know
about Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Frederick Douglass? A. Philip
Randolph? Betty Friedan?
Berman defines community as "a group of people who acknowledge
their inter-connectedness, have a sense of their common purpose,
respect their differences, share in group decision making as well
as in responsibility for the actions of the group, and support
each other's growth." In choosing a project issue and carrying
it out, students and teacher have an opportunity to create community.
will the choice of project be decided? By consensus? By majority
happens if students disagree about the purpose of a project? Should
the class split into two or more groups? Might this solution produce
bad feelings and be destructive of class community?
will the class handle controversy? While a class project to help
a Gulf Coast community devastated by Hurricane Katrina is unlikely
to be controversial, one that focuses on abortion or immigration
reform may be. Will some people oppose students taking a stand
and acting on the issue? If so, what should the class do? Can
the class find common ground? For example, if students want to
take action on immigration reform, they might focus on school
and community educational programs that offer multiple points
much class time can be allotted to the project?
teacher should keep the department chairperson, the principal
and parents informed (and if possible, involved) on what students
will be doing and why. Good class-school-community relations are
students choose an issue or problem for their project, there will
be new questions to consider. What is the source of this issue
or problem? Why? What, exactly, will the project be? Define it
does the group want to accomplish? What additional information
needs to be gathered? How?
tasks need to be done? Who will do them? Individuals? Small groups?
How will the work be coordinated? How will the group keep track
of what is being done? Should there be a student oversight committee?
Should there be regular class meetings to discuss progress?
obstacles can students foresee? How will they be overcome?
much student control of the project is possible? The more, the
better. It is important for students to feel that the project
is theirs. The teacher's role is to facilitate the work and to
be a guide. Limits to student control should be made clear from
the outset and the reasons for these limited need to be discussed
with the class.
students keep a journal, especially if this is to be an extended
project,. Devote class time to discussing the project's purpose,
students' ideas about it, their thoughts on the project's ups
and downs, what they've learned, what they would like to do better,
and the connection between the project and what students have
studied in class. Periodically, the teacher might ask students
if they'd like to share their observations with the class.
in a group
following activity is from Perspectives, a publication
of Educators for Social Responsibility that is no longer in print.
"Concert" (a name not to be divulged until after the
activity) needs about 75 minutes -- 45 minutes for the activity
itself and another 30 minutes for the class to assess what happened.
It will likely require two class periods. The activity, which
calls for problem-solving and group cooperation, involves all
students in a class. It puts a klieg light on how students work
together and may lead to insights that will help students conduct
their class project.
a class of 30 students, select 15-19 as group participants. The
other students are to observe and to note the participants' behavior.
(Another possibility is to divide the class into two groups of
14 with an observer for each. In this case, you'll need another
room for the second group.)
participant receives a slip of paper with a sentence or two of
information. After distributing the slips, the facilitator tells
the group: "You may not give your slip of paper to anyone,
but you can read the information on it to others. You may also
use paper and pencil if you care to. The group has a problem.
Solve it." The group receives no further information or guidance.
See the list below for what might be printed on each slip and
answers to the problem.
group response is confusion because participants don't know what
to do. The activity's purpose is to confront participants individually
and collectively with a situation all of us face at times: not
knowing what to do. As John Holt writes in his classic How
Children Fail, "The true test of intelligence is not
how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know
what it do."
confusion may come irrelevant comments, blank looks, the passivity
of some, possibly the formation of cliques. Gradually, leaders
usually emerge. Suggestions are tried out. Eventually, the group
realizes it has a question to answer. After that, solutions come
Begin with comments from the observers. What did they notice about
the behavior of individuals? Of the group?
What roles did individuals play-organizer, clarifier, idea person,
What problem-solving and decision-making strategies did the group
What behaviors helped or hindered the group?
What else did participants notice about their behavior? The group's?
What do the results of this activity demonstrate about effective
About ineffective group process?
items for slips
fewer than 19 students participate and information slips are eliminated,
the teacher needs to take note of how this affects the tally of
those going to the concert and those unable to.)
doesn't like rock and never did, but does like Lou and will
go if Lou goes.
will be going to the concert as long as Shawn doesn't need a
babysitter. Tracey's regular job is to babysit, so that comes
will go if the group is under twelve people. Val doesn't like
big groups--thinks they get into too much trouble.
concert is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
will go to the concert if someone drives them-it's a parental
Sandy and Anton are good friends; they've agreed never to go
to a concert if they can't go together.
got a bad mark in the last biology quiz and has to study every
night for an upcoming test, unless someone can help him understand
will be going to the concert?
just bought a pile of CDs and doesn't have any money left for
had an argument with Bobbi and Bobbi stomped off without working
it out. Now Caryl won't go to the concert if Bobbi goes unless
apologizes and resolves the argument.
concert is Saturday night.
