​Find out why social action is a crucial part of childhood education and how this looks in schools, with Keren Mitchell.

There’s good news and there’s bad news. I’ll start with the bad. The world is not short on its problems. You can’t pick up the paper or switch on the news without a definite sense that the world is falling apart at its seams. Most of us feel at least a little pessimism at the moment – and children can feel it the most.

To take the climate as an example. A survey by Save The Children in the run-up to the COP27 conference revealed that, “70% of UK children are worried about the world that they will inherit and 60% think that worries about climate change are affecting their mental health” 1. As one (very wise) child explained in the survey: “A lot of the time, we can feel powerless and out of control and people tend to be scared of things that they can’t control.” 1

So, what’s the good news?

The good news is that there is an antidote. And we, as teachers, have the means to administer it. “I’m totally a pessimist. But you know, I’m a happy person. Because the cure for depression is action.” said Yvon Chouinard, the legendary founder of the clothing company, Patagonia.

Taking action by engaging in social action – be that a litter-pick, a fundraising event, writing to their local MP or countless other activities – is perhaps the most powerful method we have to help children (and adults for that matter) to develop a sense of control and optimism when facing the big problems of the world.

And there is more good news. The benefits of taking part in social action don’t stop there. It is proven to be a powerful means of character development, with children who take part in it reporting improved levels of empathy, tolerance, confidence, problem solving, teamwork and even overall wellbeing. It also provides great conversation material for students carrying out applications and interviews to secondary schools.

In my own experience, many of the most well-rounded pupils I’ve met are those who are passionate about a cause and take regular action to support it.

The benefits are long-lasting. Research from the Jubilee Centre for Character & Values at University of Birmingham has found that “children who take part in meaningful social action before the age of 10 are more than twice as likely to be philanthropic adults than those who do not”. 2 By engaging our children in social action, we are not just making a difference to them now but are helping to raise a new generation of change-makers who will remain charitable for life.

Quote: "We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in our hands to make a difference." - Nelson Mandela

The ‘double-benefit’

Academics have long talked of the ‘double-benefit’ of social action: the benefit to the person taking part in it, and to the cause that their actions are supporting. But a recent study by the RSA and #iwill Foundation revealed a third benefit to carrying out social action in schools: the positive effect on educators 3. Educators in the study reported feeling energised and empowered from engaging their classes in social action. As an SLT member from the survey explained, “We found that the staff were just buzzing to come into school and were passionate about what they were doing.”3 Many teachers also felt a greater sense of creative freedom when teaching social action and a significant number reported enjoying greater connection with both their local community and the wider school community.

It sounds like a no-brainer, and indeed, 79% of teachers surveyed by the University of Kent felt that civic engagement activities relating to charity should be embedded within the primary school curriculum 4, but I know you are all thinking the same thing: ‘There isn’t the time or resources.’

What does great social action teaching look like?

Implementing social action in your own classroom does not need to take much time at all. Since we launched the Social Impact Schools Award, we’ve helped hundreds of schools and thousands of teachers to increase the frequency and quality of the social action work they teach by providing ideas and frameworks that are light touch for teachers and easy to integrate into existing curriculum areas, e.g., creating posters about climate change in KS3 science or writing letters to local politicians in KS2 English. It is also a perfect way to achieve the Active Citizenship and Character Development aspects of the Ofsted criteria.

The most important aspect is to empower children with as much agency as possible. From animal rights to zero hunger, and from donating to volunteering, every child is different in terms of causes they care about and the responses that engage them. The more that we, as teachers, can play to the individual attributes each child brings to the table, the more engaged our students will be.

In practice, this might mean that rather than teaching children about a specific issue like water scarcity and telling them that we will be  fundraising for it, we instead give them the resources to learn about their own chosen issue and to choose an appropriate response that resonates with them. Every time we take a decision away from the children, we reduce their agency.

To measure the impact on pupils’ sense of agency, we encourage teachers to begin their first lessons on social action by asking children who they think has the power to solve the world’s biggest problems. “Politicians, grown-ups, David Attenborough, Elon Musk…” – rarely do the answers include children themselves. But once children have taken part in meaningful social action activities themselves and seen first-hand that they can have some impact, it’s gratifying to ask the question again and see the sense of agency that has developed.

If this leads to a new generation of change-makers coming out of our schools – as well as more engaged and passionate teachers, that definitely would be a cause for optimism.

References

  1. Save the Children. (n.d.). Survey reveals scale of climate anxiety among British children. [online]. Available at: https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/news/media-centre/press-releases/survey-reveals-scale-of-climate-anxiety-among-british-children
  2. Arthur J, Harrison T, Taylor-Collins E, and Moller F. (2017). A Habit of Service: The Factors that sustain service in young people. University of Birmingham: The Jubilee Centre for Character & Values.
  3. Gunn, N, Daly A, Tejani M. (2023). Make it authentic: Teacher experiences of youth social action in primary schools. RSA + #iWill.
  4. Body A, Lau E, Cameron L, Cunliffe J. (2023). Educating for Social Good: Mapping children’s active civic learning in England. University of Kent.

Author

  • Keren Mitchell

    Keren Mitchell is a former Year 3 and year 4 teacher and the founder of SuperKind.org, the social action platform for schools.
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