As part of Humanities I in Action course, Aidan, Leslie, Lawrence, and Isabelle and myself took a trip to Concordia Children’s Services in Manila as part of their Personal Action Project in grade 9, as you can see in this video. Now three years later, three of these four are taking my “Service, Society, and the Sacred” class, and they can further consider how they want to take what they learned through their high school career and apply it to their future plans in university. What teaching strategies are most effective in helping students develop a desire to contribute to the community? In this entry, I share the results of my dissertation research with regard to this question.
Based on interviews with teachers and students for my dissertation research, I found that the four most effective instructional strategies to teach about social conscience are to:
- Engage in Dialogue about Multiple Perspectives
- Provoke Student Conscience
- Offer First-Hand Experiences
- Create a Sense of Class Community
In this entry, I would like to personally reflect on each one in more detail, using recent lessons I have taught in my grade 9 Humanities I in Action class.
1. Engage in Dialogue about Multiple Perspectives
Since it is rare that I will lecture about course content, the goal for many classes is to get students to engage in dialogue about various topics. In creating these lessons, I aim to focus on a particular question that is the main focus for the day (e.g, an essential question). For instance, in my last full-length class this week, I proposed two questions for my 9th graders:
MACRO QUESTION: Will the pursuit of (scientific) knowledge lead humanity to achieving its greatest destiny or will it lead humanity to its most tragic demise?
MICRO QUESTION: Does the pursuit of knowledge, achievement, and collection of experiences at HKIS lead to your fulfillment or a sense of emptiness?
The first question is one for our civilization into the future, while the second asks them to consider a question that will play itself out over the next four years in high school. Linking a big question to their own lives is an important pedagogical strategy that we employ frequently in Humanities I in Action.
Following this introduction and discussion, we then watched the film, “Transcendent Man,” about Ray Kurzweil who perhaps embodies the best of what we can hope for from human ingenuity. The next day we then looked at various myths (Genesis 1-4, Prometheus, and the Midas touch) to consider both the promise and peril of technology. We discussed that only since HKIS has had 1-1 computers have the number of students with depression at HKIS noticeably jumped.
Every day I think about how to set up the room, how to arrange the order of activities, how to use the previous night’s homework, and numerous other factors to facilitate engagement with the class materials and discussion among students.
2. Provoke Student Conscience
A publication by Oxfam outlines how a teacher should deal with controversial issues. In order to facilitate critical thinking, the authors 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.
I frequently wear these different pedagogical hats. For example, we were recently discussing the “story” of the community with whom we live. Although I’m partial to the Genesis account personally, I challenged my two Jewish students to explain why they believed these stories, and if they tried to reconcile them with science. They struggled to respond beyond this is what we have been taught. This is where I am glad to play the devil’s advocate role.
The most important strategy in provoking students, of course, is choosing materials that turn their thinking upside down. For example, students gave speeches in early January on a reading by futurologist Michael Zey, who holds that humans as unique beings should be separate from animals, and that human destiny is to establish a “Humaniverse” – to establish human consciousness across the universe. The current book we are reading, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, challenges this view, arguing that the belief that humans need to separate themselves from nature and rule it, is the great flaw in so-called “civilized” people’s worldview. Following our reading of Zey, students delivered speeches whether they agreed or disagreed with his perspective (75% agreed). Two weeks later, I asked them to deliver a second speech presenting a pro-environmental view about some issue that they cared about. Many of them now are re-considering their initial eagerness for Zey’s position.
I frequently openly engage students about the dilemma of striking a balance between proposing provocative ideas and my own beliefs. 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. Many of them now are re-considering their initial eagerness for Zey’s position.I frequently openly engage students about the dilemma of striking a balance between proposing provocative ideas and my own beliefs. 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.
3. Offer First-Hand Experiences
When I began teaching as a first-year humanities teacher at HKIS in 1990, I wanted to make a difference in students’ lives. Although I couldn’t have articulated it at that point, I believed that the heart of education was about transformation of the human person – and that such a change would impact the world. However, my efforts as a young teacher fell embarrassingly and even despairingly short. As a middle-class American school teacher, I was woefully ill-prepared to teach highly privileged, success-oriented Western expatriate and Hong Kong Chinese students anything that could make a difference in their lives. Where was the power of education to transform lives?
However, later in that second year I was assigned to co-lead a weeklong service trip to an orphanage in Thailand. The trip was a success, and much to my surprise, students starting talking about the deep impact that the week had made on them in terms that were transformative in nature. The sought-after power I had labored fruitlessly to realize in the classroom seemed, by comparison, tantalizingly within reach by the relatively simple task of taking students to play with orphans for a week.
More than 20 years later, I still believe, and my research has confirmed, that first-hand experiences are powerful teachers, and in all my classes I strive to give students out-of-the-classroom experiences. In Humanities I in Action we have approximately 10 out-of-the-classroom experiences throughout the year, including a 4-day trip to an orphanage in China.
The biggest change between those first experiences on Interim and what I do presently is that today I attempt to link these experiences to the curriculum. Whereas community service, like I did in Thailand on that first trip, seemed eye-opening to many students, the inclusion of service in the context of study about urgent contemporary issues, what is called service learning, began to yield a stronger transformative effect among students – what I had been seeking all along as a young teacher. This is why I am so committed to this dynamic of in-class study linked to out-of-class experiences.
4. Create a Sense of Class Community
Even years after teaching students in Humanities I in Action, I receive genuine, and sometimes even excited smiles, from students as we pass through the halls. This happiness at seeing each other again comes from the authentic sense of community that can be fostered in social conscience courses. We study purposely and experience service together as a class. The memories are imprinted not just on individuals, but on the whole class. This social dynamic emerged as an important facilitator of learning in my research. In particular, I have felt that because the material of the course is so personally challenging (e.g., human nature, genocide, environmental destruction, etc.), and at times even depressing, it is the sense of community that often carries students through the difficult topics. Here is a comment (from a project Jasmine and Jenn below did some years ago) that illustrate this theme:
Many of my friends who I’ve interviewed suggested that what makes Humanities I in Action different . . . than other classes was the classroom atmosphere and the bonding between classmates. The whole class was very tight-knit. I think this owes not only to the fact that we met every day and shared common experiences . . . but also the themes of the course itself . . . The reason we studied these materials and these social issