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Making Learning Relevant With Case Studies

The open-ended problems presented in case studies give students work that feels connected to their lives.

Students working on projects in a classroom

To prepare students for jobs that haven’t been created yet, we need to teach them how to be great problem solvers so that they’ll be ready for anything. One way to do this is by teaching content and skills using real-world case studies, a learning model that’s focused on reflection during the problem-solving process. It’s similar to project-based learning, but PBL is more focused on students creating a product.

Case studies have been used for years by businesses, law and medical schools, physicians on rounds, and artists critiquing work. Like other forms of problem-based learning, case studies can be accessible for every age group, both in one subject and in interdisciplinary work.

You can get started with case studies by tackling relatable questions like these with your students:

  • How can we limit food waste in the cafeteria?
  • How can we get our school to recycle and compost waste? (Or, if you want to be more complex, how can our school reduce its carbon footprint?)
  • How can we improve school attendance?
  • How can we reduce the number of people who get sick at school during cold and flu season?

Addressing questions like these leads students to identify topics they need to learn more about. In researching the first question, for example, students may see that they need to research food chains and nutrition. Students often ask, reasonably, why they need to learn something, or when they’ll use their knowledge in the future. Learning is most successful for students when the content and skills they’re studying are relevant, and case studies offer one way to create that sense of relevance.

Teaching With Case Studies

Ultimately, a case study is simply an interesting problem with many correct answers. What does case study work look like in classrooms? Teachers generally start by having students read the case or watch a video that summarizes the case. Students then work in small groups or individually to solve the case study. Teachers set milestones defining what students should accomplish to help them manage their time.

During the case study learning process, student assessment of learning should be focused on reflection. Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick’s Learning and Leading With Habits of Mind gives several examples of what this reflection can look like in a classroom: 

Journaling: At the end of each work period, have students write an entry summarizing what they worked on, what worked well, what didn’t, and why. Sentence starters and clear rubrics or guidelines will help students be successful. At the end of a case study project, as Costa and Kallick write, it’s helpful to have students “select significant learnings, envision how they could apply these learnings to future situations, and commit to an action plan to consciously modify their behaviors.”

Interviews: While working on a case study, students can interview each other about their progress and learning. Teachers can interview students individually or in small groups to assess their learning process and their progress.

Student discussion: Discussions can be unstructured—students can talk about what they worked on that day in a think-pair-share or as a full class—or structured, using Socratic seminars or fishbowl discussions. If your class is tackling a case study in small groups, create a second set of small groups with a representative from each of the case study groups so that the groups can share their learning.

4 Tips for Setting Up a Case Study

1. Identify a problem to investigate: This should be something accessible and relevant to students’ lives. The problem should also be challenging and complex enough to yield multiple solutions with many layers.

2. Give context: Think of this step as a movie preview or book summary. Hook the learners to help them understand just enough about the problem to want to learn more.

3. Have a clear rubric: Giving structure to your definition of quality group work and products will lead to stronger end products. You may be able to have your learners help build these definitions.

4. Provide structures for presenting solutions: The amount of scaffolding you build in depends on your students’ skill level and development. A case study product can be something like several pieces of evidence of students collaborating to solve the case study, and ultimately presenting their solution with a detailed slide deck or an essay—you can scaffold this by providing specified headings for the sections of the essay.

Problem-Based Teaching Resources

There are many high-quality, peer-reviewed resources that are open source and easily accessible online.

  • The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University at Buffalo built an online collection of more than 800 cases that cover topics ranging from biochemistry to economics. There are resources for middle and high school students.
  • Models of Excellence , a project maintained by EL Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has examples of great problem- and project-based tasks—and corresponding exemplary student work—for grades pre-K to 12.
  • The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning at Purdue University is an open-source journal that publishes examples of problem-based learning in K–12 and post-secondary classrooms.
  • The Tech Edvocate has a list of websites and tools related to problem-based learning.

In their book Problems as Possibilities , Linda Torp and Sara Sage write that at the elementary school level, students particularly appreciate how they feel that they are taken seriously when solving case studies. At the middle school level, “researchers stress the importance of relating middle school curriculum to issues of student concern and interest.” And high schoolers, they write, find the case study method “beneficial in preparing them for their future.”

Center for Teaching

Case studies.

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Case studies are stories that are used as a teaching tool to show the application of a theory or concept to real situations. Dependent on the goal they are meant to fulfill, cases can be fact-driven and deductive where there is a correct answer, or they can be context driven where multiple solutions are possible. Various disciplines have employed case studies, including humanities, social sciences, sciences, engineering, law, business, and medicine. Good cases generally have the following features: they tell a good story, are recent, include dialogue, create empathy with the main characters, are relevant to the reader, serve a teaching function, require a dilemma to be solved, and have generality.

Instructors can create their own cases or can find cases that already exist. The following are some things to keep in mind when creating a case:

  • What do you want students to learn from the discussion of the case?
  • What do they already know that applies to the case?
  • What are the issues that may be raised in discussion?
  • How will the case and discussion be introduced?
  • What preparation is expected of students? (Do they need to read the case ahead of time? Do research? Write anything?)
  • What directions do you need to provide students regarding what they are supposed to do and accomplish?
  • Do you need to divide students into groups or will they discuss as the whole class?
  • Are you going to use role-playing or facilitators or record keepers? If so, how?
  • What are the opening questions?
  • How much time is needed for students to discuss the case?
  • What concepts are to be applied/extracted during the discussion?
  • How will you evaluate students?

To find other cases that already exist, try the following websites:

  • The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science , University of Buffalo. SUNY-Buffalo maintains this set of links to other case studies on the web in disciplines ranging from engineering and ethics to sociology and business
  • A Journal of Teaching Cases in Public Administration and Public Policy , University of Washington

For more information:

  • World Association for Case Method Research and Application

Book Review :  Teaching and the Case Method , 3rd ed., vols. 1 and 2, by Louis Barnes, C. Roland (Chris) Christensen, and Abby Hansen. Harvard Business School Press, 1994; 333 pp. (vol 1), 412 pp. (vol 2).

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Using Case Studies to Teach

case study elementary education

Why Use Cases?

Many students are more inductive than deductive reasoners, which means that they learn better from examples than from logical development starting with basic principles. The use of case studies can therefore be a very effective classroom technique.

Case studies are have long been used in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences, but they can be used in any discipline when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations. Cases come in many formats, from a simple “What would you do in this situation?” question to a detailed description of a situation with accompanying data to analyze. Whether to use a simple scenario-type case or a complex detailed one depends on your course objectives.

Most case assignments require students to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution to an open-ended problem with multiple potential solutions. Requirements can range from a one-paragraph answer to a fully developed group action plan, proposal or decision.

Common Case Elements

Most “full-blown” cases have these common elements:

  • A decision-maker who is grappling with some question or problem that needs to be solved.
  • A description of the problem’s context (a law, an industry, a family).
  • Supporting data, which can range from data tables to links to URLs, quoted statements or testimony, supporting documents, images, video, or audio.

Case assignments can be done individually or in teams so that the students can brainstorm solutions and share the work load.

The following discussion of this topic incorporates material presented by Robb Dixon of the School of Management and Rob Schadt of the School of Public Health at CEIT workshops. Professor Dixon also provided some written comments that the discussion incorporates.

Advantages to the use of case studies in class

A major advantage of teaching with case studies is that the students are actively engaged in figuring out the principles by abstracting from the examples. This develops their skills in:

  • Problem solving
  • Analytical tools, quantitative and/or qualitative, depending on the case
  • Decision making in complex situations
  • Coping with ambiguities

Guidelines for using case studies in class

In the most straightforward application, the presentation of the case study establishes a framework for analysis. It is helpful if the statement of the case provides enough information for the students to figure out solutions and then to identify how to apply those solutions in other similar situations. Instructors may choose to use several cases so that students can identify both the similarities and differences among the cases.

Depending on the course objectives, the instructor may encourage students to follow a systematic approach to their analysis.  For example:

  • What is the issue?
  • What is the goal of the analysis?
  • What is the context of the problem?
  • What key facts should be considered?
  • What alternatives are available to the decision-maker?
  • What would you recommend — and why?

An innovative approach to case analysis might be to have students  role-play the part of the people involved in the case. This not only actively engages students, but forces them to really understand the perspectives of the case characters. Videos or even field trips showing the venue in which the case is situated can help students to visualize the situation that they need to analyze.

Accompanying Readings

Case studies can be especially effective if they are paired with a reading assignment that introduces or explains a concept or analytical method that applies to the case. The amount of emphasis placed on the use of the reading during the case discussion depends on the complexity of the concept or method. If it is straightforward, the focus of the discussion can be placed on the use of the analytical results. If the method is more complex, the instructor may need to walk students through its application and the interpretation of the results.

Leading the Case Discussion and Evaluating Performance

Decision cases are more interesting than descriptive ones. In order to start the discussion in class, the instructor can start with an easy, noncontroversial question that all the students should be able to answer readily. However, some of the best case discussions start by forcing the students to take a stand. Some instructors will ask a student to do a formal “open” of the case, outlining his or her entire analysis.  Others may choose to guide discussion with questions that move students from problem identification to solutions.  A skilled instructor steers questions and discussion to keep the class on track and moving at a reasonable pace.

In order to motivate the students to complete the assignment before class as well as to stimulate attentiveness during the class, the instructor should grade the participation—quantity and especially quality—during the discussion of the case. This might be a simple check, check-plus, check-minus or zero. The instructor should involve as many students as possible. In order to engage all the students, the instructor can divide them into groups, give each group several minutes to discuss how to answer a question related to the case, and then ask a randomly selected person in each group to present the group’s answer and reasoning. Random selection can be accomplished through rolling of dice, shuffled index cards, each with one student’s name, a spinning wheel, etc.

Tips on the Penn State U. website: http://tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/cases/

If you are interested in using this technique in a science course, there is a good website on use of case studies in the sciences at the University of Buffalo.

Dunne, D. and Brooks, K. (2004) Teaching with Cases (Halifax, NS: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education), ISBN 0-7703-8924-4 (Can be ordered at http://www.bookstore.uwo.ca/ at a cost of $15.00)

Personalized-Learning Case Studies: Lessons From 3 Schools

Fifth grade teacher Elias Hernandez observes 4th grade teacher Jannette Moya at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School in Chicago.

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Personalized learning is hard.

That much is clear, based on the lessons emerging from a wide variety of new models being tested in schools across the country.

But what specific hurdles do schools and educators encounter when they try to customize instruction for each student? How are leaders in the personalized-learning field responding? Is it working?

To help other K-12 educators and policymakers consider such questions, Education Week cast a spotlight on three schools, each affiliated with a prominent personalized-learning model, and each wrestling with a common implementation challenge.

Training Teachers for a Radical Change

Belmont-Cragin Elementary School | Chicago

In Chicago, the Belmont-Cragin Elementary School embraced an intensive approach to professional development, but teachers’ road to implementing an entirely new instructional model turned out to be rocky. At The Urban Assembly Maker Academy in New York City, the focus has been on getting students to take responsibility for making their own way through the curriculum, which has required more hands-on direction from adults than originally anticipated. And in Fresno, Calif., the challenge has been meeting students who are academically behind where they are, while still pushing them towards graduation.

To close big achievement gaps between its students, Belmont-Cragin Elementary School in Chicago partnered with nonprofit LEAP Innovations in 2016-17 to boost its personalized learning practices. Key to the model is a six-month professional development regimen to prepare teachers for the new approach. But even with such a prolonged, intensive, and intentional agenda, Belmont-Cragin found that training teachers to put in place personalized-learning models remained a big challenge.

Stacy Stewart, the principal of Belmont-Cragin Elementary School in Chicago, at left, and assistant principal Jorge Melgar meet with teachers, who regularly observe each other.

