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Teaching Social Awareness
An Interview with Larsen Professor Robert Selman

Harvard Graduate School of Education
February 1, 2003

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Audio Selections about the Research
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Earlier this fall, Larsen Professor Robert Selman spoke about his research at the orientation for new students. Some excerpts from that presentation are included here:

An audio resource Robert Selman discusses ways to integrate moral education into public-school curricula (1 minute) listen  need help?

An audio resource Selman on his partnership with educational practices that promote social awareness (1 minute) listen  need help?

An audio resource Selman on the use of theoretical frameworks to create a "bridge to practice" (1 minute) listen  need help?

Larsen Professor Robert Selman
Larsen Professor Robert Selman
(Karlyn Morissette photo)

Larsen Professor Robert Selman is the chair of HGSE's Human Development and Psychology area and founder of the Risk and Prevention Program. Selman has engaged in research and practice focused on helping children develop social competencies as a way to reduce risks to their health and promote their social relationships. In his current, practice-based research, he studies interpersonal and intergroup development and competence from preschool through high school. This current work, documented in his new book, The Promotion of Social Awareness: Powerful Lessons from the Partnership of Developmental Theory and Classroom Practice, is conducted in the context of literacy and language arts curricula and in school-based programs designed to coordinate support services for students in the middle grades of the public schools.

Q: What sorts of activities can promote social awareness in elementary school children?

A: There are many ways to promote social awareness in elementary schools. Some—perhaps many—educators would say that this is one of the fundamental missions of elementary schools today, and that it needs to be woven into much of the daily activities. One begins to establish a caring educational community by consistently implementing group activities such as classroom meetings, by dealing with disagreements in class and at recess in an open way, by encouraging cooperative learning activities, as well as by approaches such as reading texts that focus on social and ethical issues familiar to the students themselves.

Q: Does the importance of these ethics-building activities lessen when we consider middle-school and high-school children?

“We have learned...that social competence and character development are not fully achieved by ages five or ten; they are lifelong learning experiences.”

A: One thing we have learned from research over the years is that social competence and character development are not fully achieved by ages five or ten; they are lifelong learning experiences. But just as a lack of practice has erased previous knowledge necessary in solving the intricacies of algebraic equations, social competence must be constantly practiced, or those skills will not be there when we most need them. The kinds of social and ethical problems that students face across elementary, middle, and high school change in dramatic ways, and practice-solving them is essential to the individual and to the society.

Q: Once children are able to understand and effectively evaluate social situations (e.g., in books or films), how can teachers help guide them as they begin attempting to make socially responsible decisions?

A: The relationship between ethical awareness and social behavior has not solved the problem of its connection or disconnection, so it's a bit unfair to expect practice to solve it for our students, especially without regard for their families and the social environments they navigate. However, educational practice is a great context to study these connections and disconnections. Our own work is based on the assumption that by trying to promote social and ethical awareness in schools, we will begin to understand how what children learn relates to how they conduct their everyday lives.

If one considers the fact that debate on how to teach moral education (e.g., through exhortation versus through discussion and disagreement about tough dilemmas) and what to teach (e.g., patriotism versus ethical analysis) is extremely complicated and heated, we can begin to see why teachers are hesitant to address this task in a comprehensive way, unless they have a strong institutional support.

“Good children's literature not only raises moral dilemmas, but also generates the feelings that are associated with situations where moral conflict and confusion exists.”

But I think teachers, when respected and supported, can master the fundamentals of the discipline of ethical awareness well enough to promote it in their classrooms. However, the whole school (at the least) must take on the challenge of establishing an atmosphere in which children both find models for responsible social decision-making and find a supportive context for making such decisions themselves. In other words, I think it more the responsibility of the school as a community to promote respectful decisions than it is of any individual teacher, standing alone.

Q: Do you believe that an ethical education can be successfully integrated into public education through the more traditional subjects of reading/writing? Is this an efficient way to teach morality?

A: This, of course, is the focus of our current practice-based research. I believe that the education of ethical and social awareness must be successfully integrated into both public and private education. Given the current environment, using the language arts and literacy curriculums is one of the most practical vehicles with which to perform this integration. Good children's literature not only raises moral dilemmas, but also generates the feelings that are associated with situations where moral conflict and confusion exists.

However, moral attitudes are not taught efficiently anywhere, at home or in school or in the workplace. In fact, one could even argue these habits of mind are often learned through mistakes. But the more one practices ethical awareness in conjunction with other students, the better s/he will get at it. If our inevitable ethical mistakes can be contained or corrected, if they can be truly felt, if they are the kinds of ethical errors that do not cause irreversible damage to self or to others, then as we go through school, we will have built up immunity, resilience, and capacity for resistance to becoming ethically lost. Better yet, we may take a road that leads to making things better in this world.

For More Information
More information about Robert Selman is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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