Teaching critical thinking to high school students: The heart of social science (2 of 6)

The following are my teaching assignments on critical thinking for California 12th grade students in the semester-long courses, “US Government” and “Economics.” I offer them for non-profit use:

The purpose of this assignment is to follow my introduction to the class of what social science is, and why it’s authentically of interest and importance. As I documented in the first article in this series, the results of this frame for studying history, government, and economics have been enormously successful. The placement of this part in teaching critical thinking explains how successful social relations is already of central importance to students, and fully deserving of our best critical thinking for ongoing improvements.

With all assignments, I e-mail parents with invitation of their reading and discussions with their children. This broad context for social science is authentic and attractive; it is also essential to establish before we consider the challenging facts our critical thinking reveals about history, government, and economics.

The results of this assignment and class discussion generally include:

  • student surprise that previous social science classes never made clear this heart/context that’s obvious once pointed to,
  • genuine student interest how history, government, or economics could help them both now and increasingly over the next ~70 years of their lives in better social relations,
  • connection to and interest in an adult (me as their teacher) who experiences and expresses more virtue with experience in Life rather than more complaints.

The assignment:

The heart of social science, class participation, extra credit

Dear Students,

This letter from me to you expresses what it means to learn social science, the grading structure and benefits of class participation, and the grade/learning opportunities of extra credit. It’s also an assignment to check for learning, and help your effective beginning for the class.

Why learn Social Science? What’s in it for me? As we discussed in the introduction of this class, social science is literally the art and science of being with people. When we love our life, it is a direct function of how we relate with others and/or ourselves. When we hate our life, it is a direct function of a failure to relate successfully with others and/or ourselves. History shows us important civics lessons of how people related to each other in the past so we can be competent in the present. Government and economics teaches us skills to manage how people relate in groups and businesses. The point, I emphasize, is learning to successfully relate to the people around you.

The possibilities of social studies for you as an individual include, but are not limited to, a fulfilling and loving relationship with your parents, great friendships through good times and bad, communication that connects and enlightens, bringing out the best of ourselves on command and inspiring the best of those around us, and being vibrantly alive with ever-evolving experience and expression of virtues. As you know, when you are successful in being with people, you are empowered to discover and develop your full self-expression.

As a citizen, a possibility of social studies is living in better communities. This includes mastery of critical thinking skills to discern independently verifiable fact from political spin, engaging in civil conversations that hold people accountable for factual accuracy and inviting diversity of views, diplomacy to resolve conflicts; solving problems like hunger, disease, poverty and pollution; and making new technologies possible for unforeseen advance and adventure. Your next ~70 years of citizenry are vitally important!

The stated purpose for social studies in the California State Framework is designed to help:

We want our students to take an active role as citizens and to know how to work for change in a democratic society…We want them to develop a keen sense of ethics and citizenship, and to care deeply about the quality of life in their community, their nation, and their world…We want students to see the connection between ideas and behavior, between the values and ideals that people hold and the ethical consequences of those beliefs. Students should realize that tragedies and triumphs have resulted from choices made by individuals. California State Framework for Social Science. Introduction, pgs. 2-3.

What tools do I need to be successful in relating to others? The primary tool you are learning in improving how you relate to others and yourself is greater experience and expression of virtue. Virtue is unique to each person’s self-expression; beautiful and powerful. While you are individually unique, you can harmonize with others in synergy impossible through individual effort. Virtues of strength, love, creative intelligence, beauty/harmony, knowledge, faith, and efficiency are what you want in being with people, both in what you give and what you receive. When you are virtuous on your terms, you love your life. In virtue, you are powerful, helpful, and attractive. If you experience and express virtue, you make a unique contribution to Life that will satisfy you, and make the world a better place.

