Social reconstruction in education refers to a sociopolitical movement that has the goal of transforming society through the education system. The primary objective of social reconstructionism is to change society in ways that improve the welfare of all citizens, with particular emphasis on helping the disadvantaged.
In the latter part of the 20th century, there was growing international concern with social inequalities in both Western and non-Western countries. Educational opportunity was viewed as a way to create a more balanced and fair global community.
This ideal was facilitated by other developments: a growing concern for the environment, recognition regarding the interdependence of ecosystems and human survival, and the spread of technology that could either increase existing disparity or serve as a tool for a fairer distribution of educational resources.
Definition of Social Reconstruction in Education
The philosophy of social reconstruction in education has been advocated by many, including John Dewey, who claimed that it aimed:
“…to shape the experiences of the young so that instead of reproducing current habits, better habits shall be formed, and thus the future adult society be an improvement on their own” (p. 79).
Sadker and Zittleman (2010) explain that the purpose of social reconstruction in education is for:
“…schools, teachers, and students to focus their studies and energies on alleviating pervasive social inequities and, as the name implies, reconstruct society into a new and more just social order” (p. 284).
Examples of Social Reconstruction in Education
1. Social Activism and Driver Safety
The reconstructionist classroom is highly interactive and student-centered, despite the fact that its purpose is very much outwardly focused on transforming society.
Students participate in discussions of moral dilemmas and social inequalities while the teacher hopes to highlight the implications of the students’ actions.
For example, perhaps the class is examining the issue of driving while texting, a social problem that can have grave consequences and is quite pertinent to new teenage drivers.
The teacher may arrange the viewing of a documentary, as well as a guest speaker list that includes a police officer, ER nurse, or family member affected by the loss of a loved one that occurred as a result of texting while driving.
This might inspire some students to engage in further study, produce an oral or poster presentation, or develop an action plan with the goal of affecting the issue in the community.
The teacher’s role is advisory. They may provide guidance on research techniques, writing and presentation skills, or public activism strategies that will also be applicable across other subject domains.
2. Urban Farming
There are many inequalities in most countries that would be well-served by a social reconstructionist philosophy; food insecurity may be one of the most pressing. According to the BBC, approximately 900 million tons of perfectly edible food is wasted yearly.
Although there are numerous factors that produce this catastrophe, there are also numerous solutions. Some of those solutions can be enacted by students.
For example, university agriculture majors could coordinate with disadvantaged communities to design and install urban farms. Urban farming is a viable solution that can be easily implemented on abandoned lots and rooftops.
This is exactly the type of service-learning project that is project-based, helps students develop practical skills, and addresses a pressing social inequality.
3. Teacher Education and Social Justice
As social inequality has become a primary concern in some Western countries, many scholars have recognized the role of the education system in introducing students to the variety of ills that exist.
Kavanagh and Danielson (2020), for example, investigated the way in which novice teachers were trained to teach about social justice issues. Unfortunately, they discovered that there were few differences in how novice teachers were trained to teach about social justice issues compared to traditional text-based subjects.
Moreover, when examining the classroom practices of newly trained teachers and reflections on their teaching, the results mirrored the results of their training; social justice issues were much less frequently discussed.
As the authors conclude:
“Perhaps the time has come for…an approach to preparing teachers that is anchored in the practice of teaching and is oriented toward the goal of social transformation” (p. 100).
4. The Kibbutz: Collective Farms in Israel
A somewhat different manifestation of social reconstructionist education can be seen in the kibbutzim in Israel, with the first being established in 1909 in Palestine.
The most distinguishing feature of the kibbutz is that all of the children are raised by professional educators. This occurs in the very first years of life.
This ensures the equality of treatment for both boys and girls, and avoids the conflicts that inevitably happen in the family.
This type of collective education and raising of children perpetuates the kibbutz philosophy and is more democratic and cooperative than traditional education.
The entire educational system has but one objective; to prepare the next generation for the kibbutz way of life.
