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Four mechanisms that facilitate learning in the social sciences

The Effective Pedagogy in Social Sciences/Tikanga ā Iwi Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES) identifies four mechanisms that facilitate learning for diverse students in social sciences: connection, alignment, community, and interest. Each of these mechanisms provides a lens through which we can examine our current practice. Each is backed by evidence that we can use when deciding what to do next.

Make connections to students’ lives

This mechanism particularly involves:

  • drawing on relevant content
  • ensuring inclusive content.

Students’ understanding of important ideas and processes is enhanced when the teacher:

  • encourages them to use their own experiences as a point of comparison when learning about other people’s experiences in different times, places, and cultures
  • uses language that is inclusive of all learners and their experiences
  • selects resources that make diversity visible and avoid biased and stereotypical representations.

The connections mechanism at work in EfS

Students are more likely to achieve in EfS when they see themselves and their culture positively reflected in the subject matter and learning contexts.

Integrating an understanding of cultural identity into learning contexts promotes ako, a teaching and learning relationship in which the educator also learns from the student. By acknowledging, respecting, and valuing who students are and where they come from, teachers are in a position to build on what their students bring with them to the learning setting. This is essential for developing action competence. Cultural identity takes in relationships between people and between people and the natural world. Every culture has perspectives on and insights into the environment that can broaden possibilities for a sustainable future.

For example, the year 1–13 Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rā whiti Roa used sustainability to structure a whole-school learning journey: No hea tatou? In the context of their local awa (river), the students explored their links to the land and to the community’s whakapapa. They centred the learning on protecting their awa by locating sources of problems, initiating community interest and support, and growing and planting trees for riparian conservation.

Community support for the learners’ achievements from such school–community partnerships reinforces the students’ sense of the worth of their learning.

Align experiences to important outcomes

This mechanism particularly involves:

  • identifying prior knowledge
  • aligning activities and resources to intended outcomes
  • providing opportunities to revisit concepts and learning processes
  • attending to the learning of individual students.

Student understanding of important ideas and processes is enhanced when the teacher accesses relevant prior knowledge, using it to minimise duplication of what is already known, and address misunderstandings that could inhibit new learning. If important outcomes are to be achieved, activities and resources need to be aligned to them. Teachers optimise alignment when they make it transparent to their students, design learning opportunities that are sequenced in response to ongoing assessment, and provide opportunities to revisit important content and processes.

The alignment mechanism at work in EfS

It is central to EfS that students develop the competence to take action for a sustainable future – and that they know why they are taking action.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

The choices that people make when deciding on particular courses of action always come back to the key EfS concepts. For this reason, it is vital that students are given numerous opportunities to examine the key concepts in relation to each of the aspects of sustainability before deciding what action to take on a sustainability issue. Competence to act requires balancing thinking with acting.

Taking informed action could include raising awareness and influencing others’ behaviours through speeches, letters, drama, artworks, articles, and other indirect forms of action.

It could also include direct actions taken to mitigate, remedy, or redesign systems for a more sustainable future, such as habitat restoration, systems for effective and efficient resource management, sustainable design, building and transportation, pest removal, and food production.

The use of real-life, integrated contexts, in which students are active participants, teaches them to examine what is currently happening with a view to thinking and acting for a more sustainable future.

Use a range of teaching actions and teaching models to help your students:

  • develop knowledge and understanding of issues
  • learn to think empathetically
  • build their capacity to take action on issues and concerns of interest
  • learn how to target their actions to resolve concerns and issues at the source.

Going on a beach cleanup organised by the teacher is an activity, not an action for sustainability. Identifying a source of litter at the beach, such as plastic shopping bags, and developing a solution that targets the cause (for example, planning a campaign to reduce the use of plastic bags at the supermarket or designing advertising to promote safe disposal of litter at a boat club) is an action for a sustainable future.

The experiential learning cycle, co-operative learning, problem-based learning, and inquiry-based learning are all useful approaches for EfS.

Build and sustain a learning community

This mechanism particularly involves:

  • establishing productive teacher–student relationships
  • promoting dialogue
  • sharing power with students.

Student understanding of important ideas and processes in the social sciences is enhanced when teachers:

  • establish productive relationships with students
  • explicitly develop their students’ interaction skills
  • put in place inclusive practices that acknowledge multiple abilities and contributions
  • delegate to students authority to make decisions about their learning
  • design tasks and organise experiences that require student–student dialogue and interaction.

The community mechanism at work in EfS

The EfS classroom environment should enable debate and the expression of diverse views. Students need to feel that it is safe to propose and critique ideas for action. A supportive environment is also important when students are exploring how to identify and assign roles and act coherently as a group.

A supportive learning environment will develop when you:

  • model and expect respectful relationships between individuals
  • invite and value student contribution
  • encourage the students to establish protocols for classroom discussion and debate
  • challenge wide-ranging curiosity and inquiry across the learning areas, from different cultural perspectives, in local, national, or global contexts, and embracing diverse viewpoints.

Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success: The Māori Education Strategy 2008–2012 (Ministry of Education, 2008) suggested that involving students in decision making about their learning invites their commitment to the learning.

Learn more about Ka Hikitia in the updated  Māori Education Strategy: Ka Hikitia  Accelerating Success 2013–2017.

Design experiences that interest students

This mechanism particularly involves:

  • meeting diverse motivational needs
  • maximising student interest
  • using a variety of activities.

Student understanding of important ideas and processes is enhanced when the teacher:

  • makes learning as memorable as possible by deliberately designing learning experiences that are sensitive to students’ differing interests, motivations, and responses
  • provides a variety of experiences that become memorable anchors for learning and subsequent recall
  • helps students draw the learning from these experiences.

The interest mechanism at work in EfS

EfS demands a holistic approach to teaching and learning. This has long been characterised as "education about, in, and for the environment".

This approach provides for a diversity of student learning styles and emphasises learning experiences that students will reflect on – two important factors in the development of action competence.

Rather than be dogmatic, EfS seeks to empower students to address issues that concern them and, in this way, to engage with their own futures. The visioning aspect of action competence requires students to consider alternatives to current thinking and acting, and to consider what kind of future they would like.

The "about, in, and for approach" emphasises inquiry, experiential, and co-operative pedagogies. For useful examples, see learning experiences (EfS community, TKI website).

The focus on action in EfS stimulates student participation and contribution and helps them to see that they can make a difference. Teachers support students to design manageable and achievable actions for sustainability.

Last updated September 12, 2017



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