Part I The Roles of the Social Conscience Teacher: Literature Review

My colleague Mike Kersten is thanked by his class at their Cambodia Night presentation for his leadership in creating a new course at HKIS, “Asian History in Action: Cambodia.”  Student comments attest to the personal growth that they experienced from the course, and enrollment has more than doubled for next year.

The Roles of the Social Conscience Teacher: Literature Review

This is the first entry of a two-part series about the roles that teachers play in facilitating  development of students’ social conscience.  Both come directly from my dissertation.  The first entry is an excerpt from the literature review, while the second describes my research findings.  While I considered attempting to merge the two into a “definitive” statement, I believe that both the review and the findings accurately describe aspects of my own teaching practice and those that I interviewed for my research. I also feel it is best to include both entries as excerpts from my dissertation rather than risking over-simplification in pursuit of some imagined larger synthesis.  Rather, additional research is needed to further refine these ideas.  


The process of social conscience development, once properly understood, helps teachers recognize and respond to the transformation students may undergo in their courses.  Within the transformation paradigm, social conscience educators may need to think of their own roles as teachers in potentially new ways as well. A review of literature suggests that the four most important roles of social conscience educators are: a model of authenticity; a facilitator of provocation; an empathetic mentor; and a facilitator of wonder and hope.

Model of Authenticity

The first role of a social conscience teacher is as a model of authenticity.  Social conscience educators need to be authentic in all dealings with students.  From grading, to the choice of curricular content, to disciplining of students, the educator for social conscience needs to understand that honesty and transparency are necessary to model and facilitate the desired attributes of students.  Cranton’s (2006) qualitative study found that teachers perceive authentic educators as having five characteristics: self-awareness; awareness of others; relationships; awareness of the teaching context; and critical reflection.  The most important area of authenticity for teachers was in relationships with their students, especially their enjoyment in sharing classroom power with them.  Cranton and Carusetta (2004) found that teacher authenticity oftentimes results in their own transformation, which supports the overall goal of the classroom as a site of transformation.

Teachers should not underestimate their own effectiveness as role models. Adolescents who are in courses that bring disorientation are likely to be in search of role models to guide them through their uncertainty. What is vitally important, Kristjannson (2006) argues, is for teachers to be able to engage in dialogue with students about the reasons for being and acting as a moral person.  Such dialogue between teachers and their students contributes to the cognitive dimension of moral reasoning.  Equally important, Kristjannson (2006) suggests, is the affective impact of teacher role modeling in which the quality of teachers’ moral example “evokes in moral learners an inwardly experienced, emotionally driven demand for self-transformation” (p. 48, italics in original).  Kristjannson’s dual emphases on the cognitive and affective influences of teacher role-modeling upon students resonate with the cognitive and affective definition of social conscience advanced in the previous section of the chapter, as one involving perspective transformation and relatedness.

Qualitative studies have indicated that students indeed desire to engage with adults, including teachers, about life issues.  Yamashita (2006) found that British youth want to hear what their teachers think personally about issues related to war, even though teachers are hesitant to express their opinions for fear of indoctrinating students.  In their qualitative research on Swedish youth, Adamson, Hartman, and Lyxell (1999) found that all twelve participants desired contact with adults because of their knowledge and experience.

Facilitator of Provocation

The second role that the social conscience teacher needs to embody is as a facilitator of provocation.  Teachers of social conscience should first consider that the entire educational enterprise is not a neutral exercise. The well-known Freirian quote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral” (Freire, 1985, p. 102), asserts that a non-partisan approach about social realities actually legitimates the status quo. Social conscience educators should realize that they can choose to either confirm the status quo or raise questions about the very nature of its existence (Taylor, 1998).   To assume an air of neutrality for the sake of objectivity, Nord (2001) argues, violates the principle of being authentic with students.  Teachers of social conscience should not only be able to recognize inequality, but they should actively reveal injustices for student consideration. Such provocation causes students to re-think their basic assumptions about society. Thus, teachers may think of themselves as “provocateurs” (Cranton, 2006, p. 108) who intentionally pursue personal and social transformation.

On the other hand, it needs to be emphasized that reform-minded teachers need to balance the end goal of social change with the more immediate and primary goal of facilitating students’ critical thinking.  Teachers have an ethical responsibility to make sure that they do not impose their views, forcing students to adopt a certain point of view.  Students need to be given the freedom to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions, which may be different from the teacher’s perspective.  Oxfam’s (2006) roles of the teacher are helpful in this regard.  In order to facilitate critical thinking, they suggest that teachers use a variety of pedagogical stances, which include: impartial chairperson (which ensures that a variety of student perspectives are heard); a balanced approach (in which teachers present multiple perspectives); declared interest (in which teachers voice their own opinion to stimulate classroom discussion); commitment (in which teachers reveal their opinion); and devil’s advocate.  One practical suggestion in this regard is for teachers to openly engage students about the dilemma of striking a balance between reform and indoctrination to help students gain a critical perspective on not only the material, but on the class itself.  In the end, the delicate balance required to be a teacher of social conscience requires a high degree of integrity on the part of the teacher.

