The Yin-Yang Symbol as Curricular Model: A Transformative Approach to Christian Education

At the center of the HKIS high school plaza is a fountain that is one-half of a larger “island,” modeled after the yin-yang symbol.  This entry, written as a philosophy of education statement, explores how this symbol offers a model by which school curricula can integrate service learning and spiritual practices in order to meet the holistic needs of students.


If the fundamental aim of education is student transformation, then the Christian heritage of service to others and employing spiritual practices can together form a powerful curricular strategy to this end. The Chinese symbol of yin-yang reveals how these ostensibly contrasting approaches should be seen as complementary and in need of their opposite. This holistic strategy offers students the opportunity to understand how outer-directed service to society and inner-directed spiritual growth can both serve the larger goal of living in harmony with the Great Work of God.

The Yin-Yang Symbol as Curricular Model: 

A Transformative Approach to Christian Education

“Doing compassionate acts from a contemplative foundation is the greatest art form.”

– Richard Rohr

“I chose ‘Service, Society, and the Sacred’ as an elective class because I didn’t want to lose all the progress I had made in Humanities [I in Action]. The way I imagined it was by picturing myself as a cocoon. Humanities [I in Action] had effectively cracked the hard outer shell, but I still needed a final blow to completely eradicate the inner shell, allowing me to grow into a beautiful butterfly. SSS was that final blow.”

– Rohan Bansal in his final SSS paper.


When I first came to Hong Kong International School from the U.S. in 1990 as a called Lutheran educational missionary, two biblical passages were resonant in my thinking:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, the new has come.” (II Corinthians 5:17)

“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
     even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).

More than 20 years later both passages remain relevant to my educational philosophy. First, I believe that the primary purpose of education is personal transformation – to become a “new creation.” Second, as Huston Smith[1] proposes, I believe that people are compelled ontologically to seek liberation from the limitations of death, ignorance, and despair. Put in the affirmative, humans seek for being, knowledge, and joy – and ultimately desire all three to an infinite degree. In the Psalmist terms, human beings yearn to find themselves in the presence of God – and to “abide” (John 15:4) in this state forever. Deeply influenced by my Christian heritage, then, my educational philosophy is built on these two cosmological and anthropological principles, which can be visually integrated in the Chinese symbol of yin-yang.

The Yang of Service Learning

In my first few years of leading week-long service trips to Thailand and China, I came to see that these experiences had a far more transformative effect on students than anything that was happening in my classroom, which raised important questions about the efficacy of my teaching. It wasn’t until 1997 when a colleague and myself visited Ateneo, a Jesuit high school in Manila, that I caught the vision that HKIS should consider introducing interdisciplinary classes that combine academic study with both service experiences and spiritual reflections in order to meet the deep needs of our students. Inspired by my visit, in 2000 I began teaching an elective course to seniors called “Service, Society, and the Sacred,” which sought to integrate the dynamics we witnessed at Ateneo into an HKIS course. Having proved effective, in 2003 I offered a new course called “Humanities I in Action,” which took the principles that we had learned from SSS and applied them to a core interdisciplinary English-Social Studies 9th grade course.

Through these courses I have come to understand that service-learning is the best way to crack the outer shell of the ego and awaken high school students to life beyond their natural self-focus, as they come to realize that the daily experience of most Asian people is vastly different from their normal experience at HKIS. This “disorienting dilemma,” as researcher Jack Mezirow [2] calls it, is the first step towards transformation.

The research that I completed in my dissertation in 2009 demonstrated that indeed these courses do offers students a path of transformation, which I summarized in an 18-step model called “The Journey of Social Conscience.”[3] The transformative impact of service-learning courses at HKIS, as explained by the model, has been replicated by other teachers using various forms of socially conscious curricula. The result has been that many students have been motivated to participate in service projects, which collectively are among our proudest achievements as an HKIS school community.

The Yin of Inner Awakening

Yet conversations with students and my own personal experience suggest that despite these impressive acts of service and the genuine transformation that does occur, students and teachers at HKIS still struggle with minds and hearts that are not at peace.  How does one get at the root of suffering, as the Buddha would put it, or how does one deal with the lack of consistent love we demonstrate towards others, as Jesus calls for? This is the inner shell of the ego that needs to be attended to both personally and institutionally at HKIS. Several years ago one of our seniors, Jaclyn, shared her experience with service at an all-school community gathering:

For the first two years of high school, I separated life into the big and small things. The big things meant much more to me than did the small things. When I learned about the Rwandan genocide, factory farms, and other pressing global issues during Humanities In Action, I was moved to help solve these big issues. I was so busy advocating against animal abuse and the unfair treatment of refugees yet I would come home every day and act ice cold with my grandfather . . . . Every time I think of it I cringe in disgust and guilt.**

Jaclyn’s speech was a wake-up call for me that I needed to go beyond powerful service trips and social engagement in order to truly meet the needs of my students. In the last several years my attention has turned to the role of spiritual practices in getting at the root of this ‘dis-ease’ prevalent in our school community. As the mental health of our students and teachers shows increasing signs of stress, it seems all the more important to explore pedagogies that attend to these deeper core issues.

