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Four mechanisms that facilitate learning in the social sciences

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.

1. Make connections to students’ lives

This mechanism 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 classical studies

Making students’ own lives a point of contrast and comparison supports their understanding of how classical ideas and values are both similar to and different from their own. Drawing on students’ own cultural values and experiences enables them to make important connections between the classical and modern worlds. Research confirms that Māori and Pasifika learners experience greater success when they learn within a culturally responsive environment. Making connections that transcend learning areas supports new learning.

Teachers and students could do the following:

  • Compare Homeric epic oral poetry with Māori/Pasifika oral traditions through performance and discussion - this would develop the key competency of relating to others.
  • Visit a local sports stadium, for example, the Westpac Stadium in Wellington, to introduce the concept of culture and identity.
  • Identify the rights, roles, and responsibilities they hold within their family/whānau and compare them with those of a young person in an ancient Greek or Roman family.
  • Create a class continuum to show what they value about education in New Zealand, then superimpose an equivalent continuum for ancient Greece/Rome to make conclusions about cultural difference.

Creating an inclusive learning environment

2. Align experiences to important outcomes

This mechanism 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 classical studies

Teachers’ understanding of students’ prior knowledge and experiences in terms of classical studies impacts on how they can support new learning. Therefore, it is important to inquire and to find out what students bring into the classroom, as well as their learning needs, in order to align experiences with intended outcomes.

Make the intention of the learning transparent to support students’ achievement. Differentiate the learning (in terms of content, process, and/or product) to meet individual student needs. This will increase engagement and support achievement in classical studies. Reducing coverage enables students to focus on important ideas and processes: less is more.

Students need:

  • time to explore key concepts in depth
  • opportunities to approach key concepts in different ways and from more than one perspective
  • opportunities to revisit key concepts in a variety of contexts.

Teachers and students could do the following:

  • Consider this inquiry. The impact of class and gender on education, employment, citizenship, political rights, and standard of living: who are the winners and losers in society? Begin by asking students to create a concept map of their ideas and return to this throughout the unit, adding to it as their understanding develops.
  • Investigate the key concepts of conflict and culture through a current socio-political issue (national or global) relating to human rights from more than one perspective. For example, they could explore New Zealand’s involvement in the war in the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay, and the rights of indigenous peoples in countries such as New Zealand. Then they could explore a parallel situation in a classical context, for example, the torture of Melanthius in Homer’s Odyssey, Sophocles’ Antigone defying the state, the treatment of Helots, or the persecution of Christians in the Roman world.
  • Write, in pairs, a modern version of a Socratic dialogue to highlight the importance of understanding the elements of Socratic method.
  • Review their students’ literacy strengths and needs to inform the classical texts they choose and the writing tasks they set for the subsequent unit.

3. Build and sustain a learning community

This mechanism 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 classical studies

Building positive relationships with students in classical studies is at the heart of a successful learning community. Giving opportunities to work collaboratively, with teachers as learners, increases engagement and achievement. Giving students a voice in making decisions about what learning in classical studies is important, and why it is important, will help to foster the skills necessary for lifelong learning.

Deeper understanding of links and connections between the classical and modern worlds can be achieved when students are given opportunities to engage with contexts and resources in different ways, for example, group and class discussion, peer teaching, online collaboration, and using community resources.

It is important for the classroom to be a safe environment where students can take risks, learn from their mistakes, reflect, and move forward.

Teachers and students could do the following:

  • Create a classroom culture of respect and inclusion, in which the focus is learning and there are high expectations for all students.
  • Foster a co-operative learning environment in which students support one another’s learning.
  • Involve students in working collaboratively to reach common goals.
  • Create a wiki/blog collaboratively to critically evaluate the strengths and limitations of source evidence relating to an important historical figure or event. This allows for the exchange of ideas and develops the key competency of participating and contributing.
  • Work together in small groups to produce a scene from Aristophanes’ Wasps, focusing on the concepts of justice and conflict. This allows students to lead their learning and develop their ability to solve problems. This would foster the key competency of managing self.
  • Create a model of their choice to demonstrate understanding of a technological process from the ancient world. This could then be shared with the class.
  • Create a bank of inquiry questions to help direct the exploration of the key concept empire and power, using the contexts of Alexander the Great, Augustus, and modern leaders of our time.

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.

4. Design experiences that interest students

This mechanism 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 classical studies

Students have diverse needs and are motivated in different ways. Effective teachers therefore use a variety of strategies to engage students and make learning experiences memorable. Sometimes teacher and student perceptions of what is considered ‘interesting’ in classical studies can be quite different. Therefore, it is important for teachers to ask questions and be flexible. Providing opportunities for students to make their own learning choices can increase their interest and ability to direct their own learning.

Teachers and students could do the following:

  • Respond to a series of questions that encourage debate. For example, What personal heroes or role models do you have? What qualities make these people heroes? Can you identify contemporary heroes comparable to classical figures such as Odysseus or Julius Caesar? What qualities does a leader display today compared with leaders in the classical world? For example, how might the current prime minister compare with Augustus? What qualities do different cultures see as heroic? Examples could include a comparison of gravitas/auctoritas with mana, or Perikles, Julius Caesar, and other classical heroes with modern figures such as Nelson Mandela, Sir Edmund Hillary, or Sir Apirana Ngata.
  • Explore perceptions of character strengths and weaknesses in a classical and modern cultural context. For example, hubris and megalomania, sophrosyne and pietas, racism and homophobia, tolerance and compassion.
  • Create a list of features that they associate with the concept of beauty and share this with the class. The teacher could then present a series of classical images of the human form to challenge student viewpoints about what is and is not beautiful. Questions could be asked, for example, How does the Kritios boy compare with international soccer player David Beckham or rugby league and union player Sonny Bill Williams?

Last updated September 12, 2017