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Image: Patrik Rastenberger

Published November 11, 2015

Break your bubble - lessons from the social sciences

Our knowledge, beliefs and ways of acting are inseparable from where we stand, writes Mari Simola.

The most important lesson to teach children is to help them to make a mental shift from being “right” to understanding the logic of the construction of knowledge, writes Mari Simola.

Every day in the classroom we face challenges caused by differences and similarities. We meet different people, sometimes from different cultures, whose habits are not familiar to ours. Or we tend to think someone who looks familiar will also think in a way same to us or someone we already know. But why do we think in the way we think?

Recently I have been asked to define what social and behavioural sciences, and my career as a researcher, have actually taught me about changing and developing classroom and behaviour. How do I think sociology could help us to save the world – or at least our schools? Two cases summarise my learnings.

1. Our knowledge, beliefs and ways of acting are inseparable from where we stand

There is one very good exercise where participants are given roles with certain characteristics. One role may be that of a 10-year-old boy, who lives in a poor area in London and comes from a broken family but who has many friends. Another may be that of a girl, upper class, who goes to private school but who gets low grades.

Now, take a couple of minutes to imagine both cases. After that, answer the following questions.

How would you describe your character, besides the characteristics given? What kind of problems do you think they might have? What kinds of friends do they have? What do they look like? What will their lives be like in 10 years? Do they have a family? What do they do for living? Where do they live?

Another part of the exercise is to think how, as an educator, you could help that person in a given difficult situation. (Similar type of exercises can be found at the Library on Intercultural Competence by the Council of Europe’s Pestalozzi programme for teachers.)

What does this task teach us? Firstly, it made me very aware of my own assumptions about the two characters described. Secondly, I began to think about the ways my own assumptions about others are constructed. Thirdly, the exercise reminds me of recent studies on school choice which provide evidence on how the social status and economic resources do actually have a huge impact on the school choices made by families or occupations understood suitable.

For me, the very basis of the social sciences, sociological thinking in particular, comes from the idea of social constructionism. Social constructionism explains to us how our thinking, beliefs, knowledge and behaviour are – at least to some extent – always rooted and interpreted in the framework of the current; the places we visit, the people we hang around with, the newspapers we usually read. These are the raw materials for our personal and collective ”bubbles” – the discursive, mental constructions on what we think is real, right and recommendable.

On the other hand, sociologists tend to see these bubbles as dynamic phenomena, and as something constructed in “social practices”; in other words, in our everyday activities and thoughts.  This, in turn, gives the ball back to the educators, as well as to all of us – as citizens, parents, politicians and fellow humans.

I think the most important lesson to teach children is to help them to make a mental shift from being “right” to understanding the logic of the construction of knowledge. In practice this means the focus on the quality and form of information and knowledge, and the ways we collect it, analyse it or use it – the basic skills for the researcher. Scientific, critical – sociological – thinking is indeed very relevant to the every actor of the tomorrow’s world.

2. We can learn from conflicts

Probably the first question most of us ask in a conflict situation is: whose fault is this? Followed by how this situation is threatening me, how could we punish the people to blame, and how do we find a status quo again. What if we could turn our attitude to conflicts upside down?

According to British educational sociologist Lynn Davies, the conflict situations in society and the ways of solving and handling them are strongly interrelated and embedded in the current education system. She also questions the normative and harmonising method of education – which today is unable to provide students with the necessary tools and perspectives for understanding diversity, difference, and variation – and its ability to facilitate and steer social change, rather than reproduce existing structures, values and relations between groups of people. Davies introduces her idea about “positive conflict” as a tool for creating change in current practices; raising people’s awareness of them, handling, solving and preventing social conflicts, changing patterns of behaviour and thinking, and as a tool for working towards a more peaceful society and more egalitarian education systems.

What could this idea of the positive conflict mean for pedagogic and organisational practice? For me, conflict is a window to existing practices and values. These practices are something we are all affected by and which we all influence by our own behaviour by participating in different activities. What is important here is not whether someone is “right” or “wrong”, but rather what makes one think that way, to become more aware of the diversity of viewpoints and personal differences. 

From the perspective of the educational development, so called wicked problems faced at the educational organisations can also be understood as a source for creativity and collaborative, corrective action, which is done in LED – Collaborative leadership dynamics in the educational change –project. These problems often arise from complex and multi-layered social, economic and cultural challenges, but the solutions for them need to be created locally.

Sitra’s Education for a Changing World research project gathers insights from multiple fields to help inform the global debate about the purpose and future of education for a changed world. Interested in joining the dialogue on sustainability and education? Join us on Facebook, Twitter (#educationfutures) or get in touch directly.