How Teachers Can Inspire Social Change in the Classroom

Every generation does its own work in coming to terms with the challenges of social change. Young people can begin leaving their imprint on the world around them through a wide range of community-minded practices and organizations.

That process does not have to wait until college and beyond: It can begin in the primary school classroom.

Public education has long been intimately connected to the idea that students must receive some training to become well-rounded citizens as adults. In the era of standardized testing and “career readiness,” however, the idea of social consciousness as a learning outcome has become both more visible and more controversial.

Nonetheless, students who perceive the connections between their lives and the dynamic, continuing story of their own community are more likely to be active and informed participants in the democratic processes around them. And that means “democracy” not only in a political sense, but in an intellectual and even ethical sense.

Enter the concept of democratic education.

How is Democratic Education Different?

At its core, democracy is the idea that everyone has meaningful decisions to make about the social world unfolding around them – emphasizing both choices and the personal agency to make those choices.

It has often been assumed that these concepts have no place within the classroom – rather, that they have to be experienced in situations and activities that are outside the scope of education. Likewise, some have argued that the emotional and intellectual maturity that are required for meaningful democratic participation is beyond the scope of students during their younger years.

However, there’s no denying that during the first years of formal school students are learning a great deal about the boundaries of their world: What they can change and how to go about doing it. It only makes sense that they learn the basics of effecting change on a larger scale, too.

In addition to subject matter information such as the branches of government and the presidents, teachers can help students discover the inner resources and interpersonal skills they need to become proactive contributors in a complex and diverse world.

A democratic approach to the classroom emphasizes these key ideas:

  • The voice of students in their education and in the education reform process;

  • Communication and the willingness of others to keep students informed;

  • An emphasis on effective problem-solving for “real world” problems;

  • Empathy and creativity in looking at issues from multiple angles;

  • Consensus-building in creating solutions that work for everyone.

Social Change Inside and Outside the Classroom

By empowering students to become the problem-solvers in their own world, the precepts of democratic education allow them to take responsibility on higher levels. This is one way of introducing students to the power of collaboration as a source of change – the realization that many of the largest problems require multiple stakeholders and experts to work together.

That very same idea can begin in the classroom with a participatory approach to learning.

For example:

Self-Directed Projects

As students get older, they naturally have more say in the direction of their learning endeavors. For example, high school students and even some middle school students choose electives. In college, students have dramatically expanded degrees of choice about classes, schedules, professors and the topics they will explore within the broad context of college. Why not start sooner?

Many teachers in the middle grades and beyond offer some flexibility in, for example, report topics. However, students can be offered the opportunity to not only choose subject matter, but structure their projects and select the hypothesis they will explore. This stamp of individuality on their studies helps them to feel more engaged and personally accomplished.

Community Outreach

Over time, experiential learning has taken a prominent place in many theories of education. The transformative power of early community outreach experiences cannot be underestimated when it comes to teaching children about positive social change. Class volunteer projects may set kids on the road to a greater sense of awareness, connectedness and responsibility.

Without the proper context, certain forms of volunteerism can be boring or confusing to children. To set them off on the right foot, it is a good idea to consider getting students’ opinions on which charity organization to engage with. When students can state their reasons for finding one cause or another important to them, they are more likely to feel invested.

Meaningful Student Voices in Education

All social change ultimately starts at home. Students understand that it is a challenging time in education, and they increasingly feel left out of the conversation. For students to recognize and engage with the challenges in their own learning community, however, administrators, parents, and teachers need to be willing to work together to give them a voice.

For a starting point, these efforts can be patterned after more traditional “student government” programs. For maximum impact, however, student participants should be able to identify and address issues of their own choosing. This could run the gamut from problems with facilities to a desire to see the curriculum extended or changed.

What’s the Key to Inspiring Students to Think Seriously About Social Change?

With all this in mind, it’s important to realize that democratic education is not the only way that teachers can foreground social responsibility as an important concept. A spirit of social change can infuse even the most conventional lessons and approaches – if done correctly.

A curriculum that emphasizes democratic education practices or the principles of social change isn’t about forcing students to think or act a certain way. It is most important to help students recognize the importance of their own social capital and make informed decisions about when and how to invest it – decisions that many adults only too frequently defer to others.

Thus, no matter what specific lessons are chosen or how they are approached, the importance of social change can by emphasized by imbuing all teaching efforts with positive values:

Find Connections with Students’ “Real Lives”

At a young age, children have difficulty drawing connections between their lives and what happens “out there” in the world. As they age, they may be more influenced by the things they see and hear on the news, but have difficulty articulating their feelings. The classroom can be a place where students express and refine their feelings through writing assignments and by identifying how others, also impacted by a given situation, might feel differently.

Teach Children to Become Discriminating Consumers of Information

The more contentious a subject is, the more information will be available that isn’t strictly grounded in the facts. New information technology allows children to access a great variety of perspectives, but they – and the adults in their community – can be misled. Students should be taught to compare perspectives, starting with relatively mature and fact-focused sources like newspapers, and recognize an author’s interests and biases.

Try Authentic Assessments

“Authentic assessments” are those with an experiential or real-world component. This “raises the stakes” versus something that will never be shared or will only be seen by a teacher. For example, if students are doing a unit on writing letters, they should choose a recipient they actually want to connect with and a subject that matters to them.

Social change is something to be embraced in the classroom. By introducing children to their own autonomy in collaborative, prosocial ways, educators can kindle a spark of inspiration that may motivate students throughout the rest of their lives. In this way, teachers, parents and administrators have the opportunity to truly demonstrate their commitment to the idea that children are the future. Learn more about our online Master of Education program.


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