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5 Strategies to Teach Social Responsibility

Jinnie Spiegler


Social Responsibility Lesson PlansWhat does it mean to teach for social responsibility? At Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, it means intentionally teaching young people to understand themselves, each other, and the world. 


We help teachers create classrooms where students can air and solve conflicts, discuss controversial topics, have a say in what and how they learn, ask questions and engage in dialogue, and are sometimes moved to action as a result of their study. 


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Here are five essential ingredients to teaching for social responsibility:

Make Your Classroom More Democratic and Participatory

In the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, many teachers are considering how to “occupy the classroom” by infusing democratic principles.  Think about how to give your students more say in the curriculum and what happens in your classroom. 


Are you willing to let students determine classroom rules/guidelines and consequences? 

How can students share their ideas about reading assignments, areas of study, and homework?   

Can some decisions be made by consensus? 

How about letting students take turns teaching the class, either individually or in groups?  


Remember that it is human nature to be more invested in something if you have a say about it. 


We’ve all felt the frustration of watching the same five hands shoot up over and over again in whole class discussions. Think about ways to get more students to participate. Mix up your teaching strategies to get more kids to contribute to the conversation:  try small groups, pairs, fishbowls, collaborative groups, and micro-labs. Students who are usually quiet in class can sometimes be motivated to participate through activities that involve writing, theatre, or art.

Teach Kids to Solve Conflicts

Conflict is part of life. In fact, conflict often makes life interesting and can lead to greater understanding and deeper connections between people. Unfortunately, conflict in schools often causes disharmony, fighting, or even violence. That’s where social and emotional skill-building comes in.  Having these skills will help students navigate their social world, and help them do better academically (as a new study of Morningside Center’s 4Rs Program – and other studies like it – have shown). 

  •  Begin by helping your class develop a sense of community by doing team-building activities and collectively determining the classroom rules (see above). 
  • Teach active listening and practice “I-messages” (saying how you feel rather than blaming the other person) to cut down on the number of conflicts.
  • When conflicts do arise, don’t brush them under the rug; use them as an opportunity to teach skills and promote healthy relationships.
  • Help students learn concrete problem-solving and negotiation strategies. Teach them how to stand up for what they need without putting down the other person in the conflict. We call this being “strong not mean.”  Help them get underneath their position to identify their underlying need.  Work towards win-win solutions.  

Be aware that sometimes prejudice and stereotyping are the root causes of conflict. To address this, integrate concepts of diversity and intercultural understanding into your curriculum as much as possible.

Address Controversial Issues

We live in a world filled with controversy. It is all around us, and it is compelling. Students are usually passionate about the hot topics of the day, and will want to discuss them in school. Be both proactive and reactive: Bring up difficult or controversial topics yourself, and also respond to their questions. 


If students’ questions come up at a moment when you don’t have time for a long conversation, don’t just change the subject. Acknowledge the question and come back to it if you can. Let the students know that nothing is off-limits. 


Be sure to bring parents into the loop: Let them know what you’re doing and be sensitive about what topics might hit particularly close to home.


And of course, always consider what’s appropriate for your students’ age.  For example, if your third grade students want to discuss a devastating earthquake that has been in the news, you might focus on the science of earthquakes, how people have helped the victims, and perhaps how students themselves could help. High school students can better handle discussions about the death and damage the quake caused. 

Ask Essential Questions & Promote Dialogue

When you begin a new area of study, determine what students know and don’t know by listing and analyzing their questions.  Start off by discussing content questions -- who, what, where, why, and when. But eventually get students to dig deeper until they reach some “essential questions.” 


For example, instead of asking “What is the role of different branches of government?” students might consider: “What would happen if we had no government?” Or if you’re discussing a piece of literature, a question might be: “What causes some people to prevail in the face of adversity and others to fail?” These kinds of questions will help students think more deeply and critically.


Help students explore their own opinions as well as others’ points of view.  Do an “opinion continuum”:  Read a statement expressing a particular opinion about something, and have students choose:  I agree, I strongly agree, I disagree, I strongly disagree, not sure. Then have students explain why. 


Assign opinion articles reflecting different points of view.  Have your students interview people with different perspectives -- each other, friends, or family members.  This will complicate students’ thinking and encourage  them to reflect more on the opinions they hold. 

Develop Social Action Projects

Find ways to encourage your students to take action on issues that concern them. This not only fosters active citizenship and builds students’ leadership skills, it provides an antidote to feelings of powerlessness or apathy. 


Whether the topic is the war in Afghanistan, climate change, or gay marriage, social action projects can connect students to your curriculum and to the wider world. Begin by having the students identify the problem(s) that need to be addressed. Brainstorm possible solutions, including a wide range of possibilities. Then vote or use consensus to narrow it down to a few options.  


Actions can range from activist projects like letter writing, protesting, or testifying, to service-oriented projects like raising money or working at a local organization to help a group of people.  Making the leap from investigation to action can be a powerful experience for young people.


How do you teach social responsibility in your classroom? Share in the comments section!




For more information about Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, visit our website at

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