Teaching Social Responsibility

Suggestions for guiding students through a class project on an issue they care about--including a student activity that shines a light on group process.

"Social responsibility-that is, a personal investment in the well-being of others and of the planet-doesn't just happen. It takes intention, attention, and time." — Sheldon Berman, "Educating for Social Responsibility," Educational Leadership, November 1990

"Students can and should be given opportunities to take part in the significant events in their world. As teachers, we can create very powerful opportunities for our students, both in the classroom and extending into the larger world.  We can help them understand processes of group decision making and the political process. And, we can structure ways for them to participate in the empowering experience of acting to make a real difference in the world." —ESR's Making History


Some may question Berman's definition of social responsibility. What constitutes "well-being"? Exactly who are the "others"? Will the well-being of others be promoted by free trade agreements? By immigration reform?

Others may question whether social responsibility can be taught. In two of Plato's dialogues, Meno and Protagoras , Socrates considers whether virtue can be taught. In Meno, Socrates concludes that virtue is not knowledge and therefore cannot be taught. In Protagoras , he concludes the reverse. Since virtue has not been clearly defined, Protagoras argues, Socrates and he need to talk again. But Plato does not record another dialogue between them.

Since the definition of social responsibility is likely to provoke as much disagreement as that of virtue, Plato would probably hold that it cannot be taught as knowledge. But skills and understanding a student needs to exercise social responsibility—these can be taught.

Students can learn skills to help them work productively in a group, as well as skills in organizing, problem-solving, consensus-building and decision-making. They can learn skills to help them think critically, to inquire, to engage in dialogue and listen well. They can learn skills in conflict resolution.

Students can gain understanding as well. They can learn about our global interdependence—socially, economically and ecologically. They can apprehend the complexity of many public issues and multiple points of view on these issues. They can learn about the power of individuals and groups to make a difference. They can consider possible solutions. And they can learn a great deal in the process of working inside and outside of school to promote those solutions.

Even if social responsibility can't be taught directly as knowledge, it can be "caught" in a variety of ways—through observations of the behavior of parents, friends and others; through reading and discussions; through a sense of injustice that demands personal action. It can also be caught through schools that encourage community service in some form or through immersion in a class project that, whatever its success, can transform a person's life

Obstacles to citizenship and social responsibility in schools

"We don't believe in politics," a Virginia high school student wrote recently in a prize-winning essay for The Nation. She undoubtedly speaks for many young people (as well as plenty of adults) who feel powerless in a world of overwhelming problems and cynical, often with good reason, about politics and politicians. A teacher who seeks to develop socially responsible citizens will not have an easy time. But turned-off students are not the only challenge. Others may include:

  • curricula that provide neither guidance on how to promote socially responsible citizenship nor the time necessary for it
  • administrators who may be more concerned with orderly classrooms than with the
    substance of the teaching and learning that takes place in them
  • teachers whose view of citizenship and social responsibility is confined to flag pledges, voting, philanthropy, completing assignments and obedience
  • teachers who are fearful about promoting active citizenship (sometimes with good reason)
  • parents and community members who think a school's primary function is to get students to memorize facts and score well on tests so they can get into college
  • parents and community members who may protest student involvement in controversial public issues

Toward a class project: an introductory discussion

Participating on an issue or problem they have been studying gives students a chance to learn things they simply can't learn in a classroom. While the idea of taking action on an issue may excite some students, it may feel pointless and hopeless to others. It's essential that teachers deal with these feelings and work to foster students' social consciousness.

The teacher might open a dialogue by speaking frankly about his or her experiences in, and feelings about, taking action on public issues. The teacher might then propose for discussion or journal writing, perhaps both, such questions as the following:

  • Can you think of a time when you made a difference in someone's life, perhaps by helping them at a difficult time? What was the situation? What did you do? How did it make you feel? Were there obstacles to face? How did you overcome them?
  • Have you ever tried to make a difference on a public problem? Have you raised money for needy people or some cause? Participated in a petition campaign? Written a letter to an official? Helped to organize a protest or an event? How did the action make you feel? What were the results of the action?
  • Is it hard to affect the political system? Why? Can you think of living individuals who have had a significant political impact? What did they do? With what results? What about historic figures? What do students know about Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Frederick Douglass? A. Philip Randolph? Betty Friedan?

Choosing an issue

Sheldon Berman defines community as "a group of people who acknowledge their inter-connectedness, have a sense of their common purpose, respect their differences, share in group decision making as well as in responsibility for the actions of the group, and support each other's growth." In choosing a project issue and carrying it out, students and teacher have an opportunity to create community.