The school, which serves 585 students in pre-K through 8th grade, had huge gaps between students who were mastering grade-level content and students who were not. In one classroom, the gap ranged from the 70th percentile to the 7th percentile.

As part of its involvement in the LEAP Pilot Network, which pairs cohorts of schools with ed-tech companies and coaches, Principal Stacy Stewart rolled out new routines, guidelines, and procedures across the school and built in common planning time. But still, teachers “would stay in our own classrooms and focus on our own kids,” said Jannette Moya, a 4th-grade teacher. “We would share what we were doing virtually, then it would stop there.”

Teachers felt they needed more time in the day and follow-up training to do what they had been taught—but they were nervous about asking for help. At the same time, they were struggling to adjust to a new way of thinking about collaboration.

Stewart began having some teachers observe others during instructional time, with step-in assistance from student-teachers, followed by a question-and-answer session and the sharing of resources. And she encouraged cross-talk at weekly data-analysis meetings, whichresulted in one of the most significant shifts in the way the school educates its students.

Now, if Moya reports that some of her students are able to understand a literacy block at grade level in Spanish, but not in English, the special-education teacher can take them to his classroom for literacy lessons—no special-education status required.

“It helps us to service the kids more where their gaps are,” Moya said.

Meanwhile, data from Lexia, an adaptive ed-tech tool that supports literacy instruction, showed that teachers needed more guidance in recording interventions for struggling students. From Stewart’s dashboard, it looked like only 20 percent of struggling students were receiving additional small-group lessons. Teachers were taught to better differentiate between what was standard teaching, and what was above and beyond and worthy of documentation.

Stewart also brought in coaches from LEAP and Lexia throughout the school year for extra counsel—support that continues when needed.

“All of it is non-evaluative, and that’s the most important part,” Stewart said, meaning it won’t count against teachers in their evaluations. “These teachers believe in the work, but it’s not easy for them.”

In 2017-18, collaboration has grown stronger. Teachers often gather in one classroom during common planning times to swap ideas, and they regularly observe each other, regardless of grade level.

“We have grown to where we feel comfortable enough to ask for what we need, and now we’re working on next steps,” said Moya. “We need to have an open mind, to have the mindset that there’s still room to improve.”

Self-Paced Learning Twists and Turns

The Urban Assembly Maker Academy | New York City

When The Urban Assembly Maker Academy in New York City, one of a network of 21 small public schools focused on cutting-edge career and technical education, opened its doors in 2014-15 to only 9th graders, it gave students more responsibility than typically needed for organizing their time. As a result, more than 70 percent regularly waited until the last minute to start work on a project—then never turned it in.

“Kids show up in 9th grade used to every adult telling them exactly what to do and when to do it,” said Luke Bauer, principal of the school, which added one grade each year and now has 410 students in grades 9-12. “It’s not their fault. Being able to manage their time, set goals for themselves, and know how and when to get support can be tricky.”

The school, a recipient of a Carnegie Corporation Opportunity by Design grant, isn’t the only competency-based model to struggle with teaching students to effectively pace themselves.

One of the RAND Corporation’s recent studies found students at schools receiving Next Generation Learning Challenges grants for personalized-learning initiatives also failed to complete work at an acceptable pace. The report found the grading systems used were difficult to explain to parents and community members.

Bauer recalled experiencing those issues initially, which he said was “a little morale-killing for a new school.”

Andrew Calkins, the director of the learning challenges program, said students may struggle with pacing because for the first time they’re being asked to manage their own learning. “These are exactly the skills that students need to be developing today,” he said.

These days, more than 70 percent of students at The Urban Assembly Maker turn in their work on time. The turnaround is due mainly to a strong advisory program. Weekly check-ins called “self-awareness days” pose multiple questions to students, such as “Have you come across any challenges in your projects?” and “What resources could you use to figure out those challenges?”

Students also are given a checklist with key benchmarks and dates—for planning purposes only—to meet project deadlines.

Because an inconsistent number of standards required for mastery in different subjects led to confusion when students transferred to other schools, the school ultimately simplified its grading process and converted an overall rubric score to a traditional 0-100 scale.

As for difficulty explaining competency-based grading systems to parents, Josh Lapidus, a 9th-grade social studies teacher, said the barrier has been language that leans too academic.

The school is using a new program in 2017-18 called JumpRope, an interactive, standards-based platform school leaders believe more clearly articulates aggregate data that sum up student performance.

Lapidus advises other schools interested in adopting a self-paced approach to accept the iterative nature of steady—and sustainable—change.

“It’s not going to be a perfectly smooth transition,” he said. “Time spent developing good standards and good rubrics is time well spent.”

When Students Are Below Grade Level

Aspen Valley Prep Academy | Fresno, Calif.

To give some of its students a slice of independence, Fresno’s Aspen Valley Prep Academy wanted to provide 6th through 8th grades some flexibility to work on material of their own choosing. So the preK-8 school, where more than 80 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, began using Summit Learning’s personalized-learning software during the 2016-17 school year.

The platform, developed by California’s Summit Public Schools charter network, in partnership with engineers from social-networking giant Facebook, is one of the highest-profile personalized-learning technologies in the field.

But Aspen Valley Prep found that implementing the software wasn’t easy; with more than half of students who transfer into the school testing below grade level, there were roadblocks.

“The traditional system keeps pushing these kids through because of their age, yet they are never held accountable for learning what they haven’t learned,” said Hilary Witts, the director of Summit Learning at the Aspen Valley where she taught math and science to middle grades. “With so many gaps, they can’t access grade-level curriculum.”

Because the software platform is flexible, Witts inserted additional gap-filling learning resources so that students could go back several grade levels if necessary.

That had its challenges as well. English teacher Melani Harley recalled an 8th-grade student, frustrated and almost in tears, who loved to read but couldn’t pass a grade-level punctuation content assessment because he couldn’t distinguish between a noun and a verb. She gave him 6th- and 7th-grade content, but that wasn’t enough. She had to go back to a 4th-grade level—the grade, she eventually discovered, that he had failed despite being moved ahead with his class—to help him catch up.

Throughout the personalized-learning movement, there are signs that such pressures are getting in the way of giving students the types of choices Aspen Valley Prep aspires to. Recent studies by the RAND Corporation for example, have consistently found that students in personalized-learning schools report being given limited choice over the material they learn and the instructional approaches they receive. As part of the Summit Learning approach, Aspen Valley Prep assigns a mentor to each student. They meet one-on-one, at least once a week, to talk about assignments, goal setting and life skills.

“These meetings tend to become really personal,” said Harley.

As a result, staff said, the school has seen a cultural shift in the classroom in recent months.

“The students know where they’re at, they’re not embarrassed to know where they’re at, and they’re not embarrassed for other people to know where they’re at,” Witts said. “This program has totally revolutionalized their thought process.”

The hope is that will consistently lead to more students becoming more accountable for their own learning—while also getting more choice over what and how they learn.

Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org . Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage. A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Case Studies: Lessons From 3 Schools

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Case Studies

Making and Using Case Studies in the Classroom

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Strategic Contingency Approach

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  • Published: 14 December 2023

Preventing bullying of students with special educational needs through dialogic gatherings: a case study in elementary education

  • Garazi Álvarez-Guerrero   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-0632-4391 1   nAff5 ,
  • Rocío García-Carrión   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-5520-5105 2 ,
  • Andrea Khalfaoui 3 ,
  • Maite Santiago-Garabieta 3 &
  • Ramón Flecha 4  

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume  10 , Article number:  956 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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Scientific literature has clarified that bullying is a global challenge and students with special educational needs (SEN) are at a higher risk of experiencing it. Educational actions focused on dialogue and interaction as dialogic gatherings (DG) have been widely studied as a successful educational action (SEAs) rooted in egalitarian dialogue that promotes social cohesion. However, its potential to prevent bullying among students with SEN remains to be investigated. This qualitative case study explores the impact of implementing DG in two elementary classrooms and its potential to prevent school violence in a comprehensive school setting (43 students, 10–12 years old, from which 5 had SEN). Classroom observations of DGs and focus groups with teachers and students were conducted. Data analysis indicated that DG effectively contributed to students’ increased awareness regarding the distinction between violent and non-violent relationships, and influenced their personal preferences, guiding them towards non-violent behaviours. Implications for practice highlight the potential of DG to enhance non-violent behaviours among elementary students, which is particularly relevant to ensure students with SEN’s protection and inclusion.

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Violence in schools is a global challenge that affects one out of three students in the world (WHO, 2020 ). The devastating consequences of suffering bullying include low academic achievement, and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem (Solberg & Olweus, 2003 ). While this issue could affect all students, those with Special Educational Needs (hereinafter, SEN) are particularly vulnerable, as they are twice more often at risk of suffering school violence than their peers without SEN, according to studies conducted in Sweden (Annerbäck et al., 2014 ), Finland (Repo & Sajaniemi, 2014 ) and the U.S. with school-aged children (Sentenac et al., 2013 ). Perceived differences in terms of physical and verbal limitations between students with and without SEN might explain the higher risk of suffering school violence (Malecki et al., 2020 ). This type of bullying, specifically targeted to students with disabilities, whether in a regular classroom or online setting, is known as, ‘Disablist bullying’ (O’Moore & McGuire, 2021 ).

In addition, fewer opportunities to interact with peers appear to be related to a higher risk of suffering victimisation among students with SEN (Glumbic & Zunic-Pavlovic, 2010 ). These findings are reinforced by Bowker et al. ( 2006 ), who showed that when students with SEN do not have peer support in the classroom are more likely to be victimised. These results highlight the crucial role peer interactions and supportive classroom environments might play in preventing school violence for all students, which is particularly important for those with SEN.

Building on the potential of peer interactions and dialogue-based actions to prevent school violence (Ríos-González et al., 2019 ), some educational actions have put together those critical components such as family and community participation, to orchestrate a safe and supportive learning environment (Morlà-Folch et al., 2022 ). In this vein, one of the most studied interventions is dialogic gatherings (DG), which are a reading activity rooted in sharing meanings, interpretations and reflections around a particular text collectively agreed upon beforehand (Ruiz-Eugenio et al., 2023 ). This particular action is identified in scientific literature as a Successful Educational Action (hereinafter, SEAs), which are school-based interventions identified by the European Project INCLUD-ED: “Strategies for Inclusion and Social Cohesion in Europe from Education” (Flecha, 2015 ) that “can improve school success and contribute to social cohesion in every context where they are implemented” (Flecha, 2015 , p. 3). This is aligned with the theory of Dialogic Society (Flecha, 2022 ), which understands that citizens can participate and benefit from the cocreation of scientific knowledge, which can lead to achieve social impact, following the criteria of the Horizon Europe framework.

As of the present, a systematic review by Ruiz-Eugenio et al. ( 2023 ) has identified over 60 scientific articles that delve into the effects of Dialogic Gatherings (DG) across a broad spectrum of academic areas, including reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, as well as their social implications. These studies have highlighted positive outcomes, encompassing enhanced social cohesion and improved classroom climates. Furthermore, when DG is implemented using evidence-based texts that factor in their social impact, as proposed by Soler-Gallart and Flecha ( 2022 ), the results have indicated significant benefits. For instance, Buslón et al. ( 2020 ) reported that DG has a positive impact on enhancing scientific literacy among adult participants. Additionally, Garcia-Carrión et al. ( 2020 ) found that DG fosters a secure and inclusive environment for children, where every contribution is recognised and respected. Numerous studies focusing on DG have shown that this intervention can effectively increase student’s awareness of violence when implemented in early adolescence (López de Aguileta et al., 2020 ), and with girls, some of them victims of violence against women and living out-of-home care (Salceda et al., 2020 ), and girls with disabilities (Rodrigues et al., 2021 ). However, the potential of DG to prevent and counteract violence when implemented in mainstream schools and exploring especially its potential benefits for children with SEN remains to be investigated.

