Discussion-Based Learning in Grade 8 Social Studies: Why we actually want to study the past

By: Sam Johnston, Director of Learning 

I recently sat in on a Grade 8 Social Studies class. It was not typical of the Social Studies classes I went to when I was in High School. In my experience, my teacher spent most of the class lecturing at me about events that happened in the past, and I spent the bulk of my time trying to find out why any of it was relevant to me in my current situation.
In the class I observed last week, the teacher, Mr. Chris Vytasek, did the opposite by employing a discussion technique called Harkness. The entire class joined into a group discussion structured to maximize students’ voices and minimize the teacher’s voice. The boys were learning about the purpose of government and the responsibilities of the government to the people and vice versa. The relevance for the boys was unmistakeable, and the maturity of their thoughts was impressive.
Prior to the lesson the boys needed to have studied readings from the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and you could tell from the conversation that there was no chance they could have (or would have) considered skipping this step. They knew ahead of time that they would be expected to discuss a set of guiding questions prepared by the teacher connecting the readings and philosophies with examples from their lives and their understanding of modern government. Instead of having to memorize where and when something happened, these boys were applying the principles they were studying to their own lives and discussing issues that were meaningful to them.
Mr. Vytasek started the class with a short introduction of the format of the discussion and a short amount of time to gather their thoughts about the guiding questions. What happened next would have blown you away (especially if your experience at the dinner table when you ask how your son’s day went usually amounts to “not much…” or a grunt). In the 45 minutes that followed, an elevated discussion of rights and freedoms, and of the tension between the two, bounced around the table. The boys built on one another’s points and added their own ideas to craft an eloquent conversation, directly quoting readings and bringing in statistics to support their points. The key to all of this: they were doing it all without Mr. Vytasek needing to use more than a few words to guide the conversation or remind them of the guiding questions.

When I reflect back on what I used to remember from my Social Studies classes, it makes me want to go back to Grade 8 Social Studies and do it properly.
Founded in 1930, St. George's School is a world-class boys' university preparatory school, offering a day program in Grades 1-12 and an Urban Boarding program in Grades 8-12. With 1160 students, 110 of whom are boarders from over 20 countries worldwide, St. George’s School is a vibrant community committed to authentic learning.
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