California social science classes are intended to give you academic tools within a social framework to improve your ability to relate virtuously with people. These tools include:

  • History: If you don’t know sufficient background of something, you’ll act in ignorance. In fact, it’s true to say that if you don’t know history, you don’t know anything. This applies equally to having a friendship as it does to crafting political policy. Understanding the past, as you already know in personal experience in many areas of life, helps you intelligently shape the future.
  • Research: Learn to look up what your interests are and what you discover is important to understand. Do this or act in ignorance. It’s that simple.
  • Speaking-up and/or taking action for what you find as important: You’ll either go beyond fear to speak and act for what’s important in your life, or be weak and live in regret. The good news is that if you learn to overcome fear, you can engage to upgrade many mistakes from the past and improve the present and future. The bad news is that many human beings are consistently defeated by fear, despite this being so easy to learn and practice, which creates an environment that keeps people literally frozen in fear.
  • Writing powerfully in your own voice: Armed with the tools of verifiable history and related research, with courage to speak, writing is a form of reflective speech. Writing allows for thought to crystalize what you really want to say in authentic self-expression. As I mentioned in class, speaking and writing effective briefs along with understanding an organization’s primary statistics to measure success are the three leading skills for you to advance in your future career.

Ok, ok, I like this frame on learning social science. How can I practice my skills through class participation, and how do you pay me with grades? Each unit will have a declared number of possible participation points (party points), probably five. As I said in the class introduction, my teaching style is part professional briefing (I’ll brief you on curricular topics just as I helped brief members of Congress for ~300 bills) and part Socratic inquiry into what people see as the meaning of ideas and facts. When I ask the class questions, you have the option of raising your hand to respond. If you’d like to receive the most value, raise your hand every time and work with me (remember the story I told of Hernan/“Lizard” who used this to go from a boy in the hood to a full scholarship and internship with Pixar). Each topic you respond to can earn one party point. I also will call on people (I enjoy engaging students who’ve lost touch with the value of social science in your own virtue, millions and billions of human lives, and trillions of our dollars). A declination to respond loses a party point (negative points are not possible). Students are explicitly responsible to understand the previous class day’s material in the unit packets sufficiently well to explain the answers to the class. I promise to provide opportunity for each student to receive full credit for party points.

Consider this: who you are being at any given moment, including in class, is your statement to the world and yourself of who you say you are, what you are building, and how important your classmates’ success is for you. That is, every moment is opportunity to practice your experience and expression of your highest virtues, on your terms.

If you become proficient in the social science skill of experiencing and expressing ever-higher senses of virtue, then what does this mean?

Does that mean that life can become ever brighter for you, on your terms? Does that mean all so-called “problems” are opportunities and challenges to call forth your highest virtues (just as you keep going to the movies to identify with the star’s response of virtue to really big problems)? Does this mean that you authentically have the power right now to never complain about anything in life again because your power for virtue instantly vanquishes the illusion of any disempowering interpretation of the facts???

Your best responses to those inquiries are what you can practice in class participation, if you choose it. Of course, you live your responses to those questions everywhere at all times. I’m just inviting your conscious responses and recognition of power over the topics.

Participation will also make the course material far more interesting and easier to understand.

You say I can earn as much extra credit that I want? How does that work? First: as you will discover, the specifics of learning history, economics, and government demand attention and time. I suggest that you invest the attention and time to be satisfied and proud of your learning. That said, because you are unique as an individual, I encourage you to go beyond the limits of this course in learning what calls to you in being with people. I give extra credit for projects to improve your social science knowledge and/or skills. These are points that are added to total points earned and total possible points, not just to total points earned. To receive extra credit, start by giving me a proposal of your project either verbally or in writing that states what you want to improve and your project. For example:

  • To relate better with your family, address a policy that you see is unfair.
  • To relate better with your parents, talk with them about something you’ve been too weak to go for, but are now ready to address.
  • To feel better, end a long-standing argument with a friend or sibling.
  • To get better grades, talk with a teacher to improve your learning and grade.
  • To improve your knowledge, research something you’re curious or passionate about regarding a social science topic. Research can include reading, interviewing a grandparent, watching documentaries and/or analysis, going to a museum, etc.

A general format that might help for social skills projects is to respond to the following:

  1. What is the complaint?
  2. What are the facts of who has done what, when, where?
  3. How long have I had this complaint? Does this length of time communicate that I really could enjoy my life more if I more rapidly acted to address complaints?
  4. What is the outcome/upgrade I want?
  5. What is my plan/strategy of virtue to move toward my preferred outcome? What is my virtuous contingency to always welcome others’ freedom to choose their own path?
  6. Go for your plan. Write the facts of what happened.
  7. Did you experience what you call “fear” when you acted to improve virtue? Do you find any power to view “fear” as stimulations from past experiences that are just physical sensations (sweat, tight voice, etc.), disempowering stories you tell yourself, and visual images of failure?
  8. Now that you’ve acted, are you called for follow-up action for virtue? If so, what? (If so, you may repeat this process for an additional assignment).
  9. What did you gain from this work to experience and express virtue on your terms? Importantly, please note that most people need far more work to experience virtue under challenging circumstances; that is, it’s a human pitfall to feel discouraged and quit rather than learn (especially from mistakes) and take the next steps forward with increased virtue.

