Essay: Producing students who think critically and are civic minded

This paper will explore an ideal school which produces students who think critically and are civic minded. I will briefly cover recent political events in Thailand to serve as a contextual background which lead me to believe this endeavor is purposeful. The aim of this paper is to examine certain pedagogies that have democratic values. I will do this by first looking at Bottery’s theories on teachers’ ideals, and how social reconstruction could play a key role in this gradual change from the current status. Next I will draw on research from Saltmarsh and Zlotkowksi on service-learning. I will also examine an example of a school’s civic and service-learning. Finally, I hope to set my own agenda for how my ideal school could implement service learning, and civic engagement. My argument is that through education directed in this particular way, a society more adaptable to change could stabilize and establish itself.

Brief historical context
I would like to provide some contextual background for this paper. Because I currently live and work as a grades 7 and 8 English as a Second Language teacher in Bangkok, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the teaching theories we have studied in relation to how education could alter the course of a country’s government. The reason for this is to examine Thailand’s culture of coups. Could providing a certain type of education in Thailand lead to a more stable political environment?
Thailand is currently under Marshall Law and operating under an Army General who took over as the country’s Prime Minister in a bloodless coup in May of 2014. The rationale of the takeover was that the two political sides which had been protesting had gotten too violent. On the 22nd of May the Royal Thai Army conducted a coup.
Here I would like to examine the role of the army in Thailand. From The Economist: ‘Thailand’s [army] was not created to fight wars or defend the country’s territorial integrity. Instead it was primarily an internal army, to be deployed for consolidation purposes within a loosely held realm.’ During times when there is political stability, the RTA is a bureaucracy and their legitimacy is to defend the monarchy. (The Economist, Youtube video, 2014)
The narrator goes on to explain that ‘Because of this, democratic institutions remain weak [in Thailand]. The video concludes with a possible solution that a ‘Bloody army crackdown could discredit the army leading to a new constitution/election.’ (The Economist, Youtube video)
Regardless of this bleak analysis, I propose that an ideal school could produce a critically thinking, democratically minded students capable of changing the status quo. A society educated with educators immersed in the Reconstructionist vision could lead to more stability of the next democracy if there is one as promised by the current Prime Minister Prayuth in 2016.
How we get there: A social reconstruction view
This section of what constitutes my ideal school involves some concepts related to how teachers in my ideal school view themselves. Again, the goal is not necessarily to produce students ready to overthrow governments, but to give students the critical thinking skills to analyze the options placed in front of them. I feel that teachers who possess the social reconstruction view as their dominant trait to be the most ideal for my school. It is the hopes that being aware of different views, that the emergence of an individual who responds to pressing social issues not only as an observer, but also as an analyzer who is active–or as we will look at later–an engaged contributor in its alleviation. My ideal school will embrace the link between morality and schooling, and as evidenced by what will later be covered in this examination of my ideal school, a bond with service-learning as a way to achieve deep learning and other benefits associated there-in-with. With the backdrop of Thailand’s coup cycle, students may be able through a social reconstruction learning approach project onto society smooth transitions between governments.
Bottery charts the role of the teacher as ‘facilitator, constructor, selector of relevant materials, problems, issues, [to be a] political guide.’ (Bottery, 1990) Implementing both a social reconstruction view ”social reconstruction sees the major task of education as precisely this’the reform of society through education’ (Bottery, 1990), and merging it with service-learning seems to me, a very good fit of both theory and practice. In my ideal classrooms, students would be challenged with the pressing social issue of the day. In the field of service-learning and civic engagement, they would reinforce their learning by going outside the classroom into the community.
Next, I would like to move into some theory about how my ideal school could be run using the pedagogy of service learning and civic engagement. Teachers who hold ideals congruent with social reconstruction would be the best staff for my service-learning orientated school. I will explore how service learning and democracy work wonderfully together.

