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Education For Social Change

By Joe Lumsden,
Deputy Head of School and Secondary School Principal

"The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world."

  (James Baldwin)


I would imagine that if we asked all teachers around the world why they got into education in the first place, a large chunk of them would refer

to a desire to have a positive impact on the lives of others, to give something back to society, or to help make a better future in some way.  This idealism, I would also assume, helps the millions of teachers engaged in the daily grind of working in schools around the world to get through the school day. There has to be a purpose, a vision, a noble justification for the thousands of thankless tasks and demands that teachers face year in year out.

Occasionally we will come across children such as Malala Yousafzai or Greta Thunberg, both of whom have attained global reputations as ‘change makers’ through their social and political activism. While these stories are inspirational for many, the reality is that most schools will not produce a single child who will gain world-wide recognition for dedication to a worthy cause. Instead, good schools are constantly engaged in the business of helping young people become aware of challenges that the local or global community faces, the possible solutions to such challenges, and, ideally, the skills and characteristics that will be needed to collaboratively make a positive difference.

There are multiple approaches to helping students develop an awareness of and commitment to social change. To start, it is important to recognise the importance of traditional ‘service’ activities in the local community. The students who will have the economic power in the future to support social change programs are likely to be the ones attending private schools these days, traveling within their socio-economic bubble from gated housing communities to school campuses that look more like leisure complexes than school buildings.  The reality that these privileged children see is likely to be very limited in scope.

 It is absolutely vital to provide opportunities that force such students to experience life outside the safety of their bubble.  My current school, for example, organises opportunities for students to visit a local government school regularly. Our students, besides running fund-raising events and donating science and sports equipment, have also worked on collaborative musical performances, helped teach English, set up a ‘Power to Women’ group with local parents, and invited local students to our campus for various lessons and events. Beyond the work with the local government school, our students also visit old-age care homes, and hospitals, set up and run various environmental projects, organise gift drives for children in need, and get engaged in many other service activities. In such cases, I have found that the direct person-to-person nature of the experience is far more powerful than anything that could have been taught as a subject in a classroom. Reading and listening to stories in classrooms allows students to remain detached from the humanity of the issue, and as the school day rolls on and students move to the next class, the topic inevitably becomes part of a class rather than part of real life for the students. Face-to-face interactions, especially when there is a requirement or expectation for active involvement in some way, provide a significantly different experience and leave a lasting impression on the young people involved.

 One would hope that every school with the capability of doing so would encourage or require its students to engage in active community work in some way. However, schools do not usually have the freedom to send their students off campus too regularly: there is a curriculum to cover. And this ‘curriculum’, if designed with social change in mind, is where schools can have a major influence on helping develop young people commit to supporting their societies in a positive way.

 The quote from James Baldwin at the beginning of this article claims that ‘you can change the world’ if you ‘alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality’. If we accept this claim, as exaggerated as it may be, then the importance of a strong school curriculum becomes clear. The subjects studied at schools around the world did not appear at random – these are the areas of knowledge that the world has deemed worthy of study. This is because we learn to look at reality differently as we engage in our studies of these subjects. Mathematics helps us see patterns and solve problems, the sciences take us to the root causes of natural phenomena, history gives us the context to understand our own place in the world, geography opens our mind to the environment, economics and psychology help us understand human behaviour from different perspectives, and the various arts provide us with new perspectives on a whole variety of life experiences.

 We cannot ignore the importance of genuine engagement with a strong curriculum when we discuss education for social change. Construction projects around the world have provided billions of people with a higher standard of living, but they would not have happened without the engineers who benefitted from a strong mathematics and physics education. Developments in medicine have arguably made life longer and more comfortable for almost everybody on the planet, but this only happens if millions of individuals are exposed to effective biology and chemistry tuition. The bankers and business people that help ensure global economic growth and the alleviation of poverty for millions are schooled in the humanities subjects.  An uneducated population, or groups of people that have only ever memorised irrelevant facts at school, are unlikely to have the skills to be able to facilitate positive change in society, however idealistic and well-meaning they may be.

 The third and final approach to education for social change that I wish to draw attention to goes deeper than the level of school subjects and direct service opportunities. Working in international schools for the past twenty years, I have discovered that if anything is blocking a genuine desire for social integration and mutual support, it is ‘communication’ and, very often, a language barrier. In international schools around the world, we see students being educated in English unable to communicate with other children in the local community.  In such cases, even well-planned service trips to relevant areas can result in a fairly passive experience for students who are unable to converse with those they are visiting.  The promotion of multilingualism, therefore, becomes a ‘must’ for any school genuinely committed to supporting social change; otherwise, direct engagement will always remain at a distance for the students.

 But there is also another aspect of communication that often hinders the development of students who potentially could change the world, and that is the question of ‘whose voice gets heard’?  It’s very easy for wealthy schools to set up feel-good collection drives or fund-raising activities, but if the impetus is coming solely from the ‘giving’ school, then there could quite easily be a misunderstanding regarding the genuine needs of the target community.  The International Baccalaureate (IB), one of the most passionate advocates for social action, has addressed this by requiring students to engage in research before beginning any service-related project. The voices of the target community need to be heard in order to ascertain how best to help, and successfully eliciting these voices is a skill or habit that students need to become accustomed to.

 Finally, teachers in certain subjects are also in a position to influence ‘whose voice gets heard’ in their classes. In many schools, language and literature teachers will be able to select texts for students to be exposed to, humanities teachers will have some freedom to develop resources and materials, guest speakers can be invited to speak to students, and various topics can be addressed in assemblies or other lessons.  Teachers or administrators can choose to amplify or dampen certain voices through the choices they make, and these decisions, naturally, will impact the awareness that the students at the school develop regarding the many local and global issues that people face around the world today.

 Ultimately, a successful approach to education for social change will draw on ideas from all three levels discussed above. Students need opportunities to experience life outside their own socio-economic bubbles through well-planned, impactful service trips. The school curriculum needs to be designed so that all students develop the skills that they will need to effectively engage in important issues in the real world once they have graduated.  Finally, students need to be able to ‘hear the voices’ of people experiencing life in vastly different ways, and they need to develop the linguistic competence to be able to communicate with as many different people as possible, both locally and globally.




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