Defining a “Spiritual Person” in a Social Conscience Course

The word “spirituality” has emerged in the last decade to express a sense of something that is beyond the visible but is not considered overtly “religious.”  HKIS has a Spirituality SLR (student learning result) and is committed as an institution to verify through data gathering that the outcomes of our instruction match the SLRs.

Our Spirituality SLR reads:

Students will understand and respect Christianity and other religions and will identify and develop their own spiritual identity.

This Spirituality SLR was promulgated in 1997 as part of a ten-year strategic planning process, and the actual definition has changed little over the last 13 years.  This SLR was constructed by administrators and teachers at HKIS; students were not part of the process of creating this definition.

Several years ago I did a small action research project with my Humanities I in Action students to provide some input concerning this definition.  Using a questionnaire, I first asked my students whether they considered this course to be “spiritual.”  Eighty percent of the students responded affirmatively, even though religion was not part of the formal curriculum and the word “spiritual” was not often used in class discussions.  Then I asked students students to to define what “spiritual” meant to them.   After collecting the questionnaires,  I summarized each student’s definition of spirituality, combined all the definitions into one, presented this definition to students, and asked them to critique my summary statement.  Given their definitions, it also seemed useful to change the subject of definition from the abstract “spirituality” to the embodied “spiritual person.”  This is the resulting definition of a spiritual person:

From the self-understanding that comes from an exploration of the heart, the spiritual person develops an inner state of contentment and an alertness to the world, which leads to new connections with others and service to society.

Comparing the two definitions, a number of differences are striking.  First, students describe the dispositions and actions of a spiritual person, while the school focuses more on the religious knowledge that a student understands.  Second, students perceive a spiritual person to be relationally engaged with others, while the school’s definition makes no such claim.  The students deliberately connect the inner life of a spiritual person to service to the world, while the school’s definition assumes that spiritual development can occur apart from community involvement.

Perhaps it can be argued that the school is speaking more broadly, while the students are responding within the particular context of a service learning class.  This is a valid consideration.  Nonetheless, the larger points still stands.  Grade nine students seem to have a more personal, ethical, relational and action-0riented definition of a spiritual person than the school’s definition of spirituality.  The students’ formulation seems to hold themselves to a higher standard.  In so doing, I would argue, it appeals to the idealistic nature of adolescents who are searching for identity, life purpose, and positive social change.

This action research project raises a number of questions:

  1. Why does the school’s definition of spirituality include religion content?  Should religious knowledge and spirituality be included in the same definition?  They seem to be differentiated in the students’ minds.  Could a separate “religious knowledge SLR” include religious content, while a spirituality SLR would refer to the thoughts and actions of someone who is considered “spiritual?”
  2. The student responses deal far more with the dispositional qualities of  being a spiritual person.  How can these dispositions of the spiritual person be considered in our assessment of the Spirituality SLR?
  3. Is there a process in place by which a student-generated definition of a spiritual person could be proposed as a potential replacement of the school’s current Spirituality SLR?
  4. Educational objectives are primarily established by administrators and teachers.  What role should student voice play in the formation of objectives that most directly affect the students themselves?

Over my twenty years at HKIS I have been challenged to re-consider the stereotypical image of students as cynical and resistant to spiritual exploration.  To the contrary, when engaged with curricular material exploring life’s big questions and contemporary issues that matter to humankind’s future, students have responded with sincerity, maturity, and determination.  It is hoped that when students express  such high values that they will feel empowered by the community to further explore these ideals and to put them into practice.

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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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