A general format for research that might help:

  1. Explain the topic and your interest.
  2. Choose and do research of value. Explain your research.
  3. What are the comprehensive facts, as you can best tell?
  4. What do the facts mean?
  5. What should be done; that is, what is your policy position?
  6. What did you gain in virtue from this work?

Your Choice: I strongly suggest that you make a list of all the social and academic improvements you want for yourself now, and use this year to accomplish them.

There is a deep satisfaction from successfully relating to yourself (this includes who you consider yourself to be spiritually), your friends, your family, your profession, your organizations and networks, and your communities. I encourage you to listen to your sense of virtue to discover where you are called to improve in how people relate. When you notice something, speak and act for the virtue you see. The outcome probably won’t be what you thought, of course; just as the rest of life rarely goes the way you think it will. The rewards for your deeper experience and expression of virtue are wisdom, freedom, and a power that crushes the illusion of fear. An enhanced experience and expression of virtue fulfills the possibility that as you live more, you enjoy life more, and improve the quality of life for the human family. With attention to virtue, you can be one of the few people who can honestly say that you love your life.

To live in the company of people at their best is the finest thing possible. How can one be considered wise if, when having the choice, one does not work to live in such surroundings? – attributed to Confucius

Do you want this: to identify and be the person you best imagine for yourself?

If so, be so, speak so, and take action!

I suggest that you keep these four pages for reference. Please do and turn-in the following assignment:

The heart of social science, class participation, extra credit

Instructions: Respond to the following questions. I suggest taking the electronic version, cutting and pasting, then printing. You are also welcome to write your responses on a separate page. This is a perfect opportunity to practice your highest sense of virtue, and your writing voice. The assignment is worth 12 points – one point per question.

  1. Explain what social science is. Research and list five specific disciplines within social science (for example, and you can’t use this as one of your five: history is a discipline within social science.
  2. Explain the value in learning social science for yourself as an individual and citizen.
  3. The California State Framework is the context/reasons to learn social science topics. The California Standards are the specific learning topics we’ll learn. Explain why learning is empowered when the student is in touch with a valuable reason/context/purpose for learning in order to invest the work to understand the specific data/content. Explain one example from your life of either being in touch with the purpose of some kind of learning that helped you commit to the work, and/or an example where being out of touch with context made the work an unenjoyable chore.
  4. Define “virtue.” Explain a virtue that attracts you in your experience of other peoples’ self-expression and/or that you want to better develop in your own self-expression.
  5. Define “history.” Explain an example in your life where you intelligently applied history to more effectively take action in the present, and/or a time where your ignorance of history thwarted your effectiveness in the present.
  6. Define “research.” Explain an area of life where you have been or are currently engaged in research because of your high interest in understanding an area of life.
  7. Explain an example from your life where you spoke-up and/or took action that made you feel proud of yourself. Importantly, explain how you overcame any fear to do so.
  8. Explain an example where your clear writing in your own beautiful and powerful self-expression helped you. Did your written work make you feel proud of yourself?
  9. Explain the rules for party points in class.
  10. Explain how life is a continuous “test” of who you say you are in your participation; that is, how you are always answering the question of your power to experience and express virtue. In your experience, is the Hernan/”Lizard” story mere coincidence, or point to an untapped power within human beings that initiates with bold declaration and action?
  11. Explain the rules for extra credit.
  12. Explain what you learned of value from this assignment. Consider if you accept my invitation to make a list of all the social and academic improvements you want for yourself in this school year, and take action for their accomplishment. You’re welcome to keep this list private, of course. You’re welcome to take aspects and translate them into extra credit projects. You’re also welcome to take the structure I’ve provided for your own adaptation. You may also use this question to respond to my invitation.
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