Social Contracts

Are you a teacher who has wondered about the best way to create a classroom environment in which students felt safe to take risks in their learning?  Have you struggled with discipline issues? Have you wished that students could help to monitor each others’ behavior? Many teachers develop class rules at the beginning of the school year, but in my experience even when rules are co-created with students, they are not always effective. There may be too many rules for students to remember, or students might have multiple teachers who have different expectations. So what is a teacher to do? One solution is to develop a “social contract” for a specific group of students who work together frequently.

My introduction to the idea of a “social contract” came from a previous colleague (instructional coach) who was helping Innovation Institute teachers understand how to help students build healthy relationships with each other and encourage a trusting, empathetic environment in which students could more effectively collaborate. The social contract comes from the Flippen Group, which at the time had resources for the social contract online. However, this work now seems to be encompassed in their Capturing Kids’ Hearts professional training offerings (which look amazing). The social contract encourages students to manage their own (and each others’) behaviors by providing a shared understanding and clear structure for what is – and what is not – acceptable.

The social contract should be developed with a group that has newly formed, although it helps if the group has has had some time to get to know each other prior to creating the contract. How it works:

  • Seat students in small groups of 3-5. Students can be assigned roles such as time keeper, scribe, spokesperson, etc.
  • Introduce the idea of a “social contract”, and ask students why it might be helpful to have one.
  • Have students individually answer these questions on paper:
    1. How do you want to be treated by the teacher?
    2. How do you want to be treated by each other?
    3. How do you think the teacher wants to be treated?
    4. How will we handle violations of the contract?
  • After students have had individual ‘think time’, have them share their thoughts in their small groups.
  • Next, ask each question one at a time, and have each group share out to the class.
    • Encourage all ideas to be shared, and record every idea (as single words or short phrases) on a large piece of paper. Ideally, the social contract should be kept posted in the room.
    • If any ideas are repeated, use a check mark to indicate that it was stated more than once.
    • Students should be as specific as possible. For example, ‘respect each other’ is perhaps not specific enough. What do they mean exactly? What does respect look like? sound like?
    • Ask for clarification of any terms and/or ideas that may not be universally agreed upon or understood. However, as much as possible, the ideas shared should be written exactly as the student shared them.
  • Once all ideas are recorded, it is important to agree upon how to hold each other accountable. Students can call ‘foul’ on each other – or a teacher – if someone says or does something that is deemed to go against the social contract.
  • Everyone needs to sign the contract, including the teacher. 
  • When can someone call ‘foul’? Whenever they perceive that someone has said something or acted in a way that goes against the spirit of the social contract – either towards them or another classmate.
  • What happens when someone calls ‘foul’? A foul cannot be questioned or negotiated. If someone has ‘foul’ called on them, they cannot argue it. They must offer two ‘put ups’ to the person they have been deemed to have mistreated. The ‘put ups’ must be something positive about that person’s character – it cannot be about their appearance or anything superficial. Teachers may need to model genuine, quality ‘put ups’.

In my experience, students came to the realization that the answers to all four questions are very similar. Everyone really wants to be treated the same way. Although there will be many ideas recorded in the social contract, it starts to become apparent that everyone should follow the ‘golden rule’ – treat others the way you want to be treated. This is what makes the social contract easier to follow than a list of specific rules. ANY behavior or words that are deemed harmful in some way can be called out as a ‘foul’.

What could cause the social contract to fail?

  • Inconsistency. Teachers need to hold students accountable and encourage students to call foul on both students AND the teacher, if necessary.
  • Sarcasm. Teachers should be willing to be called out for using sarcasm.
  • Students have already been together for a long period of time. My team first implemented the social contract with students in their second year of a program. We were new teachers for these students, but they had already spent an entire school year together and had built a dynamic without us. It felt almost impossible to have students ‘buy in’ to the idea of a social contract.
  • Multiple teachers. All teachers must ‘buy in’ to the social contract. If your students have multiple teachers, ensure that they are involved. Ideally, they are a part of the process, but students could also share and explain with other teachers after it is created. All teachers should sign the contract.



Ideation (Brainstorming)

Do your students need help to effectively brainstorm? Perhaps they default to sharing out ideas in an unstructured, open discussion? If so, they would likely benefit from being explicitly taught some useful strategies for brainstorming (ideation). This will ensure students are aware that there are a variety of ideation strategies that they can choose from, depending on their team needs at a particular time.

Innovation Institute at Shanghai American School relies on ideation as part of the design thinking process for each interdisciplinary project. However, it is not always easy for adults – let alone 9th or 10th graders! – to come up with great ideas as a collaborative team. I’ve been doing some prep work with other instructional coaches at SAS in order to help guide some discussions around choosing specific ideation strategies to be a focus in the Innovation Institute program.