School violence against students with SEN and inclusive learning environments

School violence, also known as bullying, refers to aggressive behaviour aimed at inflicting injury or discomfort on another individual, which involves continuous aggression, (whether physical, psychological, or social) and usually occurs in school settings such as classrooms, the playground, or school surroundings (Olweus, 1978 ; 1993 ). According to the results of a longitudinal study developed in the United Kingdom with over 13,000 pupils aged between 7 and 15, the percentage of children who had been excluded from school is 15%, as they suffered bullying daily (Anti-Bullying Alliance, 2016 ). These data show one of the most urgent challenges educational systems must address to guarantee the right to education in schools where children might be safe (Ríos-González et al., 2019 ), as a prerequisite to learn and thrive.

Indeed, offering a high-quality and inclusive education for all, as the sustainable development goal 4 establishes (United Nations, 2015 ), entails guaranteeing a safe school environment that includes all students. For this to happen, Iñiguez-Berrozpe and colleagues ( 2021 ) highlight the importance of creating collective norms in the school to overcome violence. This collective creation of rules and standards, that set the grounds for a safe and supportive daily life in schools, is more effective if it includes in its entire process the involvement of the families and the community (Iñiguez-Berrozpe et al., 2021 ). This is consistent with other research that has also evidenced that the participation of the entire school community seems to be fundamental in reducing school violence (Espelage et al., 2015 ). Thus, this factor seems particularly relevant for students with SEN, since they are highly vulnerable to violence in school (UNESCO, 2019 ).

Among the multiple variations in the terminology used to refer to students with SEN, a generic term widely used in the literature for decades, include “all children who have developmental difficulties that affect: their learning; their behavioural, emotional and social development; their communication; and their ability to care for themselves and gain independence” (Lindsay, 2007 , p. 3). Furthermore, students with SEN often experience more bullying, discrimination, and isolation than their peers without SEN (Turner et al., 2011 ). Indeed, they are also more likely to suffer incidents of physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual abuse being highly vulnerable (Malecki et al., 2020 ; Reiter, Lapidot-Lefler ( 2007 )). In addition, this student body might have fewer opportunities to interact with their peers in a mainstream classroom, which also increases the likelihood of being victims of school violence (Bowker et al., 2006 ). Since the context matters to enable or hinder students’ opportunities to learn and feel supported, creating learning environments that generate opportunities for peer interactions seems particularly relevant for students with SEN.

In this regard, decades of research have been looking at what schools can do to foster violence-free inclusive learning environments, which are defined as natural and non-restrictive contexts, where all students are granted the opportunity to interact with each other in egalitarian conditions (Schoger, 2006 ). For instance, when Draper et al., ( 2019 ) explored effective strategies to support peer interactions for students with severe disabilities in music classes in the USA, they found that activities that allowed students to work together and help each other were significantly efficient to increase positive peer interactions. Indeed, inclusive learning environments prioritise dialogue-based practices to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to participate, and that the voices of all students are heard and considered (Donnelly et al., 2016 ). This happens to be crucial since a lack of peer interactions in the classroom has been pointed out as a risk factor linked to school violence (Glumbic & Zunic-Pavlovic, 2010 ). In this sense, The report “Achieving student well-being for all: educational contexts free of violence” contracted and funded by the EC to find the programmes that have succeeded in preventing violence against children found that a common element in all programmes that overcome violence against children is the involvement of the whole community, its scientific training and its union in the response to cases, always supporting the victims (Flecha, Puigvert & Racionero-Plaza 2023 ).

These dialogue-based interventions have been defined by the INCLUD-ED: “Strategies for inclusion and social cohesion in Europe from education” (Flecha, 2015 ) project as successful educational actions (SEAs hereinafter) (Flecha, 2015 ). Research has reported these SEAs promote social cohesion and foster academic success among students across the globe, including in special education settings (Navarro-Mateu et al., 2021 ; Álvarez-Guerrero et al., 2021 ). There are several benefits SEAs have achieved when implemented accurately; as research has shown students have improved their interpersonal relations (García-Carrión et al., 2020 ) and communicative competence (Fernández-Villardón et al., 2021 ), among others. Within the seven successful educational actions (Flecha, 2015 ) identified in the INCLUD-ED project, this article focuses on the Dialogic Gatherings (DG hereinafter), that have been applied in the frame of the Dialogic Model of Prevention and Resolution of Conflicts, two specific successful educational actions aiming at preventing and reducing school violence.

Putting dialogic learning to work to prevent and reduce school violence

Educational research has provided relevant insights on how to prevent school violence using a dialogic approach (Padrós, 2014 ). Using a variety of texts such as literary or scientific works to open dialogues on bullying or child abuse has been a recurrent tool for deepening the understanding of bullying (Salceda et al., 2020 ; Williams, 2020 ). Moreover, it has been used to implement classroom strategies for overcoming bullying among students of different age groups (Aubert, 2015 ; Rosen et al., 2023 ).

In this framework, Dialogic Gatherings can be implemented in the classroom to engage students in a collective construction of knowledge and meaning when they discuss a previous reading of the same text (García-Carrión et al., 2020 ). In DGs, participants choose based on reasoning and validity arguments (Habermas, 1984 ) one of the greatest works in different cultural or scientific fields, such as literature, art, music, or science. Then, students read the text individually and select a piece or paragraph that appeals to them for any reason to be shared later in the DG where they engage in meaningful and critical dialogues around the previous reading. In addition to the positive effects documented in the utilisation of DG (Ruiz-Eugenio et al., 2023 ), as previously stated, there has been a paucity of research that has examined its specific potential in cultivating protective factors aimed at mitigating school violence, with a particular focus on children with SEN.

However, DGs can be implemented as a specific strategy within the Dialogic Model of Prevention and Resolution of Conflicts, one of the successful educational actions addressed to reduce and prevent bullying. This dialogic model is characterised by using dialogue as the tool for fostering egalitarian relationships involving students, teachers, families and community members in creating rules and reaching agreements of school-wide standards for better coexistence through a dialogic process (Villarejo-Carballido et al., 2019 ). Particularly, the dialogic model promotes a bystander intervention among the students and the entire community to foster solidarity and protective networks in the school (Duque et al., 2021 ). Hence, spaces for dialogue are created with the aim of promoting a culture of protection and rejection of violence through interactions in which many diverse voices are included. Accordingly, the DGs are one of those spaces where egalitarian dialogues take place among the students, including everyone’s voice in a safe and supportive environment where every single child is included.

A case study (Yin, 2018 ) was carried out to achieve an in-depth understanding of how Dialogic Gatherings might have an impact, if any, in preventing bullying, and particularly against students with SEN, as they are more vulnerable to suffer bullying (Farmer et al., 2017 ). Thus, this research aims to answer the following research questions:

How can Dialogic Gatherings using research-informed texts contribute to improving peer relationships and create safe environments among students with and without SEN in an Elementary school?

To what extent, if any, this environment can protect from suffering bullying students with SEN?

The study was conducted between May and June 2022 in a school located in the Basque Country (Spain) in a low socioeconomic area. It serves students from 2 to 12 years. It is a culturally and linguistically diverse school, where over more than 39% of students are migrants and the rest come from migrant families from 28 different countries mainly from Northern and Occidental Africa, Occidental Asia, and South America.


A total of fifty-one participants, including students, school staff and parents, who volunteered in the school, were involved in the study. In the DG sessions, 43 students between 10 and 12 years old (see Table 1 for more details), three mothers and one father aged between 30 and 45 years old, and two female teachers participated. Then, in the focus groups, three more female school staff members participated: the School Principal, the Special Education Teacher, and the School Counsellor. Students and parents were the participants in the DG, they contributed with their ideas, sharing their arguments and commenting on each other’s opinions, prompted by the text previously read. The teachers acted as facilitators of the discussion, taking turns ensuring the dialogic principles underlying the activity (Flecha, 2000 ).

As the study has a special emphasis on students with SEN, more details about these participants are provided to frame their specific needs (see Table 2 ).

Data collection

Four classroom observations were conducted during the Dialogic Gatherings (two in each group) in which students discussed the previous reading of the research-informed texts. Following the guidelines of the dialogic gatherings, the participants sat in a circle and participated in the discussion. They were not asked to do anything beyond participating in the session. All sessions were video recorded for a later in-depth analysis to explore dialogues about key elements that help overcoming bullying at schools, and specifically against students with SEN.

After the implementation of the DGs, five focus groups of approximately 30 min each were conducted, and audio recorded between May and June 2022. Four with 5 students from each group -A and B-, and one with teachers and school staff: two teachers, the special education teacher, the school counsellor, and the principal. This technique enabled us to explore both individual and collective perspectives, leading to a more profound comprehension of the experience of bullying, the higher risk that students with SEN have and the factors that might protect them following the Communicative Methodology (Gómez et al., 2010 ). The techniques described in this section were carried out inside the school, and all the participants and they were asked to give their opinions about the intervention. They were also asked if there was something that particularly helped them in the dialogic gatherings to prevent violence. Table 3 summarises the data collection techniques and participants involved.

Procedure and materials

Prior to starting the school year, in June 2021 this school was contacted as it was interested in preventing bullying or any kind of school violence. After reaching a consensus with all members of the community (students, teachers, and families) the school agreed to implement the dialogic Model and the dialogic gatherings using research-informed texts. The study was conducted in the 2021–2022 academic year and two elementary education fourth-grade classrooms (Group A and Group B) implemented the DG. These groups were selected because (a) having a higher number of conflicts among the students and (b) having a higher number of students with SEN than in the rest of the classrooms.

Thus, from May to June 2022, a rigorous implementation of DG was ensured through a close collaboration between the teachers and the researchers. The DG lasted around one hour and a half. The texts used in DG were two scientific dissemination articles about bullying prevention, published in “Kaiera,” a free open-access online journal that publishes research-informed articles. The dissemination article read and discussed in the first session was based on the results of the study by Palikara et al. ( 2021 ) on the mediating role of school belonging in school-aged children, entitled “The relationship between school sense of belonging, emotional well-being and feeling of loneliness”. The second DG was an adaptation of the article ‘A Friend Is a Treasure and May Help You to Face Bullying’ (Navarro et al., 2018 ), which included examples of bullying situations.

During the gatherings, all the participants sat in a circle, so that everyone could see each other. The classroom teacher facilitated the gathering ensuring an equitable participation and a respectful environment, that values arguments and rejects power-based interventions. During the sessions, students share what appeals to them from the text and link it to their own daily experiences, engaging in meaningful dialogues that ultimately lead them to a deeper understanding of the given text.

Students with SEN participated in the DG sessions alongside their peers. In order to ensure their equitable participation, those students had the opportunity to prepare for the gathering beforehand by reading the text in advance with the support of the special education teacher. This was an initiative of the school to support the participation of these students in the DG because they present some level of difficulties in reading skills. The preparation consisted of 2 group sessions with these students, where the assistant teacher helped them to read, underline the information they wanted to share, and assist them in drafting what they wanted to talk about during the session.

The present study was approved by the Ethics Committee of the University of Deusto (ETK-45/21-22). Informed consent was ensured before the study started, which included the right to withdraw from the study at any time without consequences. Participants’ identity is protected by pseudonyms to ensure their anonymity. In terms of data protection, this study has securely stored data in an online cloud only accessible by the researchers. The data collected from the study is treated with strict confidentiality and used solely for the purposes of the study. This study is also part of the competitive project funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation of Spain: “CHILDPRO: It is never too early to prevent gender-based violence: identification and overcoming of risk behaviours in childhood” (REF: PID2020-115581RB-I00).

