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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Forget Kindness. Schools Need to Foster Social Justice

By Jinnie Spiegler — June 03, 2018 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Jinnie Spiegler, Director of Curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League.

We know kindness when we see it: someone performs a generous deed, listens with a sympathetic ear, offers a heartfelt compliment to a friend, family member or even a stranger. We see kindness promoted visibly through public awareness campaigns likeRandom Acts of Kindness, The Great Kindness Challenge and Choose Kind, linked to the popular children’s book Wonder.

Conversations about kindness abound in schools and can be part of character education instruction and social and emotional learning skill development. The acts of kindness that take place in schools (e.g., holding the water fountain for someone, reading a book to a younger student, bringing a treat to someone, asking the teacher if they need help) are regularly encouraged, affirmed and applauded. Many parents feel it is their obligation to instill this trait in their children from a young age. Indeed, kindness is something our whole society can get behind--it is a worthy aspiration to raise children who are helpful, generous and caring.

Sometimes in schools and in society at large, kindness and social action get conflated. They are not the same. It is important to make the distinction because many schools hope to engage young people in social action work, yet mistakenly focus on kindness because they think it will lead to social justice outcomes.

Kindness, defined as being “of a sympathetic or helpful nature,” usually involves an action between one person and another. It’s typically a solo act. Social action, defined as “activity on the part of an interested group directed toward some particular institutional change,” generally involves a group of people who work together to bring about institutional change so that society advances and people experience improved safety, freedom and equity. Institutional or systemic change can take place in a school, a community or society as a whole.

The aftermath of the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS provides a useful example of the difference between kindness and social action. The acts of kindness directed toward the survivors, victims and their families included notes of sympathy and concern, kind quotes, tree planting, coupons for free items and more. As this was taking place, the world watched as Parkland students engaged in social action and activism in order to address the root of the gun violence problem and to enact systemic change.

These actions included walkouts and protests; meetings with lobbyists and members of Congress; petitions, op-eds and letter writing; and deep engagement on social media and with the press and various media outlets. Further, they sparked activism in others, which shows how social action can be contagious and that the affected parties are not the only ones who should get involved.

While kindness can set a foundation for social action because it fosters empathy in young people and motivates them to help others, the two are not the same and action does not happen on its own. If we want young people to understand how to engage in changing systems and society, it is critical that adults encourage them to do so by providing opportunities to practice while imparting the necessary skills and knowledge. The first step is to facilitate students’ learning about the issues in a rigorous and complex way, and then to get them involved in action, advocacy and/or activism.

For example, if students are passionate about the problem of homelessness, the tendency might be to have young people volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen or read aloud to children who are homeless. These are wonderful activities that will promote empathy and a sense of connection on a human level. But if we want children to consider how to transform the problem of homelessness, we need to help them understand the economic and social roots of the problem and consider ways to advocate for affordable housing and improved economic conditions for all people, especially those living in poverty.

Similarly, if students want to tackle the issue of educational equity, they can’t stop at a helpful activity such as tutoring children. That will definitely help some individual children but in order to effect systemic change, students need to analyze and challenge the opportunity/achievement gap, school funding inequities and the school-to-prison pipeline (to name a few). After that, they can consider ways to address those issues through policy and legislation, leading to local and national solutions.

We should teach, model and promote kindness as much and as often as we can. But we also need to teach and empower young people to engage in social action: that is the only way we can ultimately change societal inequities and bring about a truly just society.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.