What we implement: Service-Learning and Civic Engagement
I would like to give a little background about Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, and then explain why these are important in the construction of my ideal school. This movement began in American universities in the mid-1990s. Service learning, or what Saltmarsh and Zlotkowskty call community-based teaching and learning, started out on the ‘fringe’ but eventually moved toward the center of curriculums. (Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski, 2001)
The definition of these two terms goes through refinement as the movement towards this pedagogy gains momentum with researched publications. The term ‘community service’ gives way to ‘academic engagement.’ Its aims are clear: ‘the current preference for ‘civic engagement’ as a way of characterizing what it means for both individuals and academic units to focus on knowledge production for the common good.’ (Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski, p.5)
The term ‘scholarship of engagement’ is later picked up by Robert Barr and John Tagg who redefined the term in a teaching-learning modality, ‘i.e., service- learning [requires] higher education to shift from a teaching to a learning paradigm.’ (as stated by Barr and Tagg in Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski, 2011, p. 5) I believe it is within this context my ideal school can effectively produce a student who has more than recognized problems within society, but has the ‘deep learning’ of such issues to go about critically analyzing them and potentially helping alleviate them. The efficacy of such programs are backed up again by Saltmarsh and Zlotkowski: ‘Academically rigorous service-learning is not just compatible with good teaching and deep learning; it is one of the most effective forms such teaching and such learning can take.’ (Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski, p.6)
Here I would like to discuss ‘engagement.’ Rather than passive learning via lectures, reading, or using a form of media, I would suggest my students get out into the field in the learning process. Saltmarsh explains, ‘Typically, ‘engagement’ is understood as discipline- based work (a course assignment, a research project, an internship, field work, a clinical placement, and so on) that occurs in a nonacademic community (local, national, global).’ (Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski, p. 6) Even though most of this research was done at higher levels of education, I see use for it in my ideal school, even at the secondary and primary level.
In light of democracy as an option for types of learning which was examined in the last section with Bottery, here too, does Saltmarsh and Zlotkowski pick up on the theme: ”service- learning locates our faculty roles within a framework that consciously links civic renewal with education for democratic participation”(Saltmarsh & Zlotkowski, p. 3) It is in this type of environment I would have my ideal school function. Democratic participation, to me, presents itself as having no borders or restrictions between students. Everyone would have an equal stake in participation. Echoing this point is Dewey. In his analysis of what comprises specific areas of relevance to service- learning is, ‘democratic community’ is included. (Saltmarsh, Zlotkowski, p. 43)

If the flow from one elected government into another elected government is to run smoothly without the interruption of potential coups, whether they be non-violent or violent, a student body should be geared towards civic engagement:
”civic engagement must be intentional about working within ‘the norms
of democratic culture . . . determined by the values of inclusiveness,
participation, task sharing, lay participation, reciprocity in public problem
solving, and an equality of respect for the knowledge and experience
that everyone contributes to education and community building’
(Saltmarsh, Hartley, and Clayton; 2009, p.6)

While many may see as the ultimate goal of a student to achieve a skill, and thereby earn a living, I would like my students to embrace a holistic approach of learning. In a keynote address to Santa Clara University, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach clarifies a vision I would like also share with my ideal school:

We must ‘ ‘educate the whole person of solidarity for the real world.’ Solidarity
is learned through ‘contact’ rather than through ‘concepts,’ as the Holy Father
said recently at an Italian university conference. When the heart is touched by
direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement
with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity, which then gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection. Students, in the
course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives,
so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and
engage it constructively. They should learn to perceive, think, judge, choose, and
act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed. Campus ministry does much to foment such intelligent, responsible, and active compassion, compassion that deserves the name solidarity. (Kolvenbach, 2000, Keynote address)

The students in my ideal school would also experience this ‘gritty reality’ and use that experience for deeper learning. I feel there are enough people oppressed, not just within Thailand, but within several countries, and that service learning could bring about real change in secular or elitist attitudes.

Looking toward the future: Comments on work
Going on the assumption that meaning can bring happiness to a person’s life, White states how volunteer work can be fulfilling if looked at in a different light. ‘Operating a till is not likely to be an intrinsically significant major option in anyone’s life. Once, however, [manning tills] is reconceptualized, not just as manning a till, but as ‘working for Oxfam’ or ‘helping to bring about a cure for cancer’, it is easy to see how it can become something of great personal significance in someone’s life. (White, 1997)
I want ‘personal significance’ to be attainable at my ideal school.
White writes:
Some readers of the Daily Telegraph will bridle at the suggestion that
teachers should urge pupils to think about fundamental social questions.
‘We had enough of this kind of revolutionary activity in the sixties and
seventies. The conservative reforms of the last 17 years have done away
with most of it, redirecting teachers’ attention on to their proper,
classroom, tasks and away from such subversion.’ (White, p.73)
I want to bring back this kind of subversion if only in small amounts. White makes clear where his philosophy for a student starts. ”the autonomous well-being of each individual, where this has built into it a dimension of concern for other’s flourishing. It is this that should be central to life” He goes on to say that well-being requires being free from working because the law says we have to, and that individuals must have the freedom to work independently. (White, p.61) In my ideal classroom, work will have a holistic feel to it. Even if work is partitioned off in group assignments, it’s important in my ideal school that students see what the final product is. Reflection on this outcome and the process it took to get there will also be implemented in my ideal classroom. White explains in an analysis of factory work, ‘Workers’need to be able to relate what they do to what comes later.’ (White, p.31) So, too, will the ideal classroom be able to make connections in their work to the future.