5. Science-based Solutions to Environmental Problems Environmental
Another good example of social reconstruction in education comes from a project on environmental stewardship. Students at Indiana University and Purdue University participate in environmental programs that benefit a given community.
The program is part of coursework in their introductory to science class. The work can involve restoring wetlands and floodplain ecosystems, native plant installation, or decreasing plant species eradication.
These types of endeavors give students an opportunity to work in partnership with local community members and address an important community need. As stated on the webpage about this program, it:
“…provides the students with an opportunity to directly experience many of the topics discussed in their courses as well as to observe how communities can work together to solve environmental problems.”
Because the program takes place in the context of their academic studies, they can see how their involvement is connected to the learning goals in the course.
6. Put Some Blue in Your Green School
Water conservation is a global issue that affects every country. This program is a problem-based learning project that involves high school science students in several courses, including Earth Sciences, AP Environmental Science, Biology, Chemistry, or Aquatic Science courses.
The goal of the program is for students to raise awareness of water conservation and apply water management practices in the community.
The first step is for the students to conduct a thorough analysis of their school’s water use practices. They perform detailed measurements and create graphs and visual presentations of the data.
Next, the students implement the necessary behavioral and structural changes in order for their school to conserve water more efficiently. After that, the students conduct a pre-post-comparison of the program.
After the program has demonstrated results, it can be applied to other schools in the community.
7. The Soviet Union
Some versions of the social reconstructionist movement took on a very political form. In the former Soviet Union for example, the philosophy of Karl Marx instilled the belief that the education system should serve the purposes of the government.
The population was viewed as a source of labor to construct a stronger nation-state. Therefore, schools should train students to engage in productive activities that would help the country achieve dominance on the world stage.
By preparing students for this objective, schools, in conjunction with the government, identified students with special potential in certain domains, such as technological or athletic. Once identified, those students were then steered down a path that would maximize their abilities and support the political ideology of the country.
Other students were prepared for labor in agriculture or factories, depending on the needs of the government.
8. Character Education
Social reconstructionism can be quite encompassing. In a way, the more ills that exist in a given society, the more encompassing should be the reconstruction.
This can lead to a daunting task for those that take social reform seriously. One must ask: Where do I begin?
Well, sometimes the best answer is the simplest one…at least to start. To fix a society that is made up of individuals, the place to start will be with those individuals.
For many in the social reconstruction movement, helping students develop into well-rounded individuals that have a strong moral character is the key to developing a better society.
This is sometimes referred to as character education. Character education is an umbrella term to describe teaching students to develop moral reasoning, civility, and responsibility. It can also include other attributes such as: self-discipline, compassion, gratitude, courage, honesty, justice, and humility.
9. Growing Voters by CIRCLE
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) by Tufts University has developed a research-based framework to encourage voter turnout.
From a social constructionist perspective, a nation of individuals that vote is an essential component of a healthy society.
Because the education system has instilled the proper values of equality and fairness in students, they will carry those values with them into the voting booth.
The Growing Voters report offers institutions a detailed guide that facilitates the development of the next generation of voters.
By providing actionable recommendations for educators, community leaders and policymakers, the results will:
“…close voting gaps, expand the electorate, and support a more equitable and representative American democracy”. Thus, serving the greater public good.
10. A Class Divided: Discrimination
One social inequity in some Western countries involves the treatment of minorities. Individuals born into social, racial, and ethnic groups are at a huge disadvantage regarding their future career and life trajectories.
From a social constructionist perspective, schools should take an active role in creating a fair and unbiased society where all groups are treated equally.
This is exactly what third-grade teacher Jane Elliott tried to do in 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One day she announced to her class that there were two groups of people: brown-eyes and blue-eyes. Blue-eyes were superior in many ways, and so, they would enjoy numerous privileges that brown-eyes were denied.
On the following day, the roles were reversed.
Almost instantly, she observed significant changes in the behavior of both groups, depending on if they were designated as superior, or not. It is a remarkable demonstration of the power of discrimination.
