Sunday, June 21, 2009

Teaching Social Responsibility

May 2009

May 2009 | Volume 66 | Number 8
Teaching Social Responsibility Pages 5-5
Taking Higher Ground
Marge Scherer

The lead story in my newspaper this morning features the upcoming G20 summit in London at which international leaders will discuss whether regulations, bailouts, and stimulus plans will do anything to stem the financial crisis. Another story is about North Dakota, where residents are wearily watching whether the sandbag barriers they've built will hold back the Red River. The stories have their similarities—looming disasters, overwhelming forces, demands for people to come together to solve the problem before it is too late. The flood story seems a simpler one. But perhaps it only seems easier to battle a raging river than to battle raging greed.

This issue of Educational Leadership is about the schools' mission to teach the practice of putting individual interests aside to work together for the common good. Social responsibility is difficult to teach because we cannot always give students clear-cut answers about how to solve social and environmental problems. In fact, because we don't know which problems our students will be called on to address in the future, the challenge of teaching what Charles Haynes calls "the moral habits of the heart" is even greater. In these confusing times, it is much easier to believe that teaching social responsibility is not the schools' job at all.

Our authors, though, make a compelling case for schools to reclaim the traditional role they have been entrusted with—guiding students to become responsible citizens. As Charles Haynes (p. 6) writes,

World hunger and the other human tragedies—poverty, disease, tyranny, and war itself—offend a conscience shaped by concern for others. Meeting these challenges today requires more than politics and money; it requires people of conscience who are compelled to act.... Yes, reading and math are important. But what matters most is what kinds of human beings are reading the books and doing the math.

The authors in this issue believe it is necessary for all of us to learn about difficult 21st-century social issues—from genocide to global warming—but in developmentally appropriate ways. For example, the Facing History and Ourselves program (p. 59) engages students in thinking through connections between historical instances of mass violence and violent events today, but it starts with what students themselves know about conflict and prejudice. Environmental education programs like No Child Left Inside tackle such issues as global warming, species loss, and water scarcity from a scientific perspective. As Mike Weilbacher notes (p. 38), environmental education is a topic about which students have far more interest than real knowledge. It is time to correct that.

Author Laurel Schmidt (p. 32) warns that choosing to accept the challenge to teach social justice issues won't be easy. "Social justice," she writes, "is an unscripted mixture of politics, economics, laws, values, humanitarian crises, and issues that pit common sense against the common good. For every earnest cause, dozens of countervailing voices explain why the situation can't or shouldn't change."

Yet, as Schmidt says, our students are clamoring to debate these issues. From their earliest years in school, they look to their teachers to help them discover ways to respond to social problems.

This generation of students is also more cognizant of world affairs than previous generations have been. As author Rahima Wade (p. 50) reminds us, "Technology has brought the injustices of the world to our students' doorsteps." It's only after being told consistently that these issues are offlimits at school that they begin to believe that certain problems are not their concern or just too hard to solve.

Idealistic and interested in action, students greet inauthentic learning with skepticism but are most willing to rise to a meaningful cause. We know that many causes await them. Our job is to make sure they have the knowledge, the courage, and the habits of heart to take them on.

Copyright © 2009 by ASCD

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