There are three generally accepted goals of all education: to prepare students for future work, to help young people become the best version of themselves by developing their unique talents and skills, and to ensure that people integrate successfully into society. It is the last of these three goals that is often the most contentious, because there are many different opinions about what ‘society’ should look like and how we should behave towards each other.
Social education has been defined by UNESCO as: “The only means of elevating humanity emotionally, intellectually, morally and materially”, while India’s Ministry of Education included phrases such as “functional literacy”, “moral life”, “community development” and ‘desirable social change’ in the 1963 definition. There seems to be broad agreement on the kind of ambitious goals we would like to achieve through ‘social education’, but how to do it is clearly more challenging.
Schools usually approach ‘social education’ through three main avenues. To begin with, ‘literacy’ must be one of the fundamental building blocks of social education. Societies function through effective communication, and without literacy (and to a lesser extent strong numeracy skills) it is hard to imagine any community or society enjoying any cohesion or success. This is why you will always see the main language of the community as the most important course on any student’s report card, and why language proficiency will often be one of the most important requirements in school and university entrance tests.
Secondly, several schools offer “social science” courses, which usually consist of history, geography, economics, business, religion, philosophy, psychology, etc. The purpose of these courses is to help students understand how they live in the world how people relate to each other, how things developed the way they did, and how people have thought about societies and the ideas that drive them. In my experience, I have often found that these are the lessons in schools where students feel most comfortable, which I think suggests an innate desire in young people to feel part of a community and find ways to contribute (which contrasts with the typical criticism of our youth as overly narcissistic).
Finally, outside the curriculum, schools will often involve students in service work in the local community. The goal is to help our students make connections between classroom learning and the world they live in. These experiences can be very powerful learning opportunities, especially for students whose life and school feel more like a safe bubble, detached from the challenging lives of those around them.
This tripartite approach to official language literacy, social studies, and community service may have served its purpose in the twentieth century; however, it’s pretty clear that “social education” should look different now.
‘Literacy’ is no longer limited to reading and writing in a particular language. Our children communicate through digital tools and need to become digital citizens with a high level of competence in new literacy. They live in a multilingual world of social media posts, images and reels, and being ‘literate’ in such a world requires education to help them safely and effectively interpret the linguistic and visual signs they are exposed to . Schools therefore need to ensure that a robust digital citizenship curriculum is part of the school curriculum and that students develop the literacy skills needed to navigate the new social milieu.
Social studies courses need to become more globally oriented so that students are prepared to take their place in the global community as they grow older. There is no point in memorizing the names of kings, queens and presidents of a particular country when the issues our youth will address are international environmental concerns, global injustice and poverty, and the ever-increasing interconnectedness of our ideas , economies and technologies.
‘Think globally and act locally’ makes more sense when it comes to service projects. Involvement in a local service project while understanding how global forces affect the problem seems to be the best approach to ensure our students are global citizens as well as valuable members of their local communities.
-Written by Joe Lumsden, Deputy Head of School and Principal of High School, Stonehill International School, Bangalore
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