I was thrilled when an Institute colleague shared several great sites with me that she has used on occasion when ideation strategies were needed. The Interaction Design Foundation website, which is very useful, says that ideation is the heart of design thinking. That article, in addition to MindTools and this Wrike article, list numerous ideation strategies. I combined strategies (predominantly from these three sites) to make a useful overview that lists the what, why, when, and how of 17 ideation strategies. I would never share that many strategies with students, but I appreciate having so many strategies in one place in order to make easy decisions about which strategies are most appropriate to teach students at a specific time. The image below is of a document that summarizes some fantastic ideation techniques, predominantly from the sites mentioned above. As an instructional coach, it will also be helpful for me to refer to this overview if I need an ideation strategy for a meeting or workshop that I am facilitating.

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Are there other useful sites for ideation strategies? Are there any great strategies that are missing from this overview that should be included?

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts (CCCs)

I was fortunate to have recently attended the 2018 Atlanta NSTA Conference.  It was so inspiring! I was able to hear from amazing presenters and speak with educators, instructional coaches and district curriculum coordinators who are doing amazing work implementing NGSS. As a 6-12 Science Instructional Coach hoping to support teachers, I focused on attending sessions that would provide tangible tools and strategies for ensuring that instruction and assessment is three dimensional (3D).  I was not disappointed!

Perhaps the simplest and most high leverage takeaway for ensuring instruction and assessment is three dimensional relates to the crosscutting concepts (CCCs). The NGSS crosscutting concepts are:

  1. patterns
  2. cause and effect
  3. scale, proportion and quantity
  4. systems and system models
  5. energy and matter
  6. structure and function
  7. stability and change

In general, the DCIs (content) are what students should KNOW, the SEPs (science and engineering practices) are what students should DO, and the CCCs are how students should THINK.

Why are crosscutting concepts important? Karen Whisler is an NGSS Solutions Leader for Measured Progress. In her #NSTA18 presentation, she said that CCCs:

  • are applicable across all science disciplines
  • facilitate comparison and connections
  • provide an organizational framework and way of thinking
  • support understanding of disciplinary core ideas
  • enrich use of the practices

In multiple sessions, I heard both presenters and participants say that CCCs are often the most difficult of the three dimensions to include in instruction and assessment. It is not necessarily new for teachers to refer to the crosscutting concepts (perhaps previously known as themes or overarching concepts), although traditionally many teachers have not been explicit about teaching &/or assessing CCCs. However, there are some very manageable steps that teachers can take to ensure that the CCCs are being taught and assessed:

  1. Asking at least one question related to a CCC in each lesson helps to ensure 3D lessons. Plan for this in advance of the lesson using these small cards created by @paulandersen.
  2. Posting medium size posters of the CCCs means teachers can easily refer to them during class. It is helpful to post cards for the main CCC and SEP (practice) with the content learning target(s) for the day. This helps students to understand the focus of the lesson. Refer to these both at the beginning and throughout the lesson.
  3. Teachers can refer to more than one CCC and/or SEP during a lesson, even if they are not all assessed. In fact, at times it can be difficult to refer to a CCC &/or SEP in isolation.
  4. Modeling ‘think alouds’ for students helps them to understand how to use the CCCs as lenses for asking questions, making sense of phenomenon, etc.
  5. Aim to have all assessment questions (formative or summative) at least “two dimensional”, and ensure that summative assessments are 3D overall. STEM Teaching Tool 41 has a wealth of prompts related to all 7 CCCs. Ensure that some student responses are required to explicitly refer to CCCs. Some teachers have students highlight work in green if it explicitly refers to CCCs.
  6. Keep posters on the wall that have questions for each of the CCCs. Students should be encouraged to refer to the posters to help them think of questions they can ask during instructional activities, small group and whole class discussions, etc. This will help students to build an awareness of the different ‘ways of thinking’ that they can draw upon when doing science. Students who are more aware of ‘how to think’ can apply this in other disciplines and start to see more connections as well!
  7. It is very important to connect the CCCs to the “sense making practices” which are: developing and using models, constructing explanations, and arguing from evidence.

The following framework by Brett Moulding was mentioned in more than one session, and I find it to be an incredibly useful way to organize the CCCs. Those in blue are used for explaining CAUSES, while those in green are related to SYSTEMS.

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Here are some other useful resources:

Matrix of Crosscutting Concepts in NGSS

This translates appendix G from NGSS into teacher friendly language. It breaks down each crosscutting concept by grade band K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

NSTA Webinar Series: Crosscutting Concepts

Appendix G: Crosscutting Concepts

The purpose of this appendix is to describe the second dimension— crosscutting concepts—and to explain its role in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Crosscutting concepts have value because they provide students with connections and intellectual tools that are related across the differing areas of disciplinary content and can enrich their application of practices and their understanding of core ideas.

— A Framework for K-12 Science Education, Appendix G