Part II The Roles of the Social Conscience Teacher: Research Findings

In May 2010 I took a small group of senior students from my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class to visit the Foshan Orphanage.  During one of the afternoons we set aside time to visit a nearby park called Liang Garden.  In our two hours at the garden, we observed a “Noble Silence”, a time for students to think about their experience coming or returning to Foshan, especially in light of their graduation in about three weeks time.  Service trips such as these which are imbedded within courses require teachers to balance a variety of different roles.  

The Roles of the Social Conscience Teacher: Research Findings

The second entry in this series about the roles of the social conscience teacher also comes directly from my dissertation.  Whereas the first entry was taken from the literature review, this excerpt summarizes my empirical findings.  In my research I interviewed teachers and students from Hong Kong International School and a local school located on Hong Kong island about social conscience education.  I also gathered documentary evidence (e.g., essays, student evaluations, assignments) to understand student perspectives on this topic.  The entry below is a synthesis of my research done at both schools regarding the roles of the social conscience teacher, and is taken from my cross-case analysis chapter. 

Theme: The three essential roles of the social conscience teacher are curriculum innovator, pedagogue of critical thinking, and empathetic mentor. 

This theme directly addresses the central research question concerning what should humanities teachers consider when teaching courses aimed at developing students’ social conscience.  Data suggests that teachers should consider themselves playing three distinct, yet inter-related roles in order to facilitate social conscience growth in their students.  The three roles are curriculum innovator, pedagogue of critical thinking, and empathetic mentor.  Each role is addressed in turn in the form of a proposition.

Proposition 1: One role of social conscience teachers is to be a curriculum innovator, who creates units of study that confront students with local and global issues that students find engaging and worthy of study.  Since students believe that the study of contemporary issues is vital to the development of social conscience, teachers should include current issues in their curricula in order to demonstrate the relevance of humanities courses to students’ lives.  Teachers, especially those in local school systems, should consider the possibility that their students may be far more interested in international issues than teachers presume. 

Davies (2006) observes that there is almost no qualitative research that has been carried out on children’s needs with regard to global citizenship education.  She adds, “Had one consulted young people or listened to them one would [have] found the requirement for hard-hitting approaches and treatment of uncomfortable issues” (p. 21).  The qualitative data generated in this study clearly show that students, as well as teachers, at both schools believed strongly that students need to consider pressing contemporary issues which young people judge as important.  This strong preference for studying current issues is supported by many commentators (Banks, 2006; Elliott, 2007; Oxfam, 2006) and may be called “issues-based education” (Hicks, 2007, p.  5).  Leung’s (2006) study corroborates this finding, suggesting that one of the three conditions necessary to create active global citizens in Hong Kong schools is to teach from an issues-based perspective.  This desire for “hard-hitting approaches” was epitomized in the research undertaken for this thesis by the frequency and intensity with which students at School A spoke about the topic of genocide.  Student interviews indicated that their high emotional engagement in this topic was due to the fact that genocide was not simply a part of history (e.g., the Holocaust), but has happened in their lifetime (e.g., Rwanda), and continues unabated to this day in Darfur, evidence of which can be easily accessed through the Internet.

Students at both schools, and teachers at School A, were in agreement that global issues needed to be a part of the social conscience curriculum.  However, most of the local teachers felt that their students had little interest in global events, and that emphasis should be placed instead on local issues to which students could more easily relate.  When local students were asked if they agreed with their teachers, a number of students passionately explained that Hong Kong, as a relatively small territory, could only be understood from a global perspective. While students at School B were divided between those preferring local issues and those more interested in global concerns, the conclusion that can be drawn is that most students at both schools seem to understand intuitively that they can only understand themselves in the context of a “global gaze” (Marshall, 2005, p. 82).  Thus, a local and global dynamic needs to be present in the study of contemporary issues, an assertion supported by Hicks (2007).  It appears, then, that most students in this study prefer what Marshall (2005) calls a ‘slice’ model, which teaches local and global issues concurrently, rather than a local-regional-global progression approach.

Teaching ever-changing contemporary issues that mesh local and global concerns is a radical departure from traditional humanities curricula rooted in the study of ancient texts.  Thus, social conscience teachers need to see themselves as globally-aware curriculum innovators who select content based to a large degree on student interest of contemporary issues.  While the cost of innovation is preparation time, this study suggests that the rewards are great: students become more engaged, which leads them to develop greater social consciousness.

Proposition 2:  A second role of social conscience teachers is to be a pedagogue of critical thinking.  Teachers should employ interactive, dialogical activities involving multiple perspectives to enhance students’ critical thinking about their role in society.  While developing critical thinking is necessary, teachers also need to bear in mind the importance of maintaining a balance between analysis requiring cognitive distance and personal integration which asks students to care for the material.  Thus, the role of the critical thinking pedagogue includes helping students to make personal connections within the social conscience classroom.

Teachers and students at both research sites conceived of the primary pedagogical role of the teacher of social conscience as one that facilitated critical thinking.  This research, thus, lends support to the conclusion reached in Lee’s (2002) cross-cultural study that there is an “apparent universal emphasis on the need for inquiry, critical thinking, tolerance and interactive teaching in citizenship education” (p. 57).  Although the two schools investigated in this study were at opposite ends of a social conscience continuum, there was a strong desire on behalf of teachers and students at both schools for the elements Lee describes.