How will the choice of project be decided? By consensus? By majority vote?

What happens if students disagree about the purpose of a project? Should the class split into two or more groups? Might this solution produce bad feelings and be destructive of class community?

How will the class handle controversy? While a class project to help a Gulf Coast community devastated by a hurricane is unlikely to be controversial, one that focuses on abortion or immigration reform may be. Will some people oppose students taking a stand and acting on the issue? If so, what should the class do? Can the class find common ground? For example, if students want to take action on immigration reform, they might focus on school and community educational programs that offer multiple points of view.

How much class time can be allotted to the project?

The teacher should keep the department chairperson, the principal and parents informed (and if possible, involved) on what students will be doing and why. Good class-school-community relations are important.

Planning the project

Once students choose an issue or problem for their project, there will be new questions to consider. What is the source of this issue or problem? Why? What, exactly, will the project be? Define it carefully.

What does the group want to accomplish? What additional information needs to be gathered? How?

What tasks need to be done? Who will do them? Individuals? Small groups? How will the work be coordinated? How will the group keep track of what is being done? Should there be a student oversight committee? Should there be regular class meetings to discuss progress?

What obstacles can students foresee? How will they be overcome?

How much student control of the project is possible? The more, the better. It is important for students to feel that the project is theirs. The teacher's role is to facilitate the work and to be a guide. Limits to student control should be made clear from the outset and the reasons for these limited need to be discussed with the class.

Have students keep a journal, especially if this is to be an extended project,. Devote class time to discussing the project's purpose, students' ideas about it, their thoughts on the project's ups and downs, what they've learned, what they would like to do better, and the connection between the project and what students have studied in class. Periodically, the teacher might ask students if they'd like to share their observations with the class.

Working in a group

The following activity is from Perspectives, a publication of Educators for Social Responsibility that is no longer in print. "Concert" (a name not to be divulged until after the activity) needs about 75 minutes — 45 minutes for the activity itself and another 30 minutes for the class to assess what happened. It will likely require two class periods. The activity, which calls for problem-solving and group cooperation, involves all students in a class. It puts a klieg light on how students work together and may lead to insights that will help students conduct their class project.


Student Activity:



For a class of 30 students, select 15-19 as group participants. The other students are to observe and to note the participants' behavior. (Another possibility is to divide the class into two groups of 14 with an observer for each. In this case, you'll need another room for the second group.)

Each participant receives a slip of paper with a sentence or two of information. After distributing the slips, the facilitator tells the group: "You may not give your slip of paper to anyone, but you can read the information on it to others. You may also use paper and pencil if you care to. The group has a problem. Solve it." The group receives no further information or guidance. See the list below for what might be printed on each slip and answers to the problem.

A typical group response is confusion because participants don't know what to do. The activity's purpose is to confront participants individually and collectively with a situation all of us face at times: not knowing what to do. As John Holt writes in his classic How Children Fail, "The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what it do."

Following confusion may come irrelevant comments, blank looks, the passivity of some, possibly the formation of cliques. Gradually, leaders usually emerge. Suggestions are tried out. Eventually, the group realizes it has a question to answer. After that, solutions come in sight.

To assess Concert

1. Begin with comments from the observers. What did they notice about the behavior of individuals? Of the group?

2. What roles did individuals play-organizer, clarifier, idea person, encourager, etc.

3. What problem-solving and decision-making strategies did the group employ?

4. What behaviors helped or hindered the group?

5. What else did participants notice about their behavior? The group's?

6. What do the results of this activity demonstrate about effective group process?
About ineffective group process?

Possible items for slips

(If fewer than 19 students participate and information slips are eliminated, the teacher needs to take note of how this affects the tally of those going to the concert and those unable to.)

