Defining Social Conscience at an International School in Hong Kong

One of my students, Nicole, visiting an elderly home in Hong Kong.  As part of her Personal Action Project that she undertook as part of her Humanities I in Action course this  year, Nicole arranged for a company in Hong Kong to donate refrigerators, air conditioners, and microwaves to this home.    Nicole’s strong efforts on this project illustrate key elements of social conscience education, which is defined in the following entry. 


Since my blog is entitled “social conscience education,” it seems important to define this central concept as it came to be understood in my research as well as to provide some reflection on the term itself.  In this entry I will define social conscience from my research with teachers and students at Hong Kong International School.  In a subsequent entry I will consider the term social conscience from the perspective of teachers and students at a local Chinese school in Hong Kong.

Choosing the Term Social Conscience as Part of my Research Question

As a humanities teacher at an international school who as part of his job description also carries out human care work with the Lutheran Church in Asia, my initial impulse in August, 2005 as I started brainstorming my research question for my doctoral dissertation with the University of Western Australia, was to study Christian students in humanities courses that studied global problems.  The first question I proposed was:

From the perspectives of students and teachers, how do Christian students from a high socioeconomic status deal with troubling issues presented in the humanities classroom in three international schools in Asia?

My professor for the first course was Dr. Tom O’Donoghue.  In email exchanges following this introductory course in August, 2005, Tom suggested that what I was really after in my research was growth in social conscience among students.  When he first mentioned this term in an email, I was immediately taken by it.  For it seemed to take the concept of conscience; a powerful, internally-referenced moral starting point, which students understand as searching one’s heart for the truth about oneself in relationship with others; and then modifying and extending this concept by projecting this moral inner voice into the social domain.  In the age of the Internet, social conscience could easily be inclusive of anyone or anything on a global scale, a broadness of scope that I felt would appeal to international school students.

Over the next six months my central research question became better defined:

From the perspectives of students and teachers, what do humanities teachers need to consider when teaching courses aimed at developing social conscience among adolescent students in Hong Kong?

The troubling issue of determining who qualifies as a Christian student was dropped, and the focus became the study of students and teachers at an international school and a local school in Hong Kong, both of which are part of the Lutheran church. Rather than focusing on affluent students only, the local school context included mostly lower income families, which brought greater social class diversity into the research.

Most importantly, Tom’s suggestion to use the term social conscience was an epiphany in itself, for I felt that I now had a shorthand phrase to describe what I had been trying to do for many years in my teaching.  I had an immediate sense that I would be using this term for many years to come.

Defining Social Conscience at HKIS

Part of the struggle I had as a fledgling doctoral student during that first semester was that I could find little direct research related to my central concept.  The term social conscience appears only occasionally in academic literature regarding social justice, citizenship, or leadership.  For example, Goldberg (2002) interviewed 43 educators and found that social conscience was one of five key characteristics of successful school leaders.  However, no attempt was made in Goldberg’s article to explicitly define what social conscience is.  Despite the occasional reference such as this, in general social conscience is not a recognized term in academic literature.  It was also not a commonly used term at the Hong Kong International School when I began my research.

In the writing of my dissertation, which began soon after my research proposal was accepted in November, 2006, I initially chose to define social conscience generally and proceeded to narrow the definition throughout the thesis, which also mirrored my own growth in understanding of the concept.

  • In my introductory chapter, I defined social conscience as

the process in which students become aware of the relationship between the self and a larger community.  Such a community may be defined narrowly or broadly: as a classroom, school, neighborhood, city, nation, the natural environment, the world, or even those living in the past or future (Schmidt, 2009, p. 1).

  • In my literature review, which summarized my reading about this concept in light of my classroom experience, I narrowed this definition by describing it

as a process composed of two parts.  First, social conscience involves ‘perspective transformation’, in which students see the world in new ways (Eyler & Giles, 1999), including a sense of their own role in the world.  This predominantly cognitive activity needs to be joined by the second part of the social conscience process, which is termed ‘relatedness’. In students’ new vision of the world, they not only see themselves as participants, but feel emotionally related to others in a previously unexperienced manner.  The merging of these two transformative processes, perspective transformation and relatedness, are what defines social conscience (p. 60-61). 

In the literature review, then, social conscience contained both a cognitive and affective    dimension.  The review did acknowledge that social conscience needed to be put into practice, but at this stage an action dimension was not a formal part of the definition.

  • Following completion of my data analysis, I reported in my findings chapter that students provided further refinements of this central concept:

Social conscience is defined at School A as a personal consideration of one’s role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally-engaged understanding of the world.  Comprehending this definition can best be understood through consideration of four interrelated themes that became evident as students and teachers discussed social conscience education: awareness, emotional engagement, action, and relatedness (p. 124). 

These four elements can be represented graphically in the following manner:

Figure 1: Four Elements of Social Conscience
Source: Figure was developed by the researcher

Students and teachers went beyond the cognitive and affective dimensions in the literature review, which I summarized as “an emotionally-engaged understanding of the world,” and added an action component.  Students were clear that when their minds and hearts had been affected by what they studied, they wanted to act.

Another change that occurred during the research phase was that I re-positioned the term relatedness.  I came to understand that an increased sense of relatedness pervaded all aspects of the social conscience process rather than simply being descriptive of the affective domain.

Most importantly, social conscience was something that students took very much to heart as a “personal consideration” of how they fit into the world.  Mind, heart, and hands were all integral dimensions of a personal and holistic understanding of social conscience.

Use of the Term Social Conscience at HKIS

In discussing my research in casual conversation, I draw upon the first general definition of social conscience to explain that I’m trying to “help students care for the community” in my teaching.  However, for more specific purposes in the classroom with students or with fellow educators, I use the specific empirical definition that emerged from the research.  Students find resonance with the concept, for they believe that a social conscience education should help them find their place in the world, which they are coming to more fully understand as they mature.

