This op-ed piece by Danielle McLaughlin, Director of Education for the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust, was published on November 11, 2010 in The Windsor Star.
Did you vote during the recent election? What does your six year old think about that? With any luck, your child is asking some interesting questions.
You may be surprised to learn that even very young children are capable of thinking critically about what it means to be a citizen — and of taking responsible action.
As the Law Foundation of Ontario’s Community Leadership in Justice Fellow at the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Education in 2010-2011, I have the great honour of working with people who are learning to teach the five “Rs.” Along with teaching reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic comes teaching rights and responsibilities. Through its focus on social justice, the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Education is at the forefront.
While many of us may think young children have limited capacity to think about complex situations, some teacher-candidates at the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Education are seizing the opportunity to teach critical thinking.
In an assignment designed for the Law and Ethics course, Prof. Yvette Daniel had her teacher candidates plan and implement a lesson that incorporated critical thinking skills during their practice teaching.
One teacher candidate explored issues around the topic of slavery. Not only was slavery legal in Canada, but people who assisted slaves in escaping were committing an offence under law. The students were working out what they would have done if they had lived at this time in Canada’s history. Would they have obeyed an unfair law? Would they have risked going to jail for breaking such a law? Here is what the teacher-candidate said about her experience teaching critical thinking to elementary students:
“Seeing my students capable of deep and critical thought was an amazing experience for me! I was near tears when discussing issues of justice and fairness with my students because it was at that moment that I pictured them all as the next big “game changing advocates” in our world. They had the power and potential and it was through this deep critical thinking … assignment where I gained real insight into just this.”
Many others also reported that they discovered the “teachable moments” that engage children in coming to grips with the important choices we must all make as citizens. Teacher-candidates are learning to teach youngsters to practice the habits of democracy through sustained practice of the ‘habits of mind’… and they are doing so through every part of the curriculum and through planned and occasioned classroom encounters.
Imagine this: A teacher who is tired of interruptions makes a new classroom rule — no one can use the washroom except during recess or lunch. Her purpose is to keep the class running smoothly and to keep her students focused. Is this fair? She asks the students. She poses three questions that will help them to decide:
1) Why? What is the purpose for the rule — is it a reasonable one?
2) Will it work? Will the new rule achieve its purpose and make the class run more smoothly?
3) What else will happen? Does the rule go too far? Will certain people be more negatively affected than others? Is there another way to achieve the goal without unduly infringing on people’s rights and freedoms?
Some students may like the new rule, while others may see it as unfair.
Some will be concerned about people leaving the room during an important test, and others about bathroom emergencies or puddles on the floor.
We may even find that some of the children are concerned, not only for their own welfare, but for that of their friends or for other people they consider to be vulnerable.
What risks do teachers take when they engage young students in this kind of discussion?
Could we be training the next generation of protesters? Maybe. But if we DON’T engage students in considering their rights and responsibilities, where will our next world leaders come from?
Choosing to vote or not to vote, then, is entirely relevant to your six year old and to all our children.
And work being done at Windsor’s education faculty, and in classrooms where its graduates are teaching, should give us confidence in the bright future those six year olds will help create.
Danielle McLaughlin is Director of Education for the Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust. McLaughlin will be joining the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Education in January 2011 as a recipient of the Law Foundation of Ontario Community Leadership in Justice Fellowship.