Sandy and Anton have pooled all their money but it's still not
enough for three tickets.
wants Lou to be able to go to the concert, since it's Lou's
favorite group. He will help out by explaining the Josetics
unit. Also, Lou knows the lead singer and might be able to introduce
parents have set a 10 p.m. deadline for weekdays and an 11 p.m.
deadline for weekends. They mean what they say.
feels bad about walking out on the argument with Caryl and has
decided to call to apologize and settle argument once and for
is new in town and knows only one person, the next door neighbor,
Shelly. Robin will go if Shelly goes.
being given a free ticket to the concert, Shawn has decided
will drive to the concert and is willing to give anyone a ride.
uncle is visiting Saturday and the family is having a party.
will be going to the concert?" is essential to defining the
may think of other acceptable solutions in their effort to be
as inclusive as possible. For example, Phil is going because the
family party will be held in the afternoon.
J. is going.
will go because D. J. will help Lou with school work.
will go because Lou is going.
will drive everyone to the concert.
will go since Chris is driving.
and Bobbie will go because Bobbie is going to apologize and
this will resolve the
is going with that free ticket.
will go because the group isn't over 12 people.
Sandy and Anton aren't going because their pooled money isn't
not going for lack of money.
not going because the concert doesn't end until 12:30 a.m. and
the deadline for being home is 11 p.m.
isn't going because Shelly isn't going.
can't go because Shawn needs Tracey as a babysitter.
isn't going because of his uncle's visit and family party.
action in the school
any action, students need a grasp of the issue or problem. The
better they understand it, the better position they will be
in to promote understanding and action. The following list is
meant only to be suggestive.
a program on the issue with a panel format for a club or assembly.
Invite outside speakers.
a similar evening program in cooperation with the PTA.
a hall or library display with maps, posters, charts, graphic
and help to prepare a special issue or section of the school
newspaper or prepare your own newspaper, magazine to be distributed
both inside and outside the school
a series of PA broadcasts.
a program for presentation on the school's TV, local access
TV, or radio.
a school action club on the issue.
outside the school
e-mails and letters and/or call the offices of local, state
letters to the local newspaper.
money, perhaps through some public event like a car wash, that
will attract attention.
to work for an organization, a candidate, a cause.
to organize, and participate, in a public rally or meeting.
your mayor, state senator, congressional representative.
a silent vigil.
the record of a public official on your issue and publicize
a service, a product, a business.
a community program on the issue. It might be a strictly educational
program to present multiple points of view. It could take the
form of a rally to organize people for work and action in the
for assessing the project
the class the following questions. (Students might also respond
answer the questions, the class should consider all aspects of
the project-how well they understood the issue or problem and
how well they organized to do something about it; meeting commitments;
working together; dealing with conflicts; taking care of details,
did we do well?
could we have done better?
our work make a difference?
did we learn?
the class come up with a list of the people who assisted the project
in any way. Organize students to write notes thanking those people.
Berman's "Educating for Social Responsibility" and Making
History, a publication of Educators for Social Responsibility
no longer in print, were especially helpful in the preparation
of the article.
resources for social responsibility project work that are available
at www.teachablemoment.org include, in the high school section:
Teaching on Controversial Issues
Teaching Critical Thinking
Thinking Is Questioning
Politics and the Politics of Teaching
Student Action on the Tsunami Catastrophe
Citizens Who Make Themselves Useful
Active Citizenship Part of the Curriculum (This is a review
of Chris Weber's Nurturing the Peacemaker in Our Students:
A Guide to Writing and Speaking Out on Issues of Peace and War,
Portsmouth, NH, www.heinemann.com.
A chapter in Weber's book, "Educating Students About the
Scourge of Landmines," is an exceptionally rich and detailed
account of an extensive student project.)
the middle school and elementary sections of the site are materials
on conflict resolution, problem-solving and cooperative learning
essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome
your comments. Please email them to: email@example.com.