The term social conscience has become far more relevant in school discourse among teachers and students than it was in 2005 when I began the research.  The more frequent use of the term social conscience re-affirms that this expression clearly articulates what teachers and students feel when engaged in courses where this is the aim.

Reflections on the Term Social Conscience

I have given considerable thought to why this community (including the researcher as a long-term member) continues to be drawn to the term social conscience rather than other descriptors.

  • Appeal to the heart: First, students like the appeal to conscience because of its explicitly moral nature.  Such an approach positions issues differently than a philosophical, rational, or legal framework.  Students seem to like the term because it is not seen as an imposition, for it draws upon each person’s sense of right and wrong.
  • Morals matter: Second, social conscience assumes that students’  sense of right and wrong has a role to play in the larger structures of society.  Whereas much academic discourse assumes moral neutrality, a stance that most of my HKIS students find unhelpful, social conscience acknowledges that students’ moral beliefs in society matter, and it empowers them to contribute their adolescent idealism and critical thinking to the “vital conversation” about future directions of society.
  • Raising consciousness: In conversations around campus, teachers and students frequently use the term social consciousness interchangeably with social conscience.  While I prefer the latter, sliding between the two terms suggests that some congruence exists between them.  Indeed, it is quite clear that with the exponential rise of technology among youth that students are becoming far more conscious of global inequalities than ever before, and they desire to become further enlightened about the conditions that those who are not so privileged face.  This increased social consciousness plays a large role in social conscience education.
  • Harmony as a social value: Finally, the use of social conscience suggests that members seek movement towards harmony rather than confrontation in resolving tensions.  Does this reflect a general Asian worldview that sees the world in terms of practical relationships rather than Western abstract categories (Nisbett, 2003)?  My sense is yes, that when given an environment in which solutions are welcome, Asian cultures move slowly towards reconciliation.  It seems that the term social conscience reflects this underlying cultural value.

In choosing social conscience, several other terms have been seen to be less useful:

  • Social justice: While this term resonates with me personally, it does not have the same appeal to my students.  While it could be argued (and may in fact contain some truth) that preference for the more forceful term justice over conscience could simply reflect the desire of elites to maintain their dominant position in society, I tend to think that the more contemplative connotation of conscience is more in keeping with the Asian context in which my students and I live in Hong Kong.
  • Human rights: In research done on HKIS and an international school in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, Alviar-Martin (2008) found that when the two schools studied the same issue of the Darfur genocide, the US-based school emphasized that the conflict violated human rights, while HKIS focused on the spiritual and philosophical relationship between Darfuris and Hong Kong students.  As one of my students wrote in an essay, “When someone in Darfur dies, everyone dies.” Reflecting on my own practice, I do use the language of social conscience far more than human rights.  I can only conclude, as explained above, that living in Hong Kong culture for more than twenty years has led me to emphasize relationships over abstract principles.  That is not to say, however, that I do not question whether I should be more intentional in using the language of human rights in my teaching.
  • Citizenship: Although discussing what it means to be a good citizen is language that I may use occasionally, students in Hong Kong seem to be well aware that citizenship is not always a positive influence.  Many Chinese students are acutely aware that in mainland Chinese patriotism often goes hand in hand with government-sanctioned crackdown of activists, writers, and dissidents.  The recent seizure without trial of artist Ai Weiwei as he was boarding a plane from Beijing to Hong Kong is another example of the disregard for human rights that many of our students find unnerving about China.  Furthermore, for these “Third Culture” students that have multiple passports, citizenship is a complicated, contingent, and capricious entity.  It is not difficult to see that social conscience, which easily extends beyond national boundaries, is far more appealing to many students than any type of national citizenship.  While the more expansive terms of global or multidimensional citizenship may be more palatable than national citizenship, the same basic response holds true: the unencumbered simplicity of social conscience resonates more with HKIS students than other terms.


Two final remarks should be made.  First, in contrast to local schools, the term social conscience was an uncontested concept at HKIS.  Even though teachers and students were not familiar with the term, they found that they could easily speak about it. From a research perspective, it was not difficult to analyze the common strands of participants’ responses.  Thus, HKIS can be said to share certain core moral and civic concepts that can be easily discussed, and even reconfigured to forge new and more effective linguistic expressions.  A common epistemological foundation offers one explanation why the school has been able to build a wide range of quality community service and service learning programs.  It is important to note that these conceptual cornerstones are generally associated with Western values of civil society, such as rule of law, political participation in society, and helping fellow community members that are not part of one’s family.

Secondly, the preference for the term social conscience rather than social justice or human rights suggests that at some deeper and less obvious level these Western concepts of civil society may be tempered by Asian values of harmony, collectivism, and personal relationships.  Perhaps Hong Kong as a hybrid Western-Chinese society is asserting its moral and civic imagination to construct a conceptual amalgam of what it means to create a Chinese civil society in the 21st century.  If so, with the rise of China in the 21st century in the context of a rapidly globalizing world, perhaps close attention should be paid to Hong Kong residents’ perspectives, including those of international school students, as Hong Kong seeks to synthesize its hybrid moral and political heritage into its own civic self-definition and accompanying practices.


Alviar-Martin, T. (2008). Seeking cosmopolitan citizenship: A comparative case study of two international schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Eyler, J., & Giles, D. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goldberg, M. F. (2002). “Leadership in education: Five commonalities.” Phi Delta Kappan, 6-13. Accessed June 25, 2011 at

Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently . . . and why. New York: Free Press.

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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