Category Archives: bias

Why social studies should teach empathy

I have seen some teachers argue against teaching empathy in social studies. I admit I don’t really get their point of view, but in danger of simplifying it, it sounds to me something like “it is not our job to teach students how to feel about a topic” or “you are presenting history in a (liberal) bias on this topic.”

I totally disagree. It is our job to teach multiple points of view. And to be honest almost all history textbooks are extremely biased towards WASP viewpoints (aka the “winners” of history). That is why I use Howard Zinn in my classroom to show the other side (but of course not exclusively). My other argument is that every person, every source, and yes every teacher is biased. Therefore just by the materials the teacher selects she is making a biased decision. The best option is to give multiple sources from multiple viewpoints and PBL takes it one step further by encouraging students to go out and research and find these different views.

The problem with student research sometimes is that it too is biased. Students often lack the historical background to start their research and identify different viewpoints. My approach to this is that during “work time” I give them specific articles, primary sources, etc to steer them into interesting questions and alternative viewpoints for their topic. Then I encourage them to continue to research on the topic and go deeper. Then we come back in a class discussion or Socratic circle and they can discuss different aspects of it.

Case in point is the 9/11 project we are currently working on where students will design a monument commemorating that time period. Students immediately gravitated toward the American victims/heroes side of history. But our driving question was “Why did 9/11 happen and how should we respond to terrorism?”
We read Ender’s Game and used the concept of “Speaker for the Dead” to shift students to think of 9/11 and the following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from a Middle Eastern perspective. After researching all of the American Interventions since the end of the Cold War students were able to see (but not justify) the motives of terrorism. Looking at the events post 9/11 such as the civilian casualties in the wars, Abu Graib, Guantanamo Bay, and abuses of the Patriot Act students were also critical of many of our responses to 9/11. Now students are designing much more complex monuments that are not just American “hero worship” but actual critiques of history.

In reality I believe we do our students an injustice if we do NOT ask them to be empathetic and look at history from the viewpoint of its “losers”-the weak, the down trodden, the humble citizens who are just trying to raise their families and live the best they know how. Because that is ultimately the category that most humans (including myself) fall into as few of us will ever be famous or huge centers of power. I also think most of the greatest heroes humans in history such as Gandhi, Dr. King, Mother Theresa, and Nelson Mandela fall into the “loser” category but rise above through humility, justice, and love. And isn’t that the goal of social studies? To teach students to be responsible, critical thinking citizens? But what good is critical thinking without an empathetic heart to go with it.

I am a biased teacher

Interesting conversation started yesterday in #sschat on Twitter started by a question from Jamie Josephson:

by David Shankbone

Some people see #OccupyWallStreet as undetermined in importance and too politically biased to discuss or promote. This turned into a somewhat heated discussion about the role of person politics in the classroom. It is a complicated question. On the one hand, I do not believe it is our job as educators to teach children a specific political agenda such as who to vote for. On the other hand we do teach children about morality and many things in history and current events are clearly wrong.

I may be in the minority now days but I still believe that some things are morally wrong. My personal beliefs stem from my religious faith which I never try to use with students. But I believe that society does hold many actions as wrong that are universally agreed upon regardless of the reasons why (religious, human rights, good of society, etc).

Therefore I think that teachers have a responsibility to teach that some things are clearly wrong. For example, slavery, human rights abuse, murder, genocide, corruption, racism, and theft. There are also many subjects that are open to debate as to their morality: abortion, stem-cell use, just war, and cloning to name a few.   Although I have strong opinions about these subjects as well, I would not push my “agenda” onto students. I would present facts of both sides of these issues and let students decide for themselves.

Some ideas may be hard to decide which camp they fall into as this seems to be determined by societal norms. For example women rights would not be considered important in some countries where genital mutilation is still widely practiced. Gay marriage is still a very controversial subject in the United States. So whose role is it to decide which camp controversial things fall into? I would argue that teachers should make this decision in light of their community that they teach in.

Many social studies teachers argue that no politics (personal or any outside agenda) should enter the classroom to influence students. I think that they are lying to themselves. First of all teachers influence students by the resources that they choose to use or not use. I plan to have students look at these charts about the reasoning behind #occupywallstreet. I also plan to have them search the hashtag on Flickr and see what messages they find. Just by choosing this resource I am influencing the conclusions that students will come to. I feel it is more honest to let students know your view point and feel free to disagree with it than to pretend that you do not have one. Students are not stupid and recognize us as experts on events and they know that we have an opinion. I see no value in hiding it from them.

If you use a textbook then you are really giving students a biased, European centric view of history.There is no such thing as an unbiased viewpoint. So rather than seek to be unbiased, teachers should teach students to identify bias and evaluate it. Biases do not automatically make something wrong or untrue. It is an important skill to name a bias and then be able to interpret whether or not the bias corrupts an idea or argument.

Of course we share our biases all the time. How many teachers present a balanced view with the positive side of Bin Laden, Hitler, slavery, or Nazism? No one does because these are outside of the United States and easy to condemn. On the other hand many schools still promote Christopher Columbus as a hero. Is there really a positive side to a greedy conqueror who maimed, killed, and enslaved?

Some historical people are more complicated such as Thomas Jefferson who wrote some of the most beautiful language of equality and human rights while at the same time was a slave owner who had an affair with one of his slaves. We should tell both sides of the story when they exist. But sometimes there really is no positive side to the history and one historical figure (or group) is the abuser and the other is the victim.

So bring some personal viewpoints into the classroom and let students know that you are against some things: corporate greed and abuse, unfair immigration laws, slavery, or human rights abuse. At the same time be prepared to play the devil’s advocate at times. Students already know that you are biased anyway. Let them analyze your biases and decide for themselves what they think is true, right, and just.