Young people are increasingly aware and concerned about the problems our world is confronting, from climate change to racial disparities in society. When facing social problems, how can educators transform a child’s sense of helplessness toward hope and action?
Educators must not allow our adolescents to languish in the face of social problems and injustice. In James Baldwin’s 1963 Talk to Teachers, he reminds us of this charge: “Our obligation as educators is to entrust in our students the abilities to create conscious citizens who are vocal about reexamining their society.” It is the moral imperative of public education to foster student agency to nurture an engaged citizenry.
At the Rutgers University Social-Emotional Character Development Laboratory’s Students Taking Action Together project, we have developed a social problem-solving and action strategy, PLAN, that makes it possible for teachers to transform students’ sense of hopelessness into empowerment. It allows students to investigate a particular social problem to get to the root cause, then design an action plan to challenge the dominant power structure to make change. It emphasizes considering the issue from multiple viewpoints to develop a solution that is inclusive and viable.
Below, we’ll describe the four components of PLAN and demonstrate how to use PLAN to empower students in grades 5-12 to take action. We hope these strategies can help you encourage your students to be more deeply engaged with today’s problems and inspired to take social action.
P: Create a Problem description
Problems are an inherent part of our daily lives, and one of the key problem-solving skills is the ability to define a problem.
To define a problem, students working collaboratively in groups of four or five start by reviewing background sources, such as articles, speeches, and podcast episodes, and then draft a problem description. They can discuss the following questions to frame their thinking. Not all questions will be answered, yet the discussion will guide and stretch their thinking to begin defining the problem:
- Is there a problem? How do you know?
- What is the problem?
- Who is impacted by the problem?
- What are the issues from each perspective/party involved? What is the impact on the different individuals/groups involved?
- Who is responsible for the problem? What internal and external factors might have influenced this issue?
- What is causing those responsible to use these practices?
- Who were the key people involved in making important decisions?
To illustrate this process, let’s use the example of a recent issue: Texas’s refusal of federal funding to expand health care under the Affordable Care Act for all citizens of the state. For this issue, students might write the following problem description:
Along with Texas, 13 other states have refused to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid for citizens under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). State refusals can be attributed to a variety of factors. State lawmakers fear the loss of support from voters and their political party if they accept the federal funding to expand access to health care for lower-income communities and communities of color. Public perceptions of expanding social programs and the political costs of supporting bi-partisan reform also play a role. Political obstructionism harms all citizens, causing people to go without needed medical care and perpetuating inequalities in public health.
L: Generate a List of options to solve the problem and consider the pros and cons
Organizing for change is a skill that can be taught, even though problem solving in the political arena may feel novel and uncertain for students. Stress that while there is no guarantee of a positive outcome as they tackle a problem, brainstorming effective and inclusive solutions can help stimulate deeper awareness and discussion on the need for change. According to Irving Tallman and his colleagues, this process teaches students to apply reasoning to anticipate how solutions may play out and, ultimately, arrive at an estimate of the probability of a specific result.
That’s where the second step of PLAN comes into play: listing the possible solutions and considering the optimal plan of action to pursue. Students will revisit the background sources that they consulted during step one to consider how the actual current-event problem has been addressed over time and reflect on their own solutions. We encourage you to facilitate a whole-class discussion, guided by the following questions:
- What options did the group consider to be acceptable ways to resolve the problem?
- What do you think about their solution?
- What would your solution be?
- What solution did they ultimately decide to pursue?
For example, here are some solutions that students may generate as they brainstorm around health care funding in Texas:
- Launch a letter writing campaign to Senators and Congressional representatives communicating that obstructionism of federal funding to expand health care hurts all citizens and public health.
- Develop a social media-based public service announcement about the costs of refusing federal funding to expand health care, tagging state Senators and local Congressional representatives.
- Team up with a public health advocacy organization and learn about how to support their work in key states.
Students would then weigh the pros and cons of each solution, as well as apply perspective-taking skills to consider the needs and interests of all relevant stakeholders (e.g., government officials, insurance companies, and patients) to select what they deem to be the most effective and inclusive option. In evaluating the pros and cons of all of the solutions presented above, they may determine:
- Solutions have direct routes to communicating to politicians and have a wide audience reach.
- Solutions build student’s advocacy skills and can send a clear message to lawmakers.
- Solutions enable students to rehearse the skills of correspondence, networking, and communicating their ideas and plans with outside agencies.
- Solutions require substantial time for additional research.
- In some solutions, students may not be addressing issues in the state they live.
- In the letter-writing solution, letters lack a broad reach and the identified state(s) may already be developing reasonable alternatives to accepting federal funds to expand health care access.
- The solutions will require efforts to be sustained over time and will demand additional time in or beyond the classroom to orchestrate.
This essential problem-solving skill will support students in making objective, thoughtful decisions.
A: Create an Action plan to solve the problem
After students select what they assess to be the most effective solution, they collaborate with one another to develop a specific, measurable, attainable goal and a step-by-step action plan to implement the solution. Together, researchers refer to this as the solution plan.
For example, the goal might be to develop a one-minute public service announcement about the costs of a state’s refusal to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid under the ACA.
The step-by-step solution plan should align with the goal to resolve the problem and increase positive consequences, while minimizing potential negative effects. Your students should keep the following in mind when developing their plans:
- Make steps as specific as possible.
- Consider who is responsible for implementing each step.
- Determine how long each action step will take to execute.
- Anticipate any challenges that you may face and how you will address them.
- Identify the data that you can collect to determine whether or not your action plan was successful.
Below is a sample action plan that students may develop to meet their public service announcement goal:
- Convene a group of students to conduct research on the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid and the states that have accepted federal aid and those that refused federal aid.
- Conduct research by interviewing school nurses, county health commissioners, and the state’s Department of Health for additional content.
- Collaborate with visual arts teachers and students to design and develop the video, and course-level teacher to review the video.
- Post the social media public service announcement on YouTube and share on social media, tagging the appropriate audiences.
N: Evaluate the action plan by Noticing successes
The final step of PLAN involves evaluating the success of the action plan, using the evidence collected throughout in order to notice successes. As a whole class, students consider how similar problems were solved historically, as compared to the success of their plan. They also consider aspects of the plan that went well and those that could be improved upon moving forward. Connecting to past examples of social action affirms the understanding that you don’t always get it right in the initial push for change, and that the legacy and knowledge of incomplete change is passed from one generation to the next.
Noticing successes is essential to instilling confidence in students to exercise their voice and choice by organizing for and taking social action. Research suggests that problem-solving skills help buffer against distress when people are experiencing stressful events in life. With PLAN, we have discovered that equipping our students with problem-solving skills is a strong predictor of student agency and social action. By teaching a deliberate social problem-solving strategy, we nurture hope that change can be made.
In her 2003 Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, bell hooks reminds us of the transformative power to upend the dominant power structure by bridging the gap between complaining and hope and action: “When we only name the problem, when we state a complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take away hope. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”
It is not enough to witness and criticize injustice. Students need to learn how to overcome injustice by developing solutions and gaining a sense of empowerment and agency.