Data analysis

All the data collected were transcribed verbatim and analysed. Thus, inductive thematic analysis was carried out which allowed us to determine themes found within our research data (Clarke, Braun ( 2017 )). A total of four main themes were identified: (1) Raising awareness of violent behaviours; (2) Importance of reading evidence-based texts about friendship; (3) Fostering safe inclusive learning environments; (4) Sustainability of the intervention over time.

After that, the data was categorised to explore the barriers and the opportunities of the dialogic gatherings based on the two components of the Communicative Methodology: exclusionary, and transformative dimensions (Gómez et al., 2010 ). The first one, the exclusionary dimension, identifies the obstacles to social transformation. The second one, the transformative dimension, includes the elements that overcome these barriers. Considering this transformative approach is particularly important when doing research with students with SEN, because of their vulnerability to being bullied and excluded.

A total of 863 utterances were analysed. From those, 90% emerged as transformative dimensions of the dialogic gatherings and 10% reported barriers or exclusionary dimensions. Accordingly, this section is structured within these two main dimensions that include the results of the thematic analysis illustrated through participants’ voices. All the participants were asked to fill out an informed consent. In the case of children, their parents signed it, and they were also asked to give their verbal consent. Their participation was voluntary and there were no economic or material compensations for participating in this research.

Transformative dimension

Raising awareness of violent behaviours and challenging them.

The dialogues shared in the gatherings helped students to reflect on their own behaviours and raised their awareness about violent behaviours, their consequences and the possibility to change them. In this regard, Brian, a student with ADHD and mild intellectual disability, usually misbehaved in the classroom and disturbed his peers. In the second DG, dialogues were shared about hypothetical situations when someone tries to force you to do something you do not want to do, and he raised his hand and asked the following question:

For example, someone is with me, tells me to do something I don’t want to do… What can I do? I think I did something wrong, and I regret it. I have also realised that I don’t like being told what to do… (Brian, DG 2, group B).

Later, in the focus group Brian shared he wanted to improve his own attitude, as he realised after the DG that his peers with violent attitudes were influencing and shaping his behaviour. Also, Brian’s mother expressed in one of the DG her concerns about children’s mental health when they misbehave, and she told the students they have to behave appropriately at school with their peers. The following dialogue illustrates how Brian reflected about his own attitude and the behaviours of colleagues from whom he was receiving pressure to do things he didn’t like. In this sense, his classmates Mike, and Ethan, encouraged him to change his attitude to release himself from such pressures.

Brian (student with SEN): Some of those who misbehave to be funny, they make other people follow them and for example. I have done it and I keep… Sometimes I misbehave and I follow them around, and I don’t know how not to follow them around because they only talk nonsense… And after the DG I want to improve my attitude, I want to change, I don’t want to keep misbehaving.

Mike: I can tell you that those who have driven you to misbehave, don’t listen to them, because they won’t help you to be better.

Ethan: Brian, you… Even if they made you misbehave, try not to have that attitude. I know you have got used to having that attitude but try to get rid of it. I know, it’s very difficult, when you get used to something it’s very difficult to change it… But at least try! And if you can’t… At least you have tried! (Students, group B).

After these dialogues, Brian stayed in silence for a few seconds and answered to Mike and Ethan saying he would change his attitude, respecting others and letting them participate in the sessions without interrupting them.

Well… I’m going to try it; Now I understand that I need to change my attitude and I will. If I don’t change it some people are going to get angry with me, and if I continue misbehaving, my classmates won’t be able to participate in the sessions. (Brian, student, group B).

Also, students reported that the DG has helped them to be more aware of who is their friend and who has violent behaviours towards them, so they do not consider this attitude as desirable when choosing with whom they want to establish their friendships.

Amber: I have friends, but they are not my friends, because they misbehave and have violent behaviours. That’s why I don’t want to be with them, I don’t like it. That’s why they are not my friends.

Sophia: I have good friends who help me in general, who help me to do my work… and when I’m sad they come to me and ask me if I’m fine.

Researcher: And who wouldn’t be your friend Sophia?

Sophia: Well, they wouldn’t be my friends if they hit me, if they treat me badly, if they behave badly… like… if they hurt me. (Students, group A).

The importance of reading research-informed texts about friendship

It was also identified that reading texts that reported scientific evidence about school violence during the DG sessions supported some students in improving their behaviour. In the case of Amber, a girl from group A, she mentions that it has been very significant to read this type of text, as it has helped her to better identify how aggressors behave and that she has perceived how some of her peers also started acting differently after participating in DG.

When we started to read Kaiera’s texts in the DG, some people started to behave better when they read them. Because I think, in my opinion, they saw the aggressor’s behaviour and they didn’t want to be like those aggressors. (Amber, group A)

During the DG students engaged in discussions about their daily experiences at school, particularly focusing on their own behaviours and attitudes. In this specific interaction, the researcher directs the students’ attention to an image showing a playground and a situation where a group of students is bullying another student. Anthony, one of the students, acknowledges that he has experienced a similar situation where a student was mocking another one, and he mentions that he has taken action to help. This illustrates how Dialogic Gatherings can help students reflect on their own experiences and actions, helping students to have a better understanding of bullying and friendship.

Researcher: Look, in this image you can see a playground and how someone is reporting when they see that a group is bullying someone ((points the picture)).

Anthony: I have seen myself in that situation ((referring to a scene in the illustration where a student is mocking another one)) and I have helped.

Researcher: That’s great, Martin has something to add.

Martin: That’s true, he has helped and comforted me. Now I know that to help a friend means to be a true friend. (DG 2, group A).

In that session, the teacher added that this idea seemed very important to her, and another student, Gemma, replied to her, that being a good friend meant being treated well and not letting others hurt you. Julia responded that the text highlights the importance of having good friends who help you getting over bullying.

Group A teacher: Yes, I have also seen that and think it is so important to give support.

Researcher: Definitely, Gemma.

Gemma: I also like it when they are with me and treat me well. A friend is someone who listens to you and doesn’t leave you alone when they pick on you.

Researcher: ((Assents)) Julia.

Julia: As the text says it’s super important to have good friends who help you end bullying. (DG 2, group A).

Finally, when students were asked in the focus group if anything had been done during the academic year had increased their sense of being safe in the school, two of the students, Amber and Sophia answered that the DG helped them to feel safer, highlighting that evidence-based text provided them with relevant information to better understand friendship.

Researcher: Is there anything that has made you feel safer in the school during this school year?

Amber and Sophia: The Dialogic Gatherings.

Researcher: And what do you think is the most remarkable about them?

Sophia: Well, the texts like the one about violent behaviour and the other one about friendship.

Amber: Now after reading the texts we know better who our friend is and who is not. (FG students, group A).

Fostering a safe and inclusive learning environment

Students underline that they have learned that friendship can prevent bullying by reading and sharing the article of Navarro et al. ( 2018 ) about friendship, which made them reconsider the definition of what it means to be a true friend. This also helped bullying prevention, as the text provides them with science-based actions that help to overcome violence in school. In this line, when the students of group A were asked during the focus group if they feel safer at the school after the DG, they answered that now they all feel safer because they know that their friends will protect them if something happens.

Researcher: So, after the DG do you feel safer at school?

Researcher: And why?

Amber: Because now after talking about this we know that when you have friends, they help you not to suffer aggression or abuse, because as it says in the text: “a friend is a treasure that helps you to prevent bullying” and we are better friends now. (Focus group students, group A).

This student, Amber, who is seated in class next to Noa, also underlined that after participating in DG, what they have learned is that being alone increases the risk of suffering bullying, and now they know that if they want to combat bullying, they need to address this issue. Having this in mind, Amber, Sophia, and Anthony, students without SEN who took part in the focus group, reported that after the DG sessions they and other peers began to play with Noa, a student with SEN that was excluded regularly before the implementation:

Amber: Noa (student with SEN) she was always alone, but then we started to understand that you have to play with everyone and not leave someone alone. So, some people started to play with her!

Sophia: I started to play with her too!

Anthony: Me too! (Focus group, students, group A).

In the case of Noa, she had previously reported that she did not have any friends at school, and after the DG sessions, other pupils noticed this and started interacting with her in class and in the playground. The teacher from group A shared in the focus group that the implementation of DG has helped to overcome isolation in the school context:

I think that to prevent violence it is important to say that what happens to you happens to everyone and that everyone is not an isolated individual, but that we are all one. We are group A, and that’s it! That was so important. (Classroom teacher, Group A).

Students were also more aware of the specific needs of other peers with SEN, such as the possible limitations in verbal or social skills. The teacher comments on the case of Martin, a pupil who had self-harming behaviours by hitting his head against the walls when he was alone in the playground. She says that when she told him to stop, he did not, but when his peers told him to go with them, he listened and immediately stopped hurting himself. Since Martin’s classmates knew about the importance of including everyone through the DG, this situation changed and now it does not happen because he is no longer alone.

At the beginning of the school year, Martin (student with SEN) usually was all alone during the playground and all the time was banging his head against the walls, and no matter how many times I told him to get off, he wouldn’t get off. Now he never does it because he is never alone. Sometimes, he tries to isolate himself, and when I try to speak, he doesn’t listen to me. But if someone else from the classroom goes, he immediately pays attention to them. (Classroom teacher, group A).

Rachel’s case is worth to mention, as an outstanding case of a student with SEN that showed that being involved in the dialogic gatherings helped her to enhance her sense of belonging and foster her participation in school. Rachel had communication difficulties that prevented her from participating in regular classroom activities but in the DG, she voluntarily raised her hand to read and comment on the paragraph she had selected, expressing her opinion on it. The special education teacher in that moment reported that was the first time she had participated in class. As we can see in the quote, Rachel’s intervention triggered further discussions because another student responded to her idea by agreeing with her statement:

Rachel: Bullying is a form of aggression, which means it’s behaviour that is used to hurt someone.” It’s a behaviour that is used to harm someone because I believe hurting someone is wrong, and bullying is also wrong because the victim suffers.

Laia: I have chosen the same paragraph because there are some who don’t realise that harm can be done just with words… and I also liked what Rachel said. (DG 2, group B).

Teacher from group B also reported that Rachel has improved in terms of socialisation after the DG as she has started to participate in the class. She explains how Rachel, through this text and the dialogues shared, learnt that the risk of suffering bullying increases with loneliness and this was a crucial realisation since she usually self-isolated. Participating in the DG opened her the door to participate and to feel more included, breaking the dangerous walls of solitude.

There is a student, Rachel (Student with SEN), who joined us last year and usually spent time with two students, but this year those students have left, and she doesn’t want to socialise anymore. It is true that in the last DG we did, when we read about “if you isolate yourself, you are more at risk of being bullied”, it made an impact on her, and she spent a couple of weeks talking more with everyone. In class I also started to notice that she was there, because she was always quiet, and then it was like “I’m listening to your voice! (Classroom teacher, group B).

Exclusionary dimension

Sustainability of the intervention over time.

Teachers reported the limitations they encounter to maintain the gains observed during the DGs over time. That is, some students benefitted from being involved in the gatherings, and that opened new possibilities for participation and socialisation, such as the case of Rachel, as reported by the special education teacher:

I think that for Rachel (Student with SEN), DG has opened a door for her to interact with other children. It took a while for her to understand the text, but when she read that if she isolated herself, she could be bullied, she was the one who wanted to socialise. (Special education teacher).

However, she also acknowledged that Rachel did not continue socialising after the gatherings were over.

But after two weeks she was isolating herself again. That’s why I think that if we had continued with the DG, these impacts would not have been lost. (Special education teacher).

Hence, the special education teacher suggests that extending the DG during the entire school year would enlarge its benefits and argues that if the intervention had continued, these benefits could have been maintained.