  • Red doesn't like rock and never did, but does like Lou and will go if Lou goes.
  • Tracey will be going to the concert as long as Shawn doesn't need a babysitter. Tracey's regular job is to babysit, so that comes first.
  • Val will go if the group is under twelve people. Val doesn't like big groups—thinks they get into too much trouble.
  • The concert is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
  • Shaneequa will go to the concert if someone drives them-it's a parental rule.
  • Jose, Sandy and Anton are good friends; they've agreed never to go to a concert if they can't go together.
  • Lou got a bad mark in the last biology quiz and has to study every night for an upcoming test, unless someone can help him understand Josetics.
  • Who will be going to the concert?
  • Shelly doesn't have any money to buy concert tickets.
  • Caryl had an argument with Bobbi and Bobbi stomped off without working it out. Now Caryl won't go to the concert if Bobbi goes unless
  • Bobbi apologizes and resolves the argument.
  • The concert is Saturday night.
  • Jose, Sandy and Anton have pooled all their money but it's still not enough for three tickets.
  • D.J. wants Lou to be able to go to the concert, since it's Lou's favorite group. He will help out by explaining the Josetics unit. Also, Lou knows the lead singer and might be able to introduce DJ
  • Micky's parents have set a 10 p.m. deadline for weekdays and an 11 p.m. deadline for weekends. They mean what they say.
  • Bobbi feels bad about walking out on the argument with Caryl and has decided to call to apologize and settle argument once and for all.
  • Robin is new in town and knows only one person, the next door neighbor, Shelly. Robin will go if Shelly goes.
  • After being given a free ticket to the concert, Shawn has decided to go.
  • Chris will drive to the concert and is willing to give anyone a ride.
  • Phil's uncle is visiting Saturday and the family is having a party.

Possible Solutions

"Who will be going to the concert?" is essential to defining the problem.

Students may think of other acceptable solutions in their effort to be as inclusive as possible. For example, Phil is going because the family party will be held in the afternoon.

  • D. J. is going.
  • Lou will go because D. J. will help Lou with school work.
  • Red will go because Lou is going.
  • Chris will drive everyone to the concert.
  • Shaneequa will go since Chris is driving.
  • Caryl and Bobbie will go because Bobbie is going to apologize and this will resolve the
  • Shawn is going with that free ticket.
  • Val will go because the group isn't over 12 people.
  • Jose, Sandy and Anton aren't going because their pooled money isn't enough.
  • Shelly's not going for lack of money.
  • Micky's not going because the concert doesn't end until 12:30 a.m. and the deadline for being home is 11 p.m.
  • Robin isn't going because Shelly isn't going.
  • Tracy can't go because Shawn needs Tracey as a babysitter.
  • Phil isn't going because of his uncle's visit and family party.


Taking action in the school

  • Before any action, students need a grasp of the issue or problem. The better they understand it, the better position they will be in to promote understanding and action. The following list is meant only to be suggestive.
  • Organize a program on the issue with a panel format for a club or assembly. Invite outside speakers.
  • Organize a similar evening program in cooperation with the PTA.
  • Prepare a hall or library display with maps, posters, charts, graphic materials.
  • Propose and help to prepare a special issue or section of the school newspaper or prepare your own newspaper, magazine to be distributed both inside and outside the school.
  • Organize a series of PA broadcasts.
  • Prepare a program for presentation on the school's TV, local access TV, or radio.
  • Organize a school action club on the issue.

Taking action outside the school

  • Write e-mails and letters and/or call the offices of local, state and national
  • Write letters to the local newspaper.
  • Raise money, perhaps through some public event like a car wash, that will attract attention.
  • Volunteer to work for an organization, a candidate, a cause.
  • Help to organize, and participate, in a public rally or meeting.
  • Lobby your mayor, state senator, congressional representative.
  • Hold a silent vigil.
  • Study the record of a public official on your issue and publicize it.
  • Participate in picketing
  • Boycott a service, a product, a business.
  • Organize a community program on the issue. It might be a strictly educational program to present multiple points of view. It could take the form of a rally to organize people for work and action in the community.

Questions for assessing the project

Ask the class the following questions. (Students might also respond in writing.)

To answer the questions, the class should consider all aspects of the project-how well they understood the issue or problem and how well they organized to do something about it; meeting commitments; working together; dealing with conflicts; taking care of details, etc.

  • What did we do well?
  • What could we have done better?
  • Did our work make a difference?
  • What did we learn?

Have the class come up with a list of the people who assisted the project in any way. Organize students to write notes thanking those people.


Sheldon Berman's "Educating for Social Responsibility" and Making History , a publication of Educators for Social Responsibility no longer in print, were especially helpful in the preparation of the article.

Other resources

Additional resources for social responsibility project work that are available at TeachableMoment include, in the high school section:
Teaching on Controversial Issues
Teaching Critical Thinking
Thinking Is Questioning
Teaching Politics and the Politics of Teaching
Citizens Who Make Themselves Useful
Making Active Citizenship Part of the Curriculum (This is a review of Chris Weber's Nurturing the Peacemaker in Our Students: A Guide to Writing and Speaking Out on Issues of Peace and War , Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH, www.heinemann.com. A chapter in Weber's book, "Educating Students About the Scourge of Landmines," is an exceptionally rich and detailed account of an extensive student project.)

In the middle school and elementary sections of the site are materials on conflict resolution, problem-solving and cooperative learning activities.