My own personal growth in this area has been deeply impacted by the writings and teachings of Episcopalian priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault[4]. Her book on Centering Prayer[5] has helped me not only develop my own regular practice of Christian meditation, but has also enabled me to experiment with meditation and rituals in my classes to get at the root of human selfishness. The goal of these practices, she explains, can be summarized in even simple hand gestures that children can understand. She believes that “mankind’s essential illness”[6] is that we cling to what we have or desire – closed fists – and that the goal of spiritual practices is to pattern into our subconscious the act of surrender – open hands. This new posture not only awakens us to a more aware self, but connects us to other people, other cultures, and ultimately to subtle energies beyond the visible and tangible, including God. These practices respond to the desire for divine union for which humans have yearned throughout the ages.

The Yin-Yang of Transformative Education

The yin-yang symbol is a useful representation of this hybrid service learning-spiritual practice educational approach. The apparent duality of action and contemplation is not only portrayed in dynamic interaction, but, as indicated by the eye contained at the heart of each force, the core of each polarity contains its opposite. The lesson to be drawn in terms of transformative education is that action responses need to be refined by a reflective and even contemplative dimension in order to purify motives of self-interest and egoic attachment. Conversely, the practice of contemplation is driven not by the desire to escape the world, but to influence it in a more pervasive, if more subtle, manner. Understood properly, it is the desire to serve the world that motivates spiritual practices.

The yin-yang symbol can also be a useful way to visualize Matthew Fox’s[7] three works: the outer work, the inner work, and the Great Work. According to Fox, humans were created to experience a harmonious interrelationship between the inner work of wisdom and the outer work of compassionate action. When this occurs, an affirming sense of peace is experienced. This leads to consideration of Fox’s Great Work, which is the collective purpose of the universe. Why are we all here? In Christian terms, it can be proposed that the ultimate goal is to bring the Creator, who is spirit, into a mutually conscious and intimate relationship with the material creation. Mysteriously, in God coming into flesh, materiality lies now at the heart of spirit, while the physical universe, in receiving the incarnate Christ, has been enlivened with the invisible. This interchange of spirit and matter is poetically expressed in John’s vision of the Great Work in the Book of Revelation. Heaven (contrary to popular conceptions) comes to earth, “‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.'” (21:3). Thus, our collective human purpose involves the harmonious and dynamic flow of giving and receiving love-in-relationship. A curriculum that integrates the yang of service learning and the yin of spiritual practices is a microcosm of this Great Work’s spirit-matter interfusion.


Given these many years of experimentation, I can summarize my journey in Hong Kong in this way:

Through my teaching ministry in Hong Kong I have come to appreciate the powerful and potentially transformative dynamic that occurs within students when academic study, critical reflection, service experiences, and spiritual practices are combined in socially conscious curricula. Such an approach offers students the opportunity to discover a sense of identity and purpose, contribute to the needs of others, and experience the spiritual dimension of life. I am personally and professionally committed to a ministry of meeting people at the intersection of mind, faith, and service as I continue this journey.

It’s no exaggeration to say that in many respects the world is in a profound state of crisis. As Einstein observed, we cannot solve our problems at the same level of understanding with which they were created. Against this contemporary backdrop, Christian education – in its multitude of curricular and extracurricular forms – should be guided by the overarching aim of personal transformation. Service learning has been shown to be an effective pedagogy to this end. In recent years, I have come to understand, however, that I need to go further and integrate creative rituals and spiritual practices that work at the deeper root levels of student distress. Seen as yin-yang complements, I have come to understand that integrating service learning and spiritual practices offers a viable vision of transformative education. Christian schools have a unique spiritual heritage to pioneer such holistic forms of education that the world desperately needs.


[1] Huston Smith, The world’s religions (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 19-21.

[2] Jack Mezirow, J. “Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory” in Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress ed. J. Mezirow & Associates (San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000), 3-34

[3] Martin Schmidt, Teaching for social conscience in Hong Kong secondary schools. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia, 2009), 156.

[4] Cynthia Bourgeault, The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart (San Francisco, JosseyBass, 2003).

[5] Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering prayer and inner awakening (Lanham, MD, Crowley, 2004).

[6] William Golding, Lord of the flies (New York, Berkeley Publishing Group, 1954), 89.

[7] Matthew Fox, The reinvention of work: A new vision of livelihood for our time, (San Francisco, Harper San Francisco, 1994), 19-24.

* As part of the HKIS Career Structures program, teachers are asked to compose a statement sharing their philosophy of education.  This piece is one of the essays in my Career Structures portfolio.

** For Jaclyn’s full speech, click here and scroll down towards the end of the entry.


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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8 Responses to The Yin-Yang Symbol as Curricular Model: A Transformative Approach to Christian Education

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