Archive | February, 2011

Social Action and the Curriculum

19 Feb

If I think back to the content of what I learned in elementary school, I am hard pressed to remember most facts that were delivered to me and I was expected to recall onto a piece of paper. I have taken that knowledge and compiled it into a general knowledge of the world. Given that I did relatively well in school, would it not be safe to assume that my students, if I taught them the same way that I was taught, would also not remember the delivered content even if they also did well?  I am assuming this is true.  Since I do not teach in a manner that delivers facts and information to students, what do I think the purpose of our time together should be?  I think that my job is predominantly two fold. 1) to create students who know how to learn on their own and do not need a teacher to fill them with information and 2) to create students that are socially conscious, active members of society.  I want them to be able to question, think critically and have the confidence to act when they believe that they can make a difference.  So how do I do that when I have a responsibility, as set out by my government, to ensure that all students meet prescribed outcomes that focus mainly on content knowledge? The answer is, I read between the lines.

In my Social Studies curriculum, the guide provided a list of goals that do reflect a focus on fostering social action in students:

“The role of social studies education is to help students develop the values and attitudes, knowledge and understanding, and skills and processes necessary to become active and responsible citizens, engaged in the practice of democratic ideals and aware of their capacity to effect change. Social studies supports active and responsible citizenship by enabling students to:

  • value the diversity, respect the dignity, and support the equality of all human beings
  • develop a sense of social compassion, fairness, and justice
  • recognize, speak out, and take action against injustice as it occurs in their schools, communities, Canada, and the world
  • understand Canadian and world history, to better comprehend the present and to influence the future wisely for the well-being of all
  • critically consider and understand historic and contemporary issues, including controversial issues, from diverse perspectives
  • develop a global consciousness with respect to the human condition and world issues
  • understand how political and economic distributions of power affect individuals, communities, nations, and environments
  • understand geographic concepts and skills, and that humans exist in a dynamic relationship with the natural environment
  • develop a consciousness and sense of stewardship for the land, as well as an understanding of the principles of sustainability”

From Social Studies 8, Saskatchewan Curriculum

The goals set out in the curriculum sound well intended and right on track for fostering social action in middle years students but when you focus on the Outcomes and Indicators it is difficult to see how what they would like students to be able to do and how teachers can expect them to demonstrate it, meets these goals. The Outcomes do not do enough to meet the goals.  To prove my point, I will focus on the goals of  “understand geographic concepts and skills, and that humans exist in a dynamic relationship with the natural environment” and “develop a consciousness and sense of stewardship for the land, as well as an understanding of the principles of sustainability”.  The following Outcome and Indicators relate directly to these goals:

OUTCOME: Critique the approaches of Canada and Canadians to environmental stewardship and sustainability.


  1. Represent on a timeline the evolution of Canadian policy on global environmental issues, including historical First Nations approaches to environmental stewardship.
  2. Outline the issues involved in finding solutions to an environmental challenge (e.g., sharing water resources with the US, logging in Canadian forests, expansion of nuclear energy, development of tar sands).
  3. Tell the story of changes made in his or her behaviour to protect the environment (e.g., walking, purchasing locally-produced or seasonal products, recycling; composting; disposing responsibly of garbage; using less paper; using less plastic; factoring packaging into purchases).

Timelines, reports and stories do not sound like true Social Action to me.  Reading the article “An inescapable network of mutuality”: Building Relationships of Solidarity in a First Grade Classroom” by Shira Eve Epstein and Celia Oyler, which outlines a social action project in a first grade classroom, has inspired me to do more. In the past, my social action projects have done what the curriculum has done, forgotten to do the actual “action.” and while these project did meet curriculum outcomes, they did not meet the goals of the Social Studies curriculum.

Within my classroom and among our other two grade 7/8 classrooms, we will soon be embarking on a Social Action project that will directly address the above mentioned curricular outcome along with other related Science Outcomes and Literacy Outcomes. Students will introduced to a variety of different social activists, environmental issues (our example will be the effects of Oil production on the environments and society and will be framed through the lens of the Gulf Coast Oil spill) and will be asked to make a plan for action and most importantly FOLLOW THROUGH on that action. You can visit our wiki to follow our process on this endeavor and I will be blogging about it further. I am also going to be encouraging the use of Social Media like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube for this project (even though that may be dangerous, but that is a whole other issue.  Please see my Roadblocks post for my concerns.)

I am very excited to be starting on this endeavor with my students but I am wondering why direct social action and following through on a plan are not part of our curriculum? Do we think that our students are incapable of making sustainable, authentic change in our world?  We only have to look to the stories of Craig Kielburger, who founded Free the Children when he was 12 and Severin Suzuki, who appealed to the United Nations to stop destroying our world, to know that this is not true. So why do teachers have to read between the lines and invent these kinds of projects on our own? Why is there not direct support for this in our curriculum. My young students can be full of energy and passion, they just need the guidance and resources to take advantage of that.  Surely, we can expect more from our students than a timeline, a proposal for action or a story of someone else that has done something.  I intend to do so and I will let you know how it goes. Who knows, maybe I have the next Kielburger in my class, maybe you do. Why is our curriculum not encouraging us to find out?

What are you doing to inspire social action in your students?