Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

2009 Action Teaching Award: Honorable Mention

SPN Action Teaching Award    The Social Psychology Network Action Teaching Award entry below received Honorable Mention in 2009. Instructors are welcome to use or adapt this material for their own classes, provided the use is noncommercial and appropriate credit is given to the Honorable Mention recipient.

For additional details, please see the SPN Action Teaching Award home page.

Honorable Mention
Title: Humane Education Resource Center
Submitted by: Zoe Weil (Institute for Humane Education)
Category: Web-based resource
For students/learners in: Graduate school, college, high school, grade school
Objective(s): To help students understand issues related to peace, social justice, and sustainable living in ways that involve critical and creative thinking, a respect for other people and cultures, and a reverence for life


Institute for Humane Education The Institute for Humane Education is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more socially just and peaceful world through humane education. As part of this effort, we have developed a Humane Education Resource Center offering free resources such as:

  1. Humane Education Activities:

    • Multi-Issue Activities
    • Environmental Preservation Activities
    • Animal Protection Activities
    • Culture and Change Activities
    • Human Rights Activities
    • Humane Education in Minutes

  2. Categorized Listing of Useful Links

  3. Archives of Humane Edge E-News

  4. Books and Other Resources on Humane Issues

  5. Sample IHE Student Work

  6. Humane Education Jobs and Internships

The centerpiece of the Humane Education Resource Center is a set of free downloadable activities that teachers and change-makers can use for all ages and in a range of settings to teach about social justice, environmental preservation, animal protection, culture and change, and the links between these issues.

The format of these activities enables teachers to meet learning objectives in their subjects while incorporating action teaching to enliven their classes; bring relevant global issues into their curricula; engage students in ways that build character, compassion, and generosity; and contribute to the growth of humane education action teaching. A brief overview of three sample activities follow, with web links to their full description.

Alien in the Ethical Universe

In Alien in the Ethical Universe, an activity for middle and high school students, the teacher plays the role of an alien who visits Earth and tries to understand how to behave on our planet. Using a series of questions about how humans are supposed to treat each other and animals, the alien helps students examine human values and actions from an outside perspective, including cases in which people's actions and values conflict (e.g., as a result of racism, sexism, classism, speciesism, homophobia, and so forth). Such an activity paves the way for deeper reflection, critical thinking, and changed behaviors when students uncover inconsistencies in society as well as in their own behavior.

Analyzing Advertising

In Analyzing Advertising, students in middle school through college examine advertisements and answer the following questions:

  • What product or service is the ad selling?
  • What deep need or desire is the ad appealing to? (Does the ad appeal to a desire for love, happiness, wealth, beauty, friendship, power, joy, or something else?)
  • Who is the intended audience, and what do you think their reaction might be?
  • Who is excluded by the ad (e.g., what classes, races, body types, etc.)?
  • What suffering, exploitation, or destruction is hidden from view? (That is, what harm to people, animals, or the environment does the production or service cause?)

By considering these questions, students build their resistance to media manipulation, and in so doing, become better able to make choices aligned with their values. What makes this particular activity different from other media literacy lessons is the final question, which asks students to think beyond the ways in which they are targets of manipulation and consider the effects of the actual products. For example, if the ad is for an SUV, beer, cosmetics, or clothing, how does the product affect the environment, other species, and human well-being? Such questions provide opportunities for delving into the impact of our choices and enable students to make humane, sustainable, and peaceful choices that take others into account.

The World's Most Powerful Animal

One example of an activity we offer for grade school children is The World's Most Powerful Animal, in which the teacher enters the classroom with two boxes and a letter, and asks the children to help solve a make-believe mystery:

"As I was on my way here, I passed through a forest. I was deep in thought, not really looking where I was going. Then suddenly, I bumped into a large tree. When I looked at the tree, I saw this Letter From the Universe tucked into a branch. I took it down, and to my surprise, saw that it was addressed to all of us! Under the letter were these two little boxes. I found this all a little puzzling, so I thought I'd bring the letter and boxes here so that we can solve the mystery together."