Reigniting the dream
One aspect to understand about the life of Service learning is that it has, according to Hill, ‘unofficially died.’ (Hill, 2010) I would like to have service learning established. Social issues abound: there is the widening gap between rich and poor, drug related crime, environmental issues, teen pregnancy, low educational performance et al. I would classify Thailand’s overall education system as low equality and low quality. Implementing a service-learning pedagogy into Thailand’s curriculum would be challenging, but the benefits would outweigh the challenges.
I would like to point out that despite several reasons mentioned in Hill’s paper, Death of a Dream: Service-Learning 1994-2010: A Historical Analysis by One of the Dreamers, this should not be a discouragement towards learning.
My ideal school will avoid some of the pitfalls of its predecessor such as logging in of volunteer hours. (Hill) These programmes have to be more than just time spent on the clock while doing civic work. Otherwise, we could have the same traditional and rigid system all over again. My proposal for an ideal school and its projects should require imagination and creativity, problem solving, engaged learning, and written reflection. The following is an example of what service learning looks like from the perspective of a young adult:
Ericka, a university student, had an assignment to design something to fill actual needs. She designed coats that turned into sleeping bags for the homeless. Then she created a company and hired homeless people to make the coats so they could both earn a living and have a sense of fulfillment in their work. ‘I’m happy to be working for a cause. There’s no greater joy than me coming to work knowing that I can make this coat and help someone that was in my positon [homeless].’
(Youtube video, 2014).
I would like my school to be a workshop for alleviating societal problems. The teachers’ role would be a combination of the roles prescribed by Bottery, but would also have to work with the community to provide suitable projects for the students to work on. The rub or challenge will be how much academic work is given alongside projects and the accreditation or recognition of institutes of higher learning of such a diploma. My question is which is perceived as having more practical experience, the student who reads about the history of his nation, or one who actively tries to better it by engaging in projects which create positive outcomes? Of course, not all are going to see the value in service learning. Some will criticize its somewhat fuzzy goals, (unclear perhaps because they may shift as the student becomes more aware of where to put his focus). Or there may be conflicts with the structure of the day, the routines of classrooms, lunch, extra-curricular activities. It would involve a very mature and independent student to guide his own learning. The role of the teacher would have to go beyond ‘selector of relevant material’ (Bottery, 1990) but also be a person who could immerse himself in the academic side of what his students decide to undertake as projects. For example, if a group wants to tackle an environmental issue, the teacher not only facilitates the project, but researches appropriate information for which the students can study from as background. The teacher should not become a lightning rod for questions as how students should proceed, but provide academic teaching, process evaluation, and close monitoring.

To expand upon Bottery’s role of the child, students are still active contributors in a service learning environment. Their identity may be gained through interaction in social groups, too. I would also like to posit that their identity would be gained through their particular social reconstruction groups or movements. In other words, they attempt to identify with the social problem they are trying to solve.

See Appendix 1 for a sample of what Service Learning looks like for primary aged students.

As you can see from the project, reading about survivors of war was not quite getting the message across to the students on the realities and horrors of war. I like how the students came up with the idea of interviewing veterans through brainstorming sessions. Again, I would like the ideas coming from students. I also think it is worth noting that the veterans continued to return to the see the students beyond their initial three visits for the project. I also liked how the project took on many different forms of learning. Students read from books, gathered information for interviews, conducted interviews, wrote both analytically and creatively, produced a quilt, and reflected on their experience in a program book.

To recap, we’ve looked at the need for critical thinking, some of the social and political background of Thailand which warrants a move in this direction. We’ve also examined Social reconstruction as a means to obtain certain outcomes in the classroom. We’ve examined how service learning and social reconstruction fit together nicely as a means to achieving a well-rounded student capable of tackling pressing social issues and what work will look like in the future. Finally, we examined an example of what service learning looks like. This is what my ideal school and ideal classroom look like. I’d like to think of them as miniature-scaled workshops tackling large scale problems.

Admittedly, addressing social issues is not an easy task. Even harder is working to alleviate societal ills amongst students who may have varying degrees of willingness or empathy to engage in such projects. However, in looking back at how the narrator of The Economist described potential for change in how military’s role might be undermined through a ‘bloody army crackdown’, I think it is a worthwhile challenge to implement the aspects of my ideal school.

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