Results reveal that Dialogic Gatherings had a positive impact among students in different dimensions. Firstly, by promoting the creation of a safe and inclusive learning environment in which students can share their thoughts and feelings about issues related to school violence. Previous research shows how dialogic interventions for violence prevention can generate an adequate climate to improve social cohesion in schools (Oliver, 2014 ). Through DG, we have seen how students with and without SEN started to communicate effectively, creating new relationships with their peers, and taking care of the most vulnerable ones, which is essential for preventing violence in the school context (Dunn, 2004 ). Through dialogues shared in DG, students have also learned to respect and appreciate differences among their peers, which can lead to a more inclusive and comprehensive school environment (García-Carrión et al., 2018 ).

Secondly, there has been an improvement in reducing the attractiveness of violent behaviours. This, in turn, has increased the greater appreciation of positive behaviours, leading students to prefer or prioritise friendships free of violence. These results feed previous research about the effectiveness of Dialogic Gatherings in the prevention of gender violence among girls with intellectual disabilities (Rodrigues et al., 2021 ). Indeed, dialogues about the importance of not letting anyone behind and friendship were particularly relevant results of DG, as those make students be more aware of the key role everyone holds in ensuring an inclusive and violence-free environments at school. Also, sharing their thoughts, experiences, and beliefs on a particular reading under the dialogic conditions of the DG facilitates the participation of students with SEN, which bridges relationships with their peers without SEN. These kinds of relationships have proven to act as a protective factor to counteract school violence (Farmer et al., 2016 ).

Thirdly, DG has offered the participants the opportunity not only to read high-quality research-informed texts but also to make students reflect about their own daily experiences and relationships, leading them to choose non-violent friends. Through the dialogues developed during the Dialogic Gatherings and the focus groups, students with and without SEN have developed strategies to distinguish between those who are their friends and those who are not, by reflecting on how their peers treated them and vice versa. It also has helped students with SEN to reflect about their own behaviour, which opens new possibilities to prevent conflicts and to autoregulate themselves, which is essential for human development (Vallotton & Ayoub, 2011 ). This is consistent with the preventive socialisation theory that raises awareness about the link between violent actions and attractiveness, unveiling violent models in society and eliminating their appeal (Valls et al., 2008 ).

Limitations and future research

Although this is a highly relevant topic that has been little studied so far, the implementation of DG in mainstream elementary education has shown promising results in overcoming and preventing bullying. The study acknowledges some limitations: on the one hand, the number of participants and the sessions carried out were limited, and even if the results are promising, they cannot be generalised. It has also been noted that the positive impacts on students with SEN were sustained over the period during which the DG was carried out. Also, future research could include playground observations, in addition to DG observations, by a pre-post design to better inform the possible changes in students’ relationships. Also, it may be studied how the sustainability of this action over time would benefit students with and without SEN. Finally, it will also be valuable to explore the transferability of DG to other contexts and settings such as special education, and how it can be adapted to meet the needs of more diverse students.

The findings from this study suggest that dialogic gatherings (DG) have had a positive impact on students generating safe inclusive learning environments in a mainstream schools, and resulting in benefiting students with SEN. The DG, as a Successful Educational Action, created and structured an inclusive space where students shared their experiences and engaged in critical readings, reflections, and discussions on important issues in addressing bullying such as friendship as a protective factor and bullying. After the intervention, students have reported feeling safer and more supported in the school environment. Overall, DG fostered a greater sense of belonging to the school and redefined the concept of friendship to exclude all kinds of violence from it. In addition, this inclusive learning environment raised awareness of the situation of loneliness some students with SEN were experiencing and helped in self-harm prevention by generating support networks. Also, participants of this study understood the importance of standing up for those who are particularly vulnerable, such as students with SEN and fostered positive peer interactions towards students that were usually left apart. Furthermore, DG has opened the door to greater empathy towards students with SEN, so that they do not feel alone at school.

In summary, DG about friendship has had a positive impact on students with and without SEN, helping them to develop a greater understanding of what friendship means, reducing the appeal of violent behaviours, raising awareness about bullying, and advancing toward more inclusive school environments. These findings present promising results to enhance safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environments in mainstream schools, and to ensure quality education for all.

Data availability

All the data is stored by researchers and will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Code availability

The code of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Material availability

The materials of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

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This research is funded by the Project “CHILDPRO: It is never too early to prevent gender-based violence: identification and overcoming of risk behaviours in childhood” (REF: PID2020-115581RB-I00) funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation of Spain.

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Original research article, children’s learning for sustainability in social studies education: a case study from taiwanese elementary school.

case study elementary education

  • Minghsin University of Science and Technology, Hsinchu, Taiwan

Introduction: The primary aim of social studies education is to convey knowledge about cultural and social systems while fostering inquiry, participation, practice, reflection, and innovation. Social studies education plays a pivotal role in raising awareness about various ethnic groups, societies, localities, countries, and the world at large. Furthermore, it instills in students a sense of responsibility, leading them to embrace diversity, value human rights, and promote global sustainability. The current elementary social studies curriculum in Taiwan strongly aligns with these principles and is a vehicle for sustainable development in society.

Methods: The researcher used qualitative research methods and adopted a case study design to review the pedagogical design of the elementary social studies curriculum in Taiwan as a means of sustainability education and enriching children’s cultural learning in the context of sustainability. Children’s learning related to sustainability in an elementary school was investigated, and a social studies teaching design was developed. Finally, the developed teaching approach was implemented in a classroom setting.

Results and discussion: The study yielded the following findings: (1) The social studies curriculum development in Taiwan is connected to the pulse of life, a sense of care for local communities, and cultivation of local thinking. (2) This social studies curriculum adopts a child-centered and problem-oriented approach and integrates students’ interests and the local environment into the learning process. (3) It effectively enhances students’ sustainability-related competencies and skills. These findings offer valuable insights for teachers and can enable them to shape the direction of their social studies courses and cultivate children’s concept of sustainable development for their living environment.

1 Introduction

In Taiwan, the Curriculum Guidelines of the 12-Year Basic Education introduced herein adopt the vision of developing talent in every student—nurture by nature, and promoting life-long learning. In addition, the guidelines cater to the specific needs of all individuals, take into account the diverse cultures and differences between ethnic groups, and pay attention to socially vulnerable groups. The goal is to provide adequate education that elicits students’ enjoyment and confidence in learning. This facilitates raising students’ thirst for learning and courage to innovate creation, prompting them to fulfill their civic responsibilities and develop the wisdom for symbioses, and helping them engage in lifelong learning and develop excellent social adaptability. Accordingly, the vision of a more prosperous society with higher quality of life among individuals can be achieved ( Ministry of Education, 2014 ; Wang and Shih, 2022 ).

Seeking the “common good” in curriculum development can improve quality of life by promoting harmony and wellbeing. A curriculum based on seeking the common good can encourage students to care for others, participate in activities, protect for the natural environment, self-reflect, and develop sustainable practices for the society ( Ministry of Education, 2014 ). The goal of social studies education is to transmit knowledge of cultural and social systems and cultivate inquiry, participation, practice, reflection, and innovation. Social studies education promotes seeking the common good and instills social practices in students. Social studies education raises awareness of ethnic groups, societies, localities, countries, and the world and imbues students with a sense of responsibility, enabling them to recognize diversity, value human rights, and promote global sustainability ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ). Taiwan’s current elementary social studies curriculum promotes these aforementioned principles, all of which relate to sustainable development for our society.

This study conducted a comprehensive review of the elementary social studies curriculum in Taiwan, focusing on its role as a platform for sustainability education and its fostering of children’s cultural learning related to sustainability. The design of a cultural course centered on the town of Beigang was employed as an example; the aim of such a course is to ensure that children are proactive, engage with their environment, and ultimately seek the common good in society in Taiwan.

2 Theoretical perspective: the Curriculum Guidelines for 12-Year Basic Education: general guidelines

Taiwan’s 12-Year Basic Education was first implemented in August 2014, and the Ministry of Education announced the Curriculum Guidelines for 12-Year Basic Education: general guidelines in November 2014. The New Curriculum reflects the idea that the 12-year basic education curriculum guidelines should be based on the principle of holistic education, incorporating the ideas of “taking initiative,” “engaging in interaction,” and “seeking the common good” ( Ministry of Education, 2014 ; Shih et al., 2020 ; Wang and Shih, 2022 ). The idea of Curriculum Guidelines for 12-Year Basic Education: general guidelines is illustrated in Figure 1 .


Figure 1. The idea of Curriculum Guidelines for 12-Year Basic Education: general guidelines (source: Ministry of Education, 2014 ).

The Curriculum Guidelines of the 12-Year Basic Education was developed based on the spirit of holistic education, adopting the concepts of taking initiative, engaging in interaction, and seeking the common good to encourage students to become spontaneous and motivated learners. The curriculum also urges that schools be active in encouraging students to become motivated and passionate learners, leading students to appropriately develop the ability to interact with themselves, others, society, and nature. Schools should assist students in applying their learned knowledge, experiencing the meaning of life, and developing the willingness to become engaged in sustainable development of society, nature, and culture, facilitating the attainment of reciprocity and the common good in their society.

The theoretical perspective of this study is based on the concept of the Curriculum Guidelines for 12-Year Basic Education: general guidelines, including the concepts of taking initiative, engaging in interaction, and seeking the common good. The concepts of taking initiative, engaging in interaction, and seeking the common good for philosophical foundation of the curriculum in Taiwan. Based on the above-mentioned educational concepts, the cultural curriculum of Beigang is designed. Children can proactively protect Taiwan’s cultural and natural heritage and the cultural landscape that embodies the collective memory and history of the people on the land in the future. Seeking the common good for people in Taiwan.

2.1 The practice of the new curriculum is based on “core competency”

The practice of the New Curriculum is based on “core competency” as its main axis and consists of three dimensions: “autonomous action,” “communication and interaction,” and “social participation” ( Ministry of Education, 2014 ). In August 2019, the New Curriculum was formally implemented in Taiwan’s education system.

To implement the ideas and goals of 12-Year Basic Education, core competencies are used as the basis of curriculum development to ensure continuity between educational stages, bridging between domains, and integration between subjects. Core competencies are primarily adopted in the general domains and subjects of elementary school ( Ministry of Education, 2014 ).

The Meaning of “core competency” in social studies refers to the knowledge, ability, and attitude that students should possess for everyday life and challenges. When students face uncertain or complex situations, they can apply their subject knowledge through thinking and exploration, situational analysis, and questions or hypotheses. Ultimately, students can apply comprehensive learning strategies that are suitable for solving problems in their everyday life ( Ministry of Education, 2014 , 2018 ).