The letter explains that one of the boxes contains the most dangerous animal in the world, and the other contains the most powerful animal (each box is carefully labeled and crafted with breathing holes). After reading the letter out loud, the teacher peers into the box labeled "most dangerous animal" and expresses shock before passing the box around to the students. As the children, one by one, open the lid and peer into the box, a mirror on the bottom reflects their own face. After discussing in an age-appropriate way how certain human activities endanger the environment, other animals, and each other, the teacher looks into the second box, and breaks into a smile when peering inside. Again the teacher passes the box, and again the children see their own reflection. This time, the teacher explores the concept of using our power to solve problems and make the world a better place, eliciting ideas, examples, and inspiration from the children.

Additional Resources

To see dozens of other teaching activities, I invite you to visit the Humane Education Resource Center and explore the materials there. As more teachers and change-makers visit and use the Resource Center, they too become contributors, creating new activities that we can post and share with an ever-growing audience. The students and graduates of our Master of Education in Humane Education program (the first such accredited program in the United States) continue to contribute activities that become part of this growing body of lessons available to humane educators in elementary and secondary classrooms, colleges, learning centers, camps, religious institutions, and communities around the world.

Finally, a few words about the other resources: our Humane Edge e-newsletter, book and film suggestions, relevant web links, student work, and job and internship possibilities add to the body of knowledge and opportunities for action teaching. Again, I hope that you will visit the Resource Center and browse the links and information we have posted there.

Advice on Implementation

Each item in the Resource Center includes detailed descriptions of how to use the activity or lesson, appropriate grade/age, time required, materials needed, information pertinent to the particular activity, and relevant school subjects that are covered in the activity. In addition, many activity pages offer variations, extensions, and follow-up ideas. In the teaching activity section of the Resource Center, there are activities that can be used as icebreakers, activities that can be modified into a semester-long course of study, and everything in between.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Perhaps the greatest pitfall for a change-maker or action teacher is to unwittingly manipulate or indoctrinate students. When we are passionate about a topic, even if the goal is seemingly universal or generally accepted (e.g., being kind, not littering, helping others in need), we may fail to distinguish between fact on the one hand and opinion or ideology on the other.

One way that teachers can address this issue is by acknowledging their biases and urging students to think for themselves. For example, I often tell students not to believe what I tell them. They're usually surprised to hear a teacher say this, but I explain that I want them to have the tools and motivation to find out whether the information I provide is accurate or is, instead, my opinion disguised as fact. If someone came to their school the next day and said the opposite of what I said, I would want them to use their research and thinking skills to determine the truth for themselves.

Evidence of Usage and Effectiveness

"The world becomes what you teach."

~Motto of the Institute for Humane Education
Usage statistics. We routinely hear from users of our web site that there is no other place where they can obtain teaching materials that not only cover a range of social justice, environmental, and animal protection topics, but that interrelate these topics. Currently, our web site receives about 3,000 unique visitors monthly with about 10,000 page views per month. To give a rough sense of what our usage is with respect to a specific classroom activity, "The World's Most Powerful Animal" activity has now been downloaded approximately 1,000 times.

A note on effectiveness. I developed and have implemented many of the activities listed in our Resource Center, and although I haven't conducted formal assessment studies, I've witnessed the powerful effect of these activities in my 20+ years as a humane educator. Dozens of school clubs have formed to address issues that were initially covered in humane education classes. I still receive letters from students whose classrooms I visited a handful of times 15-20 years ago. When former students tell me that they continue to make humane and sustainable choices based on lessons and activities that sparked their interest as teens, or when they say that they've become a public interest lawyer or AIDS activist because of a humane education activity in middle school, I recognize the profound power of these activities to create a humane and peaceful world. As our Institute's motto states, "The world becomes what you teach."

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