Social Contract Theory: Creating a Cooperative Learning Environment
- John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, chapters two and eight. An alternative is James Rachels’ The Elements of Moral Philosophy, chapter eleven, “The Idea of a Social Contract” (see full citations and links in the ‘Resources’ section)
- A questionnaire (see below)
- Poster board for displaying the finished constitution
- Optional: online discussion forum; wig and gavel
This lesson teaches students about self-government by using social contract theory to create a class constitution. The lesson encourages students to argue their positions in order to convince their peers how a classroom should run. Since everyone is responsible for formulating and ratifying their constitutions, students are encouraged to participate in class from the first day. Furthermore, as students argue for and vote on their constitutions, they must inevitably address a number of political and philosophical problems, such as the danger of the tyranny of the majority, the meaning of consent, and the issue of how to enforce their contract. Thus, by the end of the exercise students have learned the basics of social contract theory, the value of compromise and productive negotiation, and the need to make logical arguments to support their views.
Activity (Day 1)
Inform students on the first day that the class is going to write a constitution that will govern how they and the teacher will conduct the course throughout the school year. They will decide the content of this constitution by establishing a social contract.
The first step is for students to fill out a questionnaire that allows the teacher to get to know each student a little better. While each teacher should tailor the questionnaire according to his or her needs, it should include the following four questions, which will form the basis of the classroom constitution.
- Question 1: My favorite teacher always used to…
- Question 2: I believe that as a student I am responsible for…
- Question 3: I don’t like it when other students in my class…
- Question 4: I would also like you to know that…
Collate the responses by grouping together similar answers and noting how many times students give the same or similar responses. Students will often give their own personal preferences when answering these questions. The teacher should group the students’ answers according to general headings that relate to specific rights and duties in the class. For example, a student’s comment that expresses a dislike for others talking out of turn would be placed under the general heading of respect. Occasionally, students will give frivolous responses, but these are often quickly thrown out by other students when they debate the articles of their constitution.
Before handing out the collated responses, instructors should introduce the students to social contract theory, either by having them read selections from Locke or by giving a brief, summary lecture. Social contract theory holds the following views:
- Locke’s social contract theory starts with the claim that human beings originally lived in a state of nature, where they had perfect freedom from external authorities.
- The state of nature is dangerous and inconvenient. While one’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property still exist, no one is sure how to enforce and apply these rights fairly and impartially in the absence of an authority.
- To escape the state of nature, people contract, or mutually agree, to give up their perfect freedom in order to guarantee these natural rights and live in a fair and just society.
- The social contract, therefore, establishes the rules governing a society or state; these rules are legitimate because the governed themselves have mutually and freely consented to them.
Tell the students to imagine that they are currently in a state of nature. For example, ask them to suppose there are no rules governing their classroom and that each student is perfectly free to pursue her own self-interest during this time. Emphasize that each individual is perfectly free, so that “no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his [or her] own consent” (Locke, §95). Ask them what the class would look like if they were to stay in this state of nature. How conducive would this class be to their academic success? Most will see that it is in their own self-interest to have rules. Once they realize this, they will likely raise such questions as the following:
- Should all the rules be decreed by the teacher?
- Should students have any voice in how the class runs?
- Do they as students have any inalienable rights, such as the right to receive additional help from the teacher when they don’t understand a concept, or the right to express their opinions without fear of ridicule from other students?
Explain next what a social contract means, emphasizing that they will have to give up some of their perfect freedom in order to have guidelines and rules for the conduct of the class. Students will, therefore, have to negotiate and compromise with each other to function together day to day in the course.
Break the students down into four to five person teams, and distribute the collated answers to the students’ questionnaires. Have each group appoint a scribe to create a document that contains all their choices, breaking the rules into three categories of rights and obligations:
- The teacher
- The citizen-student
- The civil classroom
Each category corresponds to one of the three articles of the constitution. Each team must negotiate and reach agreement on their top three responses to each of the questions. They should also feel free to write a new response if they think that something essential is missing from the lists. Stipulate that each team must aim at unanimity at this stage of the exercise, but if a group is really deadlocked, then they should either throw out the responses about which they can’t agree or include them all. Often times, the other groups will have selected the principles that have caused the deadlock anyway.
Reconvene the entire class and invite each group to report on its choices. At this stage, the students should critique each proposed rule. As they negotiate the articles of their constitution, the following problems inevitably arise and must be addressed:
- How many rules should each article have?
- Should rules be chosen by a simple majority, a two-thirds majority, or unanimity?
- Does majority rule quash minority rights?
- Who’s going to enforce the rules?
- Can the constitution be amended later in the class?
Students generally have strong opinions on all these matters, and they often will be willing to try to convince each other of their positions. The instructor should referee and ask questions, not guide them to a predetermined outcome. Nevertheless, it is important to remind them that everyone, including the teacher, will have to live with the rules they choose.
Constitutional Convention Activity (Day 2)
On the second day of class, hold a constitutional convention in which students will ratify their constitution. Consider the following example of an actual, student-written constitution.
Sample Student Constitution
Article I: The Teacher
The teacher of this course should always strive to:
- Be organized, consistent, clear about expectations;
- Review material before tests;
- Show relevance to the modern world whenever possible;
- Be open-minded and flexible;
- Give opportunity for student feedback on the teacher.
Article II: The Citizen-Student
Students of this course should always strive to:
- Be prepared and organized;
- Pay attention;
- Participate and try to be curious about learning;
- Be comfortable taking risks;
- Take the class seriously.
Article III: Civil Society
All members of the classroom community should:
- Be respectful. Respect means;
- No pressuring or hazing others;
- Don’t be disruptive;
- Don’t be arrogant;
- Be accepting of others.
At the end of the lesson, explain to the students how they have now done what Locke was describing: they have moved from a state of nature to a civil classroom society based on mutual consent.
Using social contract theory to have the students create their own constitution encourages student ownership of their education. The exercise not only teaches students Locke’s contractarianism, but it also shows them how it can be used practically to create a classroom environment that will foster their education. Students learn the value of arguing for their views, as they quickly see that giving an opinion without a good reason often carries little weight with their peers. Students often carry this lesson with them into subsequent discussions throughout the course. Students also learn autonomy and responsibility because the lesson turns students into legislators for their course. They, thereby, see what it means “to be a law unto themselves,” instead of having rules imposed upon them. They also see the need to take personal responsibility for the rules that they have written.
Below are the questions that can be used on the questionnaire. This questionnaire has been adapted from Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth program, where it was used as an icebreaker exercise for a logic course.
Please take the time to answer the questions below. Your responses will help give me a better idea of who you are and how I can be effective as your teacher this year. We’ll also be using some of these answers to develop a classroom “social contract.” ALL ANSWERS ARE ANONYMOUS! But, I may share answers without identifying you with the class.
COMPLETE THE FOLLOWING SENTENCES:
1. Myavorite teacher EVER always used to…
2. I believe that as a student I am responsible for…
3. I don’t like it when other students in my class…
4. I would also like you to know that…