2.2 The goals in social studies

The curriculum outline for social studies (hereinafter, “Social Studies Outline”) is rooted in “maximizing students’ talent” and developing lifelong learning, as described by the Curriculum Guidelines of 12-Year Basic Education. According to the general outline, humanities and social sciences are core subjects that should be taught step by step. The curriculum mainly focuses on interests and inquiry regarding the three subjects of history, geography, and civics and society. The curriculum has the following goals ( Ministry of Education, 2014 , 2018 ):

Consider the diverse backgrounds and life experiences of students (e.g., culture, ethnicity, physical location, gender, and physical and mental characteristics) and promote career exploration and development to establish an independent learning space ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Consider the regional, ethnic, and school characteristics for curriculum development ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Establish vertical and horizontal integration within the studies through the following strategies ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ):

Have studies/subjects at each educational stage be guided by civic literacy and the themes of exploration and practical activities that provide space for collaboration on various subjects and issues in the social studies ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Prioritize real-world experience, accounting for the development of knowledge, positive attitudes, and practical skills for subjects at each learning stage ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Divide the learning content in a meaningful way that avoids unnecessary repetition because of the sequential development of learning stages and the need for complementary cooperation among subjects in the social studies ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Strengthen the vertical connection among elementary schools, junior high schools, and senior high schools and account for the horizontal connections between the characteristics of senior high schools, in accordance with the common principles of basic education ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

2.3 Course objectives of social studies

To teach the civic literacy that students require for their future and careers in the social studies curriculum. The goals of the curriculum are as follows ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ):

Develop an understanding of each subject and the qualities of self-discipline, autonomy, self-improvement, and self- realization ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Improve the quality of independent thinking, value judgments, rational decision-making, and innovation ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Develop the civic practices required in a democratic society, such as communication and social interaction, teamwork, problem- solving, and social participation ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Enhance the exploration and knowledge of history, geography, and civics, and other social disciplines ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Develop the ability to perform interdisciplinary analysis, speculate, integrate concepts, evaluate problems, and provide constructive criticism ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

Cultivate awareness of ethnic groups, societies, localities, countries, and the world and instill a sense of responsibility that includes the recognition of diversity, value of human rights, and concern for global sustainability ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

2.4 Key learning connotation of social studies

The key learning connotations include learning performance and learning content, both of which provide a framework for curriculum design, teaching material development, textbook review, and learning assessment. Learning performance and learning content can have various correspondences. At this learning stage, these aspects can be flexibly combined according to the characteristics of the social studies ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

2.4.1 Learning performance

Learning performance in the social studies is based on cognitive processes, affective attitudes, and practical skills. Learning performance comprises a common framework of understanding and speculation, attitudes and values, and practice and participation, which can be adjusted according to the educational stage and subject ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

2.4.2 Learning content

Learning content emphasizes the knowledge connotations of the studies/subject. The social studies curriculum outlines the basic learning content for each stage and subject and prioritizes vertical coherence between stages to avoid unnecessary repetition. Teachers, schools, local governments, and publishing houses can make adjustments after integrating learning content and performance according to their needs to promote effective teaching and adaptive learning ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

2.5 Relationship between the general outline and the social studies outline

The relationship between the general outline and social studies outline is presented in Figure 2 .


Figure 2. The relationship between the general outline and social studies outline (source: Ministry of Education, 2014 , 2018 ; Chan, 2020 ).

The general outline shares three aspects with the social studies outline. First, key learning connotations include both learning performance and learning content. Second, learning performance is based on understanding and speculation, attitudes and values, and practice and participation. Finally, the learning content is aimed at teaching students about interaction and association; difference and diversity; change, cause, and effect; and choice and responsibility ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ).

2.6 Concrete connotations of core competencies in elementary social studies

The concept of core competencies in 12-Year Basic Education emphasizes lifelong learning. These competences are divided into three broad dimensions, namely, autonomous action, communication and interaction, and social participation. Each dimension involves three items. Specifically, spontaneity entails physical and mental wellness and self-advancement; logical thinking and problem solving; and planning, execution, innovation and adaptation. Communication and interaction entails semiotics and expression; information and technology literacy and media literacy; and artistic appreciation and aesthetic literacy. Finally, social participation entails moral praxis and citizenship; interpersonal relationships and teamwork; and cultural and global understanding ( Ministry of Education, 2014 ).

The concrete connotations of the core competencies in social studies listed in Table 1 .


Table 1. Concrete connotations of core competencies in social studies.

2.7 Considering this local study is of global importance–Sustainable Development Goals and teaching design for children’s cultural learning for sustainability

Sustainability is a much debated concept. Environmental sustainability refers to the responsible and balanced management of natural resources and ecosystems to ensure their long-term health and resilience while meeting the needs of current and future generations ( James, 2024 ; Malin et al., 2024 ).

In 1962, the American biologist Rachel Carson published the book Silent Spring, which revealed the dangers of DDT pesticides in times of rapid industrial development. In 1970, the United States became the first country to establish laws regarding environmental education. Over the following 10 years, United Nations (UN) conferences focused on the environment and sustainability. The purpose of environmental education is not only to solve environmental problems but also to emphasize intergenerational justice as the core of sustainable development ( Yeh, 2017 ; Chen, 2023 ; Feng, 2023 ).

In 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development published the Brundtland Report, also known as Our Common Future, which defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present generation without jeopardizing the ability of the next generation to meet their needs.” The Brundtland Report highlighted the necessity of sustainable development to balance the economy, society, and the environment and sparked many initiatives promoting education on sustainable development. For example, the UN’s decade of education for sustainable development (2005–2014) plan proposed taking action through education to instill skills of critical thinking, communication, coordination, and conflict resolution in students. Moreover, the plan emphasized the goal of educating global citizens who can respect the lives and cultures of others ( Yeh, 2017 ; Chen, 2023 ; Feng, 2023 ).

The term “sustainability” is known to be a solution to environmental and social problems. Sustainability is defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It emphasizes “social, economic and environmental sustainability and the interaction of these three elements” ( Huang and Cheng, 2022 ). In education, education for sustainable development is a term used by the United Nations and is defined as education that encourages changes in knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes to enable a more sustainable and just society for all ( Zhang et al., 2023 ).

Education for sustainable development (ESD) is UNESCO’s education sector response to the urgent and dramatic challenges the planet faces. In 2015, the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were passed by the UN Assembly, 195 nations agreed with the UN that they can change the world for the better. This will be accomplished by bringing together their respective governments, businesses, media, institutions of higher education, and local NGOs to improve the lives of the people in their country by the year 2030. The Global Challenge for Government Transparency: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030 Agenda. Here’s the 2030 Agenda: (1) eliminate poverty; (2) erase hunger; (3) establish good health and wellbeing; (4) provide quality education; (5) enforce gender equality; (6) improve clean water and sanitation; (7) grow affordable and clean energy; (8) create decent work and economic growth; (9) increase industry, innovation, and infrastructure; (10) reduce inequality; (11) mobilize sustainable cities and communities; (12) influence responsible consumption and production; (13) organize climate action; (14) develop life below water; (15) advance life on land; (16) guarantee peace, justice, and strong institutions; (17) build partnerships for the goal ( Yeh, 2017 ; New Jersey Minority Educational Development, 2023 ; UNESCO, 2023 ).

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a widely accepted framework for promoting sustainable development. SDG4 goal 4.7 pursues the “sustainability” of education to promote sustainable development for country ( Sánchez-Carracedo et al., 2021 ). SDG11 pursues “sustainable cities and communities” in efforts to make them inclusive, safe, and resilient. SDG 11.4 protects countries’ cultural and natural heritage and the cultural landscape that embodies the collective memory and history of the people on the land.

This study designed teaching activities aimed at helping children to understand, visit, see, and care for Beigang; actively protect Taiwan’s culture and heritage; and respect the people’s collective memory and history. It is hoped that such teaching practice can inspire children to care about their living environment and promote the sustainable development of their living environment. This local study is of global importance. The discussion draws meaningful connections with other research studies ( Farhana et al., 2017 ; Huang and Cheng, 2022 ).

3 Proposed teaching design for children’s cultural learning for sustainability at elementary school in Taiwan

Beigang’s Township, formerly known as “Ponkan (笨港),” is in the southwest of Yunlin County, Taiwan. Beigang is a small town with a rich history; it is a center of Mazu belief, one of the three major towns in Yunlin, and the gateway to the Yunlin coast. Beigang is also the political and economic center of Yunlin and is a key town for transportation, sightseeing, culture, medical care, and education. The old street features several historic sites that have a long and prosperous history.

3.1 The proposed course design has the following goals

Strengthen children’s understanding and connection with Beigang’s history and culture.

Teach children about Beigang’s cultural characteristics.

Enable children to identify with their hometown-Beigang.

Assist children with applying knowledge in practical situations.

Children will be taught Beigang’s local characteristics through the proposed course design, which can promote the public welfare. The proposed course design also applies the concepts of “taking initiative,” “engaging in interaction,” and “seeking the common good” from the Curriculum Guidelines of 12-year Basic Education and develops courses that cultivate students’ educational competencies.

This course considered the regional, ethnic, and school characteristics for curriculum development, and prioritize real-world experience. This course improved the quality of independent thinking, value judgments, rational decision-making, innovation, and social participation ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ). Enhance the exploration and knowledge of history, and geography. Cultivate children’s awareness of ethnic groups, societies, localities, countries, and the world and instill a sense of responsibility that includes the recognition of diversity, value of human rights, and concern for global sustainability ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ; Shih, 2020 ).

3.2 Tips for designing teaching activities

Lesson plan structure: understand Beigang, visit Beigang, see Beigang, care Beigang.

Analysis on teacher preparation and materials: hold a meeting to discuss incorporating the key points into each subject.

Student preparation: help students develop the ability to discuss, think critically, and brainstorm ideas during the course.

3.3 Teaching process

Phase 1: Getting to understand Beigang.

Phase 2: Visiting Beigang. Combine off-campus teaching and tours of historical sites.

Phase 3: Seeing Beigang. Introduce the geography and natural scenery of Beigang.

Phase 4: Caring for Beigang. Introduce the beauty and future of Beigang.

3.4 Core competency questions, major domain, and subdomains

The researcher first considered questions on core competencies and then considered questions regarding the major domain and subdomains. The major domain was social studies, and the subdomains were integrative activities, language arts, and arts. The core competency questions were as follows:

(1) How much do you know Beigang?

(2) How has Beigang affected your life?

(3) What are the elements of an explanatory text?

(4) How can an attractive postcard from Beigang be designed?

(5) How can students contribute to Beigang’s public welfare?

The core competency questions, major domain, and subdomains are presented in Figure 3 .


Figure 3. The core competency questions, major domain, and subdomains (source: developed in this study).

4 Research method

4.1 documentary analysis method.

This study employed the documentary analysis method, which involves the use of documents as the primary data source. Documentary analysis is a qualitative research approach in which the researcher interprets documents to derive meaningful insights on a particular topic ( Wang and Shih, 2022 , 2023 ). In this study, the researcher applied the documentary analysis method to analyze issues related to social studies education in Taiwan’s elementary schools. Additionally, the principle of the curriculum outline for social studies was analyzed. Finally, the researcher used analytical and interpretive skills to establish connections with the objectives of the United Nations’ SDGs.

4.2 Case study

Qualitative case studies enable researchers to investigate complex phenomena by identifying relevant factors and observing their interaction. Case studies involve diverse methods of data collection—such as observation, interviews, surveys, and document analysis—along with comprehensive descriptions provided by the study participants ( Shih, 2022 ). In the present study, data were collected through semistructured interviews that followed a predefined outline. The interviewees were both teachers and students, and they shared their perspectives and insights regarding the social studies curriculum.

4.3 Elementary school selected for the case study

The elementary school featured in this case study is located in Yunlin County, Taiwan, and was established in 1927. The school is guided by a set of educational principles that revolve around a humanistic spirit, diverse and dynamic teaching management, the fostering of warm teacher–student friendships, and the promotion of a vibrant and wholesome childhood experience for its students.

4.4 Data collection

The primary data source in this study was interview transcripts, and the collected data were systematically coded using self-developed categories. The researcher visited the elementary school to conduct semistructured interviews with the teacher and students on 16 June 2023. All the interviewees had been actively involved in the planning and design of the social studies course. During the interviews, the interviewees freely expressed their opinions regarding the course. Prior to their participation, the interviewees were informed about the study’s objectives, and they provided their informed consent. Consent letters and interview outlines were shared with the interviewees, including the teachers and the students’ parents ( Shih, 2022 ). Each interview session lasted approximately 1 h. The demographic details of the interviewees are presented in Tables 2 – 4 outlines the interview coding method.


Table 2. Coordinator of the social studies curriculum.


Table 3. Participants of the social studies curriculum.


Table 4. Interview codes.