Teachers of social conscience make many decisions every day in their teaching, which are likely to affect students’ critical thinking.  From the selection of controversial topics, to the asking of the ‘big questions,’ to the challenging of lifestyle norms, the role of the social conscience teacher is to embarrass, defend, prod, antagonize, shock, voice opposition to, or simply resist premature resolution to the issues being discussed.  Teachers who perceive themselves as provocateurs understand that social conscience growth often begins with disorienting dilemmas, and should aim to create such dissonance.  Yet this provocation needs to be perceived by students as part of the larger mentoring process contributing to student growth.  Drawing upon teacher responses at School A, posturing and provoking should be integrated with authenticity and passion in order to mentor students towards growth.

Studying controversial contemporary issues, as discussed in the previous proposition, is relevant and engaging to student interest, and thus is conducive to critical thinking.  However, highly engaging topics are not sufficient by themselves to reach this goal.  Teachers and students had much to contribute with regard to pedagogical strategies that they believed teachers should consider for the purpose of developing critical thinking.  According to teacher and student interviews, teachers should use a variety of pedagogical stances with regard to classroom discussion.  For example, although students expected teachers to have and sometimes express opinions, students and teachers both agreed that the facilitative role of teachers required that students’ critical thinking should be given priority before the expression of teacher beliefs.  While judicious sharing of a teacher’s opinion can occur, this should be done with the understanding that this expressed view is to be considered as one among many.  Teachers should be careful that their sharing is not perceived as a hint of the most acceptable and meritorious answer.

Analysis of research data also suggested that another balance needs to be struck.  Being a pedagogue of critical thinking could be over-generalized to imply an aloof rationality towards the objects of study.  However, abundant data from school A and some data from School B indicated that teachers need to not only develop academic distance for the sake of analysis, but should at the same time develop students’ capacity for making cognitive, affective, and personal connections between themselves and the curricular materials.  For example, given that the central challenge to social conscience at School A was disconnectedness, developing a “pedagogy of interconnectedness” (Merryfield, Lo, Po, & Kasai, 2008, p. 8) to intentionally link students to the world’s complex web of relationships appears to be a useful strategy.   Teachers at School A often spoke of interconnectedness as a central animating concept in their teaching, and the use of various pedagogical approaches to teach towards this theme was apparent in the interviews.

One of the most effective ways to create connectedness to, and coherence within, the curriculum is to engage students in dialogue about the ‘big questions,’ the perennial questions of humankind, which revolve around issues of personal identity, life purpose, and humans’ relationship to the cosmos.  This focus upon posing the ‘big questions’ is consistent with the views of many educational researchers (Braskamp, 2007; Mustakova-Possardt, 2004a; Nino, 2000).  School A’s teachers repeatedly referred to the importance of asking and discussing these ‘big questions’.  The Humanities I in Action teachers, for example, start their course with a set of worldview questions, and students’ semester and final exams ask them to write, in a critical, yet personal way, about developments in their understanding of themselves in relationship to the world.  Teachers of social conscience should consider these larger questions which undergird contemporary issues in order to provide depth and greater personal connections between students and the material.  Dialogue within the social conscience classroom about these questions, as Noddings (2002) states, is fundamental to students’ moral development.  These findings augment Haste’s (2004) assertion that engaging in dialogue about issues of moral significance is highly motivating to students.

Thus, this second role of the social conscience teacher as pedagogue of critical thinking requires a set of highly complex classroom skills.  Developing critical thinking, for example, implies far more than simply ‘critiquing’ what is being studied.  Critical thinking in this research involves both a differentiating and integrating dynamic that brings students into a holistic understanding of the topics being studied. This duality may be better apprehended through the use of symbol rather than definition.  Borrowing Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002) dance metaphor, students who have a strong orientation towards analytical thinking may need a social conscience course to get them ‘onto the dance floor’.  That is, for students who are overly rational or excessively self-focused, it is important for them to join the ‘dance of life,’ experiencing worlds beyond their own.  On the other hand, naturally empathetic students, or students with intense first-hand experiences, may need to leave the dance floor and ‘get to the balcony’.  Withdrawing, gaining perspective, and analyzing a situation separated from their own emotional inertia may be necessary for the growth of these students.   Thus, the complementary processes of analysis and synthesis from both academic and personal frames of mind are necessary to develop critical thinking in the social conscience classroom.  Thus, critical thinking in the social conscience classroom is a complex dynamic requiring personal and pedagogical finesse on the part of the teacher.

Proposition 3: A third role of the social conscience teacher is to be an empathetic mentor who facilitates the holistic growth of students.  Since social conscience education involves challenging students on an emotional and personal level, in addition to the academic dimension of courses, teachers need to be aware of the multi-dimensional needs of their students.  Most importantly, teachers need to be attuned to the relational dynamics of the classroom, maintain a posture of openness and respect, and seek opportunities to mentor students towards social conscience growth.