It is also an outstanding example of how classroom pedagogy can transform a student’s understanding of the world and have a long-lasting impact on the rest of their lives.
Strengths of Social Reconstructionism
1. The Greater Economic Good
The primary goal of social reconstruction is the spread of equality to all of society. Disadvantaged groups such as minorities are treated fairly and justly in order to produce a greater good. If all groups are strong and have equal opportunities, the whole of society benefits.
The greater good also means that employment opportunities are available for all. There would be no need for welfare as all members in society are employed and have sufficient economic means to flourish and prosper.
2. Harmonious Society
By learning how to cooperate with others and see everyone as equals, society itself becomes a sanctuary of harmony and peace.
Families are wholly functional and void of the usual conflicts and psychological turmoil.
Being disadvantaged creates social ills such as poverty, crime, and addiction. Therefore, a society in which all thrive and excel will produce a society that is well-functioning and healthy.
Gender equality means that women as well as men can pursue careers and their individual dreams, thus eliminating gender wars that strain gender relations.
3. Focus on Change and Activism
Because every society is in a continuous state of evolution, it is necessary that some institution or entity serve the role of keeping things in check.
As society ills will surely arise from time to time, by instilling certain moral beliefs among all members of society, individuals will be equipped with the necessary tools to take action and restore social order when necessary.
What better entity to carry out this function than the education system? It impacts every member of society and does so for a prolonged period of time. Moreover, teachers are trained to instill the necessary belief systems and methodologies in the student body.
Teachers not only act as social activists, but they train and prepare students to perform those same functions.
Criticisms of Social Reconstructionism
One potent criticism of social reconstruction in education is that the proponents do not recognize the magnitude of the task before them.
A complex and pluralistic society will possess a wide range of ills. Those ills can be systemic and well-ingrained in the fabric of society on many levels.
The advocators of reconstruction expect that just about anything can be solved with education. Moreover, teachers can exert such powerful change on their students that it can overcome other socialization agents, including parents.
For some, it seems that reconstructionist efforts are likely to fail and therefore educational resources should be allocated to more realistic goals.
2. Whose Values?
Although the concept of justice and social equality would seem valuable pursuits that all would agree with, the reality is that many conceptions of morality are based on individual value judgements.
In a highly pluralistic society, that means that one person’s sense of justice may not be agreed upon by a significant portion of society.
If that is the case, then the question becomes not should society be just, but by whose definition of just should be used?
3. Political Ideologies
Some versions of social reconstructionism in education specify direct links with the governing political ideology of the nation.
For those in a democratic society that value individual rights and equality of all, that seems perfectly fine.
However, if the movement exists in a communist country, in many ways, it means just the opposite. All efforts are to serve the purpose of the state, which means subverting individualism for nationalism and obeying authority.
Social reconstruction in education has the primary goal of making the world a better place to live, for all.
By instilling the proper values and beliefs in students, those attributes will spread throughout society and become ingrained in the fabric of the nation.
The benefits are numerous, from increased economic opportunities to an elimination of social ills due to inequalities and mistreatment.
Teachers can train students to carry out projects that benefit local communities. When such activities accumulate over time and geography, the entire country benefits.
Ultimately, society develops its own mechanisms of reform and change because the individual members are prepared and motivated to perform such service for the greater good of all.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press
Kavanagh, S. S., & Danielson, K. A. (2020). Practicing justice, justifying practice: Toward critical practice teacher education. American Educational Research Journal, 57(1), 69-105.
Sadker, D.M. and K.R. Zittleman, 2018. Teachers, schools, and society: A brief introduction to education. 5th Edn., New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Sadker, D., & Zittleman, K. (2010). Teachers, schools, and society: To accompany teachers, schools, and society. New York: McGrawHill.
Martin, R. J. (1994). Multicultural social reconstructionist education: Design for diversity in teacher education. Teacher Education Quarterly, 77-89.
Mayne, H. (2014). The Social Reconstructionist Approach to Teacher Education: A necessary component to achieving excellence and quality education for all. Research in Comparative and International Education, 9(1), 48-55.