The codes correspond to the interviewees and dates. For example, “Coordinator interview, A20190612” corresponds to the interview with the elementary school teacher who serves as the coordinator of the social studies program; this interview was conducted on 16 June 2023. “Student interview 1, A20230616” corresponds to the interview with student 1, a participant, conducted on 16 June 2023.

4.5 Course design: Beigang

4.5.1 tiâu-thian kiong (朝天宮).

Tiângthian esign, which locals call má tsóo king (媽祖宮), is the most famous landmark in Beigang Township ( Figure 4 ). Established in 1694 AD during the Kangxi period of the Qing dynasty. Tiownship. Estab serves as the main temple for more than 300 Mazu temples across the country. The Tiemples across is dedicated to many gods, such as Mazu and Guanyin. The beam frames and wood carvings in the temple were all created by famous craftsmen. The stone statues of the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas perched along the stone railings outside the temple exemplify the religious and artistic masterpieces of the temple. The Tie frames and welcomes worshippers throughout the year. The liveliest times to visit are during the Lantern Festival on the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar and Mazu’s birthday on March 23. Mazu’s birthday, visitors come to Beigang from across the world, and the entire city is shrouded in a festive atmosphere.


Figure 4. Beigang Tiâu-thian Kiong.

4.5.2 Beigang Daughter Bridge (北港女兒橋)

The Beigang Daughter Bridge was constructed from Taiwan’s oldest iron bridge, the Beigang–Fuxing Iron Bridge ( Figure 5 ). The small train that once operated over the bridge is no longer in service; however, the dragon-shaped bridge has become a hotspot for photos and social media check-ins. In the evenings, people can enjoy the sunset while walking over the Beigang River Head.


Figure 5. Beigang Daughter Bridge.

4.5.3 Beigang Cultural Center (北港文化中心)

To learn more about Mazu rituals, a visit to the Beigang Cultural Center is a must. The center describes the process of circumambulation and the roles of participants in the ritual, such as the leader of the procession (bao ma zai) (報馬仔), costume makers (zhuang yi tuan) (莊儀團) and ritual band (kai lu gu) (開路鼓). The cultural center hosts many other temporary exhibitions.

4.5.4 Beigang Starbucks (北港星巴克)

The first Starbucks store in Beigang is on Huanan Road (Provincial Highway 19), the main road entering and leaving Beigang ( Figure 6 ). The architecture of the store reflects the religious characteristics of the town; religious imagery is present from the exterior and interior walls to the grille ceiling. Through the simple reddish-brown tones that resemble temple interiors, the pious, solemn architectural style exudes history and local sentiment.


Figure 6. Beigang Starbucks.

4.5.5 Beigang Old Street (北港老街)

Beigang Old Street, located south of Tiâu-thian Kiong, has local flair ( Figure 7 ). Baroque buildings line both sides of the street, and the shops sell local treats and produce that are popular among tourists. Pilgrimage groups from across Taiwan are a common sight. The street is lively, and the atmosphere is truly unique and worth experiencing.


Figure 7. Beigang Old Street.

4.6 Limitation

This research is a case study, and this curriculum is only implemented in one school in Taiwan, so the validity of extrapolation to other case schools will be limited.

5.1 Curriculum development connected to the pulse of life, a sense of care for local communities, and cultivation of local thinking

The social studies curriculum is intricately connected to the pulse of life, a sense of care for local communities, and cultivation of local thinking. The approach employed in the curriculum aims to enable children to not only connect with their own country and culture but also embrace the role of being a global citizen ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ). Student 2 stated the following:

Beigang Old Street (北港老街) is so vibrant and filled with people. I like Beigang Old Street. I see many ancient buildings on the street, and I feel a need to protect them (Student interview 2, C20230616).

Student 4 expressed the following:

I like Tiâu-thian Kiong (朝天宮). My grandma used to take me to worship there. She has passed away. Whenever I visit Tiâu-thian Kiong, I miss my grandma. For me, Tiâu-thian Kiong symbolizes my grandma (Student interview 4, D20230616).

5.2 Child-centered and problem-oriented curriculum that integrates students’ interests and the local environment into the learning process

This social studies curriculum is designed to be child-centered and problem-oriented and to integrate students’ interests and the local environment into the learning process. This approach equips students with the skills to observe, investigate, collect data, create diagrams and thematic maps, write reports, inquire, and acquire other practical competencies ( Ministry of Education, 2018 ). Therefore, teachers must adopt a competency-oriented curriculum design and teaching approach. To illustrate competency-oriented curriculum design and teaching, Fan (2016) introduced a concept map containing four interconnected circles ( Figure 3 ). Competency-oriented curricula and teaching seamlessly integrate knowledge, skills, and attitudes, emphasizing that learning should not be solely centered on knowledge acquisition. Additionally, learning should be situational and contextualized, and the learning content should include appropriate real-life experiences, events, situations, and contexts. Furthermore, curriculum planning and teaching must combine learning content with scientific inquiry, placing substantial emphasis on learning processes, strategies, and methods. This approach can help cultivate self-learning and life-long learning. Finally, classroom activities should give students opportunities to apply their knowledge and develop transferrable skills that can be effectively employed in real-world scenarios ( Fan, 2016 ). The concept map of competency-oriented curricula and teaching in social studies is displayed in Figure 8 .


Figure 8. The concept map of competency-oriented curricula and teaching in social studies (source: Fan, 2016 ).

The aim of the design of the course investigated in this study was to synthesize children’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes and to emphasize the importance of situational teaching, contextualized learning, and the practical application of knowledge. The cultural course enables students visiting Beigang to learn about the town’s cultural landscape, interact and communicate with people, and participate in sustainable development in their hometown. Through this educational experience, children can learn how to be sensitive, caring, introspective, and respectful toward their hometown and contribute to the creation of a better living environment. The course fosters children’s cultural learning to the benefit of the sustainability of their hometown.

The teacher asked the following questions:

Let’s review Beigang again.

Where are you from?

Do you love your hometown?

How can you contribute to the sustainable development of your hometown?

Student 5 stated the following:

I love my hometown, Beigang. I want to keep Beigang beautiful forever (Student interview 5, E20230616).

Student 6 expressed the following:

I love Beigang, my hometown. I’m going to the Beigang Sports Park to help plant trees so that there will be more and more trees. Then, the air in Beigang will get better and better, and the people living in Beigang will become healthier (Student interview 6, F20230616).

Student 7 stated the following:

I love my hometown, Beigang. I’m going to the Beigang Fruit and Vegetable Market to help remove trash. I want Beigang to become cleaner (Student interview 7, G20230616).

5.3 Improving students’ competencies and skills in the context of sustainability

The pursuit of sustainable development, in alignment with the United Nations’ SDGs, is a top priority in both the internal and external policies of the Union. As acknowledged by the UN 2030 Agenda, a commitment to sustainable development is reflected through the endorsement of 17 universal SDGs and related targets. These goals aim to strike a balance across all dimensions of sustainable growth, such as economic, environmental, and social considerations ( Fleaca et al., 2023 ).

Education on sustainability should be capable of cultivating the mindset and skills to meet the complex sustainability challenges faced in the 21st century. The critical roles of teachers in this context were thoroughly analyzed in this study, and the findings underscore the importance of teachers in cultivating students’ sustainability competencies and skills ( Chatpinyakoop et al., 2022 ; Fleaca et al., 2023 ). Therefore, the design of the social studies course aims to foster the development of students’ sustainability competencies and skills in the context of sustainability.

The teacher gave the following description:

“Course design: Beigang” increases the awareness of the changes in students’ social, natural, and human environments. Moreover, it equips students to be able to pay attention to everyday problems and the effects of these problems on their lives as well as to consider possible solutions. For example, the Beigang Daughter Bridge (北港女兒橋) was constructed from Taiwan’s oldest iron bridge, the Beigang–Fuxing Iron Bridge. The small train that once operated over the bridge is no longer in service; however, the dragon-shaped bridge has become a hotspot for photos and social media check-ins. The original old railway has been redesigned and become a new tourist attraction. The teacher described the transformation of the bridge, and the students experienced the renewal of the bridge and pledged to take good care of it (Coordinator interview, A20230616).

Student 1 stated the following:

I like Matsu. Matsu blesses those who live in Beigang. I want to protect Tiâu-thian Kiong (朝天宮). Mazu lives in Tiâu-thian Kiong, and if Tiâu-thian Kiong were to be destroyed, Matsu would have nowhere to live (Student interview 1, A20230616).

Student 3 expressed the following:

Beigang Old Street (北港老街) is so vibrant and filled with people. I like Beigang Old Street. I see many ancient buildings on the street, and I feel a need to protect them (Student interview 3, C20230616).

6 Discussion

6.1 a social studies curriculum should adapt to social problems and focus on students’ life experiences, and cultivate caring in students in curriculum.

Children are surrounded by many influential role models in society—for example, parents, siblings, teachers, friends, and TV characters—and their learning occurs through being explicitly taught by others, through direct observation, and through participation in activities. These are students’ life experiences ( Farhana et al., 2017 ; Ye and Shih, 2021 ). A social studies curriculum should adapt to social problems and focus on students’ life experiences, and cultivate caring in students in curriculum. After all, children learn to care for those around them through life experiences ( Hung et al., 2021 ; Shih et al., 2022 ; Shih, 2024 ).

6.2 This curriculum overcomes the shortcomings of knowledge-based learning

Teachers and students often spend excessive time mastering and memorizing content. Moreover, previous curricula were bloated and failed to instill in students the key skills and core literacies required to face a changing world. Therefore, the 12-Year Basic Education Curriculum focuses on literacy, is based on both learning content and learning performance, emphasizes active inquiry and practice, and hopes to prevent excessive memorization. Therefore, this curriculum overcomes the shortcomings of knowledge-based learning by providing a high-quality educational experience, and campus sustainability ( Ministry of Education, 2014 , 2018 , 2019 ; Hung et al., 2020 ; Washington-Ottombre, 2024 ).

6.3 Select appropriate themes, and at least one inquiry activity should be designed for each unit

In order to implement and link up the exploration and practice courses that are valued at the junior and senior high school stages, the key points of implementation in the new curriculum in the social studies are to standardize the “compilation and selection of textbooks for elementary schools or the compilation of textbooks for textbooks and the design of integrated curriculum in fields.” In addition to selecting appropriate themes to develop comprehensive teaching materials, at least “one inquiry activity should be designed for each unit, and each semester should integrate the content learned in the semester, and at least one theme inquiry and practice unit should be planned.” Therefore, at the elementary school site, different from traditional teaching methods and habits, guide students to explore and practice in the social field, and then cultivate children’s core literacy ( Ministry of Education, 2014 ; Yu, 2023 ).

7 Conclusion and implication

7.1 conclusion.

The findings of this study were as follows: (1) The social studies curriculum development in Taiwan is connected to the pulse of life, a sense of care for local communities, and cultivation of local thinking. (2) This social studies curriculum adopts a child-centered and problem-oriented approach and integrates students’ interests and the local environment into the learning process. (3) It effectively enhances students’ sustainability-related competencies and skills.

These findings offer valuable insights for teachers and can enable them to shape the direction of their social studies courses and cultivate children’s concept of sustainable development. In addition, the sustainability competences are systems thinking competence, futures thinking competence, values thinking competence, collaboration competence and action-oriented competence ( Marjo and Ratinen, 2024 ). In values thinking competence, this study effectively enhances students’ sustainability-related competencies and skills. The existing sustainability competencies’ frameworks are linked to social studies curriculum and the learning outcomes that were sought in this case study.