One of the chief aims of teaching for social conscience is to support the academic and personal growth of students, which oftentimes requires challenging students on an emotional level.  As students’ assumptions are called into question, they often experience ‘disorienting dilemmas’ (Mezirow, 2000).  Thus, teachers of social conscience need to see their role as one of an empathetic mentor that leads students safely through this journey of disorientation to a more stable and satisfying state of mind.

Being an empathetic mentor means, first, to engage students in ways that go beyond the academic domain of the classroom.  Local students were insistent that teachers needed to go beyond the textbook and to dispense with model answers.  These students called upon teachers to be personally engaged in creating curricula, spending extra time in class preparation, and thinking beyond the government-produced model answers.   Local school and international school students were in strong agreement that they wanted interactive, dialogical, and student-centered teaching methodologies.  Students expressed a desire for learning experiences that aimed at the emotional level.  Most teachers, and especially those at School A, agreed that the social conscience curriculum needed to go ‘beyond the academic’, and pay heed to the emotional and personal dimensions of learning.

Secondly, being an empathetic mentor means promoting relationships in the social conscience classroom.  Students at both schools emphasized that they wanted teachers who are open-minded, respectful, and who seek to develop relationships with them.  Teachers also were aware of the importance of developing relationships with their students.  Teachers in Humanities I in Action, for example, believed that creating a class community was a significant part of the learning process.   The abstract theme of interconnectedness, one teacher explained, could be manifested within the lived relationships of the classroom.  Many teachers and students seemed to intuitively appreciate Tappan’s (2006) observation that a socio-cultural approach to learning “offers a distributed, collective, shared, fundamentally dialogical view of moral development that stands in contrast to the individualistic, atomistic, isolated, fundamentally psychological view that has dominated the field for the past century” (p. 15).  If social conscience aims to enhance the relationship of the self to the community, this connection should begin in the immediate context of classroom relationships (Johnston, 2006).

Mentoring students in the social conscience classroom requires that teachers be attuned to a number of areas in order to facilitate student growth.  First, teachers need to be self-aware, for their own personal growth often serves to guide students about the growth process upon which students are embarking.  Secondly, teachers also need to focus beyond the classroom, keeping themselves abreast of world issues and events, and being willing to draw upon these in their teaching.  Most importantly, teachers need to be aware of the needs of their students, and should remain closely engaged in their growth process throughout a course.  This process often begins in an outward direction of awareness-raising and exploration of issues and events, but the emotionally engaging nature of teaching for social conscience necessitates attention by teachers to the inward dimensions of the learning process.  Teachers need to intentionally address this inner dimension, assisting students to reflect upon their learning experiences.


Banks, J.A. (2006) Cultural diversity and education: Foundation, curriculum, and teaching.  Boston: Pearson.

Braskamp, L. (2007). Three “central” questions worth asking. Journal of College and Character, IX, 1, 1-7. Accessed on December 28, 2008 from

Davies, L. (2006). Global citizenship: Abstraction or framework for action? Educational Review, 58, 5-25.

Elliott, John (2007). A curriculum for the study of human affairs: The contribution of Lawrence Stenhouse.  In Ian Westbury and Geoff Milburn (Eds.) Rethinking schools: Twenty-five years of the journal of curriculum studies (pp. 281-298).  London: Routledge.

Haste, H. (2004). Constructing the citizen. Political Psychology, 25, 413-439.

Heifetz, R. A., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Hicks, D. (2007). Responding to the world. In D. Hicks & C. Holden (Eds.), Teaching the global dimension: Key principles and effective practice (pp. 3-13).  London: Routledge.

Johnston, D.K. (2006). Education for a caring society: Classroom relationships and moral action. New York: Teachers College Press.

Leung, Y.W. (2006). How do they become socially/politically active? Case studies of Hong Kong secondary students’ political socialisation.  Citizenship Teaching and Learning, 2, 2. Retrieved on March 16, 2007, from

Marshall, H. (2005). Developing the global gaze in citizenship education: Exploring the perspectives of global education NGO workers in England. International journal of citizenship and teacher education, 1, 76-92.

Merryfield, M., Lo, J.T.Y., Po, S.C., & Kasai, M. (2008) Worldmindedness: Taking off the blinders.  Journal of Curriculum and Instruction, 1, 2, 6-20. Accessed on April 8, 2009 at

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.

Mustakova-Possardt, Elena (2004).  Critical consciousness – motivation for service to humanity. Keynote plennary address, Baha_’i_ Conference on Social and Economic Development for the Americas, Orlando, FL, December 16-19, 2004.

Nino, A.G. (2000). Spiritual quest among young adults.  In V.H. Kazanjian & P.L. Lawrence (Eds.), Education as transformation: Religious pluralism, spirituality, and a new vision for higher education in America (pp. 45-57)New York: Peter Lang.

Noddings, Nel (2002). Educating moral people: A caring alternative to character education. New York: Teachers College Press.

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

Tappan, M.B. (2006). Moral functioning as mediated action. Journal of Moral Education, 35, 1-18.

To cite my 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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5 Responses to Part II The Roles of the Social Conscience Teacher: Research Findings

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