Social Education 57(2), 1993, pp. 82
1993 National Council for the Social Studies 82
Classrooms: The Confluence of Essential Social Streams
Lynden J. Leppard
Society expects a great deal of its teachers. It has every right to do so. The expectations, however, are often conflicting, unrealistic, and incoherent. Teachers often feel that parents, politicians, and businesses see the classroom as a magical emergency room-the place to cure all manner of ills. Education is the favored solution to social disorder, poor productivity, citizens alienated from government, and any number of particular concerns from driver education to pet care. Compounding the challenges of these expectations are the myriad of conflicting solutions proposed by experts and interest groups.
Meanwhile, teachers and students meet every day and time passes in classrooms. Teachers, students, and administrations make decisions constantly on how that time should be spent, what is important to learn, and how that learning can be done most effectively. These curriculum decisions need not be as fraught with the tensions of incompatible expectations as they currently are.
A coherence has emerged that combines old and new, comfortable and challenging, philosophical and practical, the classroom and the needs of the individual, and democratic process and the business world of work. A confluence is building between four significant streams of human behavior. The compatibility has always existed but opportunities for transforming apparent discord into common understandings and common ground are emerging.
The four elements are:
These essential elements of living have a shared philosophical and action foundation that offers a powerful way ahead for those who work together on the nature and purpose of education. Social studies, as defined by National Council for the Social Studies, is an example of the way these elements can be combined with each other and with traditional and new ways of organizing knowledge. The definition adopted in 1992 reads:
- business and the workplace
- politics and citizenship
- schooling and education
- critical and creative thinking
Social studies is the integrated study of the social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence. Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.
The messages and opportunities offered by this coherence are not only useful for teachers. Those involved in business, education, and politics can learn from each other as they identify the old and new beliefs on which they base their actions.
What Is the Common Ground?
The following summary indicates key characteristics and some of the correlations between them. Each section is considered more extensively in separate articles.
Business and the workplace
Efficient, productive, and profitable businesses are now characterized by:
- work teams with responsibility for interpreting, planning, assessing, and achieving quality.
- quality measured as pride in work rather than products produced.
- cooperative rather than competitive work relationships.
- horizontal rather than vertical power relationships with strong emphasis on delegation.
- leadership and management through vision creation and setting examples.
- participative management.
- workers valued for their initiative and unique capacities.
- the belief that quality is most efficiently achieved and maintained by building on people's natural tendency toward self-fulfillment.
- highly developed communication, problem-solving, and group-interaction skills.
- the importance of mental acuity over physical prowess including critical and creative thinking and information skills analysis.
People share a sense of frustration with politics as it is generally defined. They are alienated by the politics-as-usual, adversarial relationships between big parties, big money, and powerful interest groups. They feel locked out, condescended to, and powerless and they want things to be different.
This frustration and alienation is not necessarily cause for surrender and depression. People engage in behaviors that represent a positive view of civil society. Citizens have expectations and aspirations on which a new way of doing politics is developing-a new way that is, in reality, a traditional definition of democracy.
These actions, aspirations, and expectations have been described in the following research findings (Harwood Group 1991):
Schooling and Education
- People care about politics but they feel politically impotent.
- Citizens feel cut off from most policy issues because of the way they are framed and talked about-they do not see their concerns reflected there.
- Citizens believe that those with authority make no serious attempts to hear the public voice. Only large groups and angry protests are heard. Interest groups have taken over and citizens have lost their place.
- Citizens are tired of superficial information and trivializing of the issues into bipolar arguments and personality wars.
- People want to share responsibility for the problems facing society. They want to be participants rather than spectators.
- Citizens want governments to govern and public officials to do their jobs but they also want to know that their concerns and needs are properly weighed and considered. They want decisions properly explained.
- U.S. citizens are actively engaged in public life. They do not call what they do politics, but that is what they readily engage in when they think there is even a possibility of bringing about change.
We know a great deal about the nature of good schools, effective teachers, and the necessary conditions for learning.
What does this mean in the classroom?
- Learning begins and ends with learners and their beliefs, priorities, skills, and knowledge. The teacher must begin from where the learner begins for learning to take place.
- Recall is not knowledge. Knowledge is the act of having a clear and justifiable grasp of what is so or of how to do something. Knowledge is the result of rational thought in which learners must engage their experiences (Paul 1990, 558).
- Knowledge can rarely be transmitted from one to another in the form of verbal statements in lecture form. Learners must engage with each other to gain knowledge and insight.
- Learners must take increasing responsibility for their learning. Teacher and learner are in partnership and the learner cannot expect to play a passive role.
- Learning means uncertainty, intellectual conflict, tension, and confusion. We can either view these conditions as necessary, desirable, and exciting signs of growth or we can avoid and discourage them.
- Learning means asking questions of yourself and others. Doubt and questioning strengthen understanding; they represent a struggle toward understanding.
- Rational thought is not the same as linear, logical thinking. Those characteristics are part of the picture but creative, nonlinear approaches are effective and necessary in solving new social problems.
- Intuition, emotion, and deeply held values are real, inescapable, and essential elements of what it is to be human.
- Learners actively construct prejudice, bias, and misconceptions. People have positive reasons for their beliefs and values. Telling people they are wrong and bad does not change those beliefs and values. People must have opportunities to refine and reconstruct their knowledge and beliefs.
- Having expert information and having a lot of information does not equal understanding an issue. Specialist knowledge is a resource for making decisions about important issues, but is not an answer itself.
Critical and Creative Thinking
- Students value the talking they do as essential to learning.
- Students recognize the value of uncertainty and the danger of simple truths.
- Students do not expect to find the right answer and a single unique solution. They know that they will always struggle to identify a preferred pathway of action and understanding.
- Students value the points of view and experiences of other people because they know that no single vantage point shows the whole picture.
- Students value the fact that others are different from them and they know that people have other opinions for good reasons, not because they are bad or stupid.
- Students identify the difference between opinion and judgment. Rather than own their opinions and defend them blindly, they develop them into judgments and are always prepared to refine those judgments.
- Students search for strategic information necessary for them to make quality choices. They judge the quality of information and opinions.
- Students value their own knowledge and experience and the knowledge and experience of their peers.
Lauren Resnick (1987) notes these characteristics of higher-order thinking.
Edward de Bono (1990, 274) makes the following comments about the conventional view of problem solving.
- It is nonalgorithmic. That is, the path of action is not fully specified in advance.
- It tends to be complex. The total path is not visible (mentally speaking) from any single vantage point.
- It often yields multiple solutions, each with costs and benefits, rather than unique solutions.
- It involves nuanced judgment and interpretation.
- It involves the application of multiple criteria, which sometimes conflict with each other.
- It often involves uncertainty. Not everything that bears on the task is known.
- It involves self-regulation of the thinking process. We do not recognize higher-order thinking in an individual when someone else controls each step of a cognitive process.
- It involves imposing meaning, finding structure in apparent disorder, and building frameworks for rational sense making.
The major defect of this traditional method of survival is that it will only get us back to where we were before. In business, politics, and social progress this idiom of "problem solving" dangerously limits progress. Problem solving needs to be contrasted with the process of "design," which moves forward to a need.
This synectics (creative problem solving) movement has developed a thirty-year research base around the principle that by using "the mind's remarkable capacity to connect seemingly irrelevant elements of thought, we can spark surprising new ideas that may later be developed into feasible solutions to problems" (Weaver and Prince 1990, 378).
de Bono, Edward. I Am Right: You Are Wrong. London: Viking, 1990.Harwood Group. Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1991.Paul, Richard. Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Survive in a Rapidly Changing World. Rohnert Park, Calif.: Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique, Sonoma State University, 1990.Resnick, Lauren. Education and Learning to Think. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1987.Weaver, W. T., and G. Prince. "Synectics: Its Potential for Education." Phi Delta Kappan 71 (January 1990): 378-88.Additional Sources
Beyer, Barry. "Improving Thinking Skills." Phi Delta Kappan 65 (March 1984): 486-90.de Bono, Edward. CoRT Thinking: Teacher's Notes 1-6. New York: Pergamon, 1986-87.Dewey, John. Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1916.Higher Order Thinking in High School Social Studies: An Analysis of Classrooms, Teachers, Students, and Leadership. Madison, Wis.: National Center on Effective Secondary Schools, 1988.Kanter, Rosabeth M. When Giants Learn to Dance. New York: Touchstone Books, 1990.Leithwood, K., ed. Planned Educational Change. Toronto: OISE Press, 1986.Leppard, Lynden J. "Assessment: A Window on Democracy." National Issues Forums in the Classroom (February 1992): 6-8._____. "Classrooms as Democracies." National Issues Forums in the Classroom (September 1991): 3-4, 7.McAfee, Noelle, Robert McKenzie, David Mathews, and E. Peterson. Hard Choices. Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1991.Mathews, David. What Is Politics and Who Owns It? Dayton, Ohio: Kettering Foundation, 1992.Nisbet, J., and P. Davies. "The Curriculum Redefined: Learning to Think-Thinking to Learn." Research Papers in Education 5 (March 1990): 49-72.Schmitt, M., and Timothy Newby. "Metacognition: Relevance to Instructional Design." Journal of Instructional Development 9 (1986): 29-33.Sternberg, R. "Teaching Critical Thinking: Eight Easy Ways to Fail Before You Begin." Phi Delta Kappan 68 (February 1987): 456-59._____. "Thinking Styles: Keys to Understanding Student Performance." Phi Delta Kappan 71 (January 1990): 366-71.Yankelovich, Daniel Coming to Public Judgment. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991.