In the end, ensuring a fair and decent livelihood for all people, regenerating nature and enabling biodiversity to thrive, have never been more important for sustainable development ( Bianchi et al., 2022 ). In addition, hundreds of sustainability programs have emerged at schools around the world over the past 2 decades. A prime question for employers, students, educators, and program administrators is what competencies these programs develop in students ( Brundiers et al., 2021 ). In this study, Taiwanese children can protect cultural and natural heritage and the cultural landscape that embodies the collective memory and history of the people on the land in the sustainable future.

7.2 Implication

In the 21st century, the world has become more globalized. Globalization has decreased distinctions between countries and has increased interdependency among countries ( Wang and Shih, 2023 ). However, one of the biggest challenges that globalization poses to blurr the unique local cultural characteristics. in recent years, awareness of local culture, which is based on cultural transmission with respect to language, history, geography, knowledge, customs, art, and an appreciation of the value of local identity and traditional culture, has become a priority. Local culture has become a crucial part of education in Taiwan, and they help children better appreciate the culture styles behind their everyday lives ( Shih, 2022 ). This local study is of global importance.

Finally, the growing international significance of education for sustainable development (ESD), and is a matter of global importance, the requirements and needs of people differ according to their regional circumstances ( de Haan, 2006 , 2010 ). To create a more sustainable world and to engage with issues related to sustainability as described in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), individuals must become sustainability change-makers. They require the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that empower them to contribute to sustainable development ( UNESCO, 2017 ).

The trend toward the standardization of education raises the question of why teachers should focus on local contexts ( Smith and Sobel, 2010 ). Historically, before the advent of common schools, education grounded in local concerns and experiences was the norm, playing a crucial role in transitioning from childhood to adulthood. However, in modern schooling, children often experience a growing disconnect between their community lives and classroom experiences ( Smith and Sobel, 2010 ). Hence, elementary teachers in Taiwan are recommended to focus on actively incorporating local cultural elements into the classroom. This approach aims to bridge the gap between children’s community experiences and their educational environment. This study is of local importance in Taiwan.

Data availability statement

The original contributions presented in this study are included in this article/supplementary material, further inquiries can be directed to the corresponding author.

Ethics statement

Ethical approval was not required for this study involving human participants in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. Written informed consent was obtained from the individual(s), and minor(s)’ legal guardians/next of kin, for participation in this study and for the publication of any potentially identifiable images or data included in this article.

Author contributions

Y-HS: Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.

The author declares that no financial support was received for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Keywords : children, social studies, sustainability, the curriculum outline for social studies, the Curriculum Guidelines of the 12-Year Basic Education

Citation: Shih Y-H (2024) Children’s learning for sustainability in social studies education: a case study from Taiwanese elementary school. Front. Educ. 9:1353420. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2024.1353420

Received: 10 December 2023; Accepted: 29 February 2024; Published: 16 April 2024.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2024 Shih. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Yi-Huang Shih, [email protected]

This article is part of the Research Topic

Building the Future of Education Together: Innovation, Complexity, Sustainability, Interdisciplinary Research and Open Science

Yale Dyslexia

Case Study – How Morningside Elementary School Helps Dyslexic Students Succeed

case study elementary education

Teacher Training and a Well-Stocked Toolbox Help Dyslexic Students Succeed at One Atlanta Public School

Peek into a first grade classroom at Morningside Elementary School in Atlanta and there’s a good chance you’ll see students tapping out the sounds that comprise a word with their fingers or tossing bean bags in the air as they work to learn new words. In another classroom a group of third graders is decoding nonsense words while others sit in small groups engrossed in a discussion about a book they’re reading.

This is what reading instruction looks like at Morningside—and Audrey Sofianos, the school’s principal, couldn’t be prouder. “We provide a level of training that teachers never have. It just blows my mind. This is not what normal teachers are taught to do.”

Sofianos has good reason to boast. In September 2016 Morningside was named a National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education, in large part for an innovative literacy curriculum that includes an intensive focus on helping dyslexic students learn to read.

One sentence from Morningside’s application for the National Blue Ribbon designation neatly sums up this commitment: “We believe this cadre of teachers has the skills and tools needed to teach anyone to read no matter the challenge, and that is a powerful resource and component of our culture.”

Morningside, which has 889 students in grades K–5, is not a typical urban school. It has high student test scores and strong parental involvement, including a parent foundation that provides much of the funding for its extensive teacher training and innovative reading program. But the Morningside model demonstrates what is possible in a public school setting when administrators and teachers are determined to help all students, including those with dyslexia, reach their full potential.

Morningside’s literacy approach boils down to three key elements:

  • A commitment to training teachers
  • A well-stocked toolbox of options to meet the needs of every student
  • A consistent approach to monitoring student progress

Teacher Training

Every teacher and administrator at Morningside is required to take a 70–hour training course called the Complete Reading Series (CRS), which covers early literacy, phonics, word roots and learning disabilities, including one component specifically on dyslexia. Because the course is broken down into a series of components, CRS can be learned by teachers over a few years without disrupting their classroom schedules.

CRS is designed to “empower teachers to possess, understand and master the content and instructional practices necessary to teach reading, spelling and comprehension to the gifted student, the general education student and to the student in need of remediation,” says Brenda Fitzgerald, executive director of the Georgia Educational Training Agency and creator of the program. In part, Fitzgerald based the course on research by the National Reading Panel, The Florida Center for Reading Research, the National Institute for Literacy and the work of Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity.

CRS was originally brought to Morningside during the 2011–12 school year by then-principal Rebecca Pruitt, who felt more needed to be done to keep students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities from leaving the school to receive more specialized instruction at private schools in the area, particularly The Schenck School, which specializes in educating dyslexic children. “When I moved to Morningside as their principal, I distinctly remember a family telling me they were leaving the school to go to Schenck, and I thought, ‘I want [my school] to have what they have. Why are people leaving? Who is going to take care of the kids who can’t afford that tuition? What is it that schools like Schenck have, and why can’t we do it here?’”

Pruitt made CRS a cornerstone of her efforts to retain such students. “CRS helps you start to peel back the layers of the onion” to reveal where students need extra help, says Pruitt. “Then it moves to programming for reading and for writing, and standardizing vocabulary, and looking at really understanding what work is needed to support our children.”

Today, 53 current Morningside teachers and administrators have completed or are in the process of completing CRS, which includes a day-long course on dyslexia given to the entire staff. Of those, 28 also have taken an intensive two-week training course in the Orton-Gillingham (OG) method, which uses visual, auditory and kinesthetic approaches to teaching reading and can be highly effective for dyslexic readers. Another 18 teachers and staff are scheduled to receive OG training over the next two summers.

“We consider this type of reading training and dyslexia-focused work a huge hallmark of our school,” said Sofianos, adding that the goal is for 100 percent of teachers and staff, including herself, to receive the OG training. “Our teachers have a lot of knowledge in how reading is taught and developmentally what should be happening along the way. That makes it much easier to identify whether a student is dyslexic or not.”

A Well-stocked Toolbox

Teachers at Morningside never rely on just one program or textbook. “We have multiple tools in our toolbox, so if one method isn’t working for a student we can always try a different approach until we get it right,” said Laurie Luckmann, a first grade teacher.

In addition to CRS and OG, those tools include Wilson Fundations Phonics, a research-based program that incorporates OG methods for teaching phonics and spelling in grades K–3. Each Fundations lesson focuses on carefully sequenced skills, including alphabet awareness, phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, decoding, vocabulary, fluency and spelling. It is designed to help teachers quickly identify and address reading, spelling and writing challenges.

Another critical tool in the toolbox is a reading manual created by the school to ensure all teachers understand and adopt Morningside’s balanced literacy approach, which progresses from phonemic awareness to phonics; decoding and fluency to reading comprehension; and vocabulary building through word study.

With this wide range of tools at their disposal, teachers have the flexibility to adapt quickly to students’ individual needs. For instance, Luckmann says that when her students are learning to read a non-phonetic word like “said,” some will “just know it after it’s repeated five or six times while others may need to write it 15 or 20 times in shaving cream before they get it” or toss a bean bag as they say the word.

These strategies are common at schools for students with learning disabilities, but extremely rare in mainstream public schools. “We use a very sensory approach for some kids such as tapping and clapping to help them sound out words and make the connection physically,” says Amelia Morel, an Early Intervention Program reading teacher for third and fourth graders.

Morel knows firsthand how unusual it is for public school teachers to understand and embrace such techniques. She spotted red flags in her own son’s reading that eventually led to a dyslexia diagnosis even though teachers at his school insisted he was “doing just fine.”  Morel doesn’t blame the teachers but notes that they “simply don’t have the training” to recognize such problems.

Because all Morningside teachers receive the same training and tools, they also can more readily help each other when they aren’t sure what approach to take for a student. “I run things by Laurie (Luckmann) a lot to see if what I’m doing makes sense,” says Morel.

Monitoring Progress

Consistent training and use of the reading manual and Fundations means all teachers know what normal progress looks like and can immediately spot problems when a student is struggling to read. Three kids in Luckmann’s class of 20 students have been diagnosed with dyslexia, and 20 percent of students in grades three, four and five are receiving remedial reading services, most of whom are likely dyslexic, according to Morel. (As in many states, Georgia law prohibits schools from specifically identifying kids as having dyslexia.)

These students are monitored every week to check their progress. For instance, Morel’s third and fourth graders receive weekly nonsense-word fluency tests that align with whatever phonics they’re working on. To show mastery in a particular area, such as closed-syllable words with a vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel pattern, the students need to be able to read 10 nonsense words that follow that pattern in a minute or less. “Many couldn’t do it initially, but by the end of the unit all were getting at least eight to ten words right. This shows us that they have mastered that phonics piece” and are progressing toward greater fluency, says Morel.

Part of the strength of Morningside’s approach is that it benefits all students, not just those who are dyslexic. “I know every kid who goes through the first grade program is rock solid with this stuff and comes out with incredible phonics skills. It’s what all kids need,” says Luckmann.

Since adopting the program, student achievement overall has increased significantly at Morningside. Scores on Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) rose from 77 percent of the students exceeding in reading in 2012 to 90 percent in 2014. (This is the latest data available; the test used by the state changed in 2015.)

Morningside’s successful literacy program stems from a deep commitment by its leaders, starting with former principal Pruitt and continuing now with Sofianos. But it also helps significantly that the school has the financial resources to match that commitment. Funding for the program, including the training courses and Fundations, comes solely from the school’s parent foundation. And none of it is cheap. The 10-day OG training, for instance, costs $1,100 per teacher, and the 12-day CRS course, typically taken over a two-year period, is $980 a head.

Sofianos readily admits that the school could not pay for any of this without parent support. “The funds we get from the district to develop teachers are the same funds we get to buy paper, scissors and pens,” she says, adding that the parents are “very proud to have well-trained teachers and happy to support the program.”

For schools without such support, adopting similar programs may seem prohibitive. For its part, Atlanta Public Schools is working to replicate elements of the Morningside approach district-wide, including recently purchasing Fundations for schools throughout the district.

Morningside teachers believe the type of training they’ve been lucky enough to receive should be standard practice in every school. Says Luckmann, “What makes me feel so good about coming to work every day is that I know what I’m doing for dyslexic kids will help all my kids. There is no doubt in my mind.”

Dyslexia and Civil Rights: Making Room on the Bus for All Children

My early experiences have become my bridge to understanding dyslexia and the plight of students whose strengths go unnoticed in the classroom.

case study elementary education

Building a word-rich life for Dyslexics

A confession: I get a significant thrill from reading research that confirms my personal suspicions.

case study elementary education

How speech-to-text transformed a student’s 5th grade year

Last fall, the fifth graders in my class were the lucky recipients of iPads–one for each student.

case study elementary education

Rand Center: A Commitment to Accommodations

“Dyslexia robs a person of time; accommodations return it.” Dr. Sally Shaywitz


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