Empathetic Mentor

The third role of the social conscience teacher is that of empathetic mentor.  Teachers themselves come to courses emphasizing social conscience from different personal points of departure.  Some may consider their role as primarily academic in nature, while others may find themselves personally engaged by their own process of transformation.  Those who see their role from mainly an academic perspective may enhance their effectiveness by developing an empathetic understanding of the emotional impact of the material upon students.  On the other hand, those teachers passionate about their own growth and enthusiastic about the materials themselves need to remember that students are not in the same developmental place concerning social issues as they are, nor do they have the same life experience or maturity.  Regardless of the teacher’s starting point, being an empathetic mentor  is crucial for the safe passage of students through courses that aim to develop students’ social conscience.

Social conscience educators need to understand that the breakdown of existing thought structures is often a psychologically painful experience for students, analogous for some to a death and re-birth experience (Evans, 1998).  Teachers need to be sensitive to phases of disorientation and shock that students may experience.  Kiely’s (2004) longitudinal study of the effect of powerful service learning experiences upon university students demonstrated that the psychic disruption can last for years.  While service learning research generally reveals many benefits that students receive, Kiely’s ‘chameleon effect’ cautions that the inner transformation that service experiences may prompt can be quite problematic when students return to society, intending to actualize their new realizations into conventional social structures.

Another example of the disorientation that occurs in social conscience education is the experience of guilt (Mezirow, 2000), a common moral emotion that occurs in the context of relationships when one person has harmed another (Allen & Rosatto, 2009; Haidt, 2003).  Perspective transformation, which heightens students’ understanding of power dynamics in society, and the new-found relatedness of students to others who are often disadvantaged, may lead to a sense of guilt among students, especially those who are privileged.  Teachers should understand, however, the nature of guilt and the positive role it can play.  Guilt reveals a moral force at work in young people’s consciences.  Because guilt usually specifies that one’s actions are wrong, rather than one’s self (Lewis, 1993), guilt can be assuaged through actions that restore the broken relationship (Haidt, 2003).  While in the case of classroom disorientation, the relatedness that has caused guilt may often be quite abstract, this same sense of abstraction can offer a guilt-reducing response: acting to benefit anyone that has been harmed by the society of which the student is a part can lessen the inchoate sense of guilt experienced by students. The need to relieve guilt underscores the importance of an action component in the adolescent’s process of transformation.

Teachers need to strike various balances in mentoring students through their journeys of social conscience development.  On the one hand, teachers should recognize the emotional trauma that course materials and experiences may cause, while on the other hand they should not move too prematurely to dissolve uncertainty.  Another example of finding the right balance is that teachers should aim to sustain students’ willingness to act on their growing intimations of purpose and self-efficacy, all the while encouraging students to continue to ponder their assumption-shaping questions about the human condition (Fry, 1998).  Thus, teaching for social conscience includes use of Freire’s (1970) concept of ‘praxis’, an alternating dynamic of action and reflection.  These balances are characteristic of the sensitivity and empathy needed to sustain students through their journey and bring them safely to a new cognitive and affective dimension.

Facilitator of Wonder and Hope

The fourth role of the social conscience teacher is as a facilitator of wonder and hope.  Parks (2005) states, “Consciousness and conscience are best schooled at the crossroads of suffering and wonder. Suffering and wonder pose the biggest questions” (p. 302).  In a social conscience curriculum, it is not difficult to introduce suffering to students, to shock them into disorientation, and to prompt the critical questioning of long-held assumptions.  The harder task is to foster a sense of wonder and realistic hope for students to consider.  Allen (1999) calls on social conscience educators to make their classrooms places of hope, in addition to places of critique and action.  Indeed, the social conscience classroom needs to have the underlying presence of wonder and hope as animating forces in the interaction of teachers and students.

As facilitators of wonder and hope, teachers of social conscience can draw upon three resources in the classroom.  First, as Palmer (1998) states, teachers may teach from a place of hope.  Bracher (2006) makes the case that educators, who have reflected deeply on the state of their own soul, find not only dark motives of selfish desire and self-aggrandizement, but they also find innate altruistic motivations to contribute to the well-being of others.  The teacher can serve as a role model for students, provided they have weighed the evidence of the global situation, and yet have remained committed to social change.

The second place of wonder and hope is in the curriculum itself.  Realizing that personal challenges in the social conscience classroom can be stressful for students, teachers need to include stories of people, especially young people, who have confronted these issues, made sense of them, and then acted courageously to contribute to positive change.  Furthermore, humanities teachers need to include materials in the curriculum that elicit hope.  One intriguing research study found that reflection upon moral, aesthetic, or natural beauty in the classroom results in a measurable increase of hope (Diessner, Rust, Solom, Frost, & Parsons, 2006).  Moreover, Kelter and Haidt (2003) make the case that experiences with awe, wonder, mystery, and beauty may be one of the most powerful and effective means to personal growth.    These studies suggest that in order to teach towards social conscience teachers can draw upon the power of the rich, wonder-inducing artistic resources of humanity (Edmundson, 1997; Handley, 2001); explore imaginative visions of what social life could be (Jennings & Prewitt, 1985; Parks, 2005); situate the entire human enterprise within a universe of breath-taking, awe-inspiring mystery (Purpel, 2004; Shapiro, 2006); and initiate learners into mysteries that suggest paths of transformation (Cook-Sather, 2006).

The third source of hope within the social conscience classroom is from within students themselves.  As students wrestle with curricular questions of hope and despair in the midst of their own existential concerns of adolescence, Ellsworth (1999) suggests that the very engagement with such philosophical questions can bring them relief that their concerns are being substantively addressed. Discussions about meaningful topics can bring classes together, which gives rise to hope.  The transformation of thoughts, feelings, and actions of teachers and students in the social conscience classroom suggests that change is possible. Inspiration can emerge from within the class itself.


Adamson, L., Hartman, S.G. & Lyxell, B (1999). Adolescent identity – a qualitative approach: Self-concept, existential questions, and adult contacts.  Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 40, 21-31.

Allen, J. (1999). A community of critique, hope, and action. In J. Allen’s (Ed.), Class actions: Teaching for social justice in elementary and middle school (pp. 1-17). New York: Teachers College.

Allen, R.L. & Rosatto, C. (2009). Does critical pedagogy work with privileged students?  Teacher Education Quarterly.

Bracher, M. (2006). Radical pedagogy: Identity, generativity, and social transformation.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan.  

Cook-Sather. A. (2006). Newly betwixt and between: Revising liminality in the context of a teacher preparation program. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 110-127.

Cranton, P. (2006). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators of adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cranton, P. & Carusetta, E. (2004) Developing authenticity as a transformative process. Journal of Transformative Education, 2, 276-293.

Diessner, R., Rust, T., Solom, R.C., Frost, N., Parsons, L. (2006).  Beauty and hope: A moral beauty intervention. Journal of Moral Education, 35, 301-317.

Edmundson, M. (1997). On the uses of liberal education.  Harper’s Magazine, 295, 39-59.

Ellsworth, J. (1999). Today’s adolescent: Addressing existential dread. Adolescence, 34, 403-408.

Evans, D. (1998). Conscientization and mobilization. In Torsten Husen [et. al.] (Ed.), Education: The complete encyclopedia (pp. 1-5). New York: Pergaman.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herder.

Freire, P. (1985) The Politics of Education. New York: Bergin and Garvey.

Fry, P. (1998). The development of personal meaning and wisdom in adolescence: A reexamination of moderating and consolidating factors and influences. In P. Wong  & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 91-110). Marwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Haidt, J. (2003). The moral emotions.  In Davidson, R.J., Scherer, K.R., & Goldsmith,H.H. (Eds.), Handbook of affective sciences (pp. 852-870).  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Handley, G. B. (2001). The humanities and citizenship: A challenge for service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 6, 123-137.

Jennings, B. & Prewitt, K. (1985). “The humanities and the social sciences: Reconstructing a public philosophy. In D. Callahan, A.L. Caplan, & B. Jennings (Eds), Applying the humanities (pp. 125-143).  New York: Plenum

Kelter, D. & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297-314.

Kiely, R. (2004). A chameleon with a complex: Searching for transformation in international service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 10, 5-20.

Kristjannson, K. (2006). Emulation and the use of role models in moral education. Journal of Moral Education, 35, 37-49.

Lewis, M. (1993).  Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In M. Lewis & J. Haviland (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 563-573). New York: Guilford Press.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of tranformation theory. In J. Mezirow & Associates, (Eds.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress (pp. 3-34). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Oxfam (2006). Global citizenship guides: Teaching controversial issues. Oxford: Oxfam.  Accessed on December 28, 2008 from

Nord, W. A. (2001). Moral disagreement, moral education, common ground. In D. Ravitch & J.P. Viteritti (Eds), Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life.  San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Parks, S.D. (2005). How then shall we live? Suffering and wonder in the new commons. In S.M. Intrator (Ed.), Living the questions: Essays inspired by the work and life of Parker J. Palmer (pp. 298-320). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Purpel, D.E. (2004). A curriculum for social justice and compassion. In D.E. Purpel & W.M. McLaurin, Jr. (Eds), Reflections on the moral and spiritual crisis in education (pp. 226-260).  New York: Peter Lang.

Shapiro, H. S. (2006). Losing heart: The moral and spiritual miseducation of American children. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum 

Taylor, E. W. (1998) The theory and practice of transformative learning: A critical review. ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training for Employment, College of Education, the Ohio State University.

Yamashita, H. (2006). Global citizenship education and war: The needs of teachers and learners. Educational Review, 58, 27-39.

To cite my dissertation research:

Schmidt, M.E. (2009). Teaching for social conscience in Hong Kong secondary schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Western Australia,  Perth, Australia.


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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One Response to Part I The Roles of the Social Conscience Teacher: Literature Review

  1. Pingback: Use of Mezirow’s Adult Transformative Learning Theory in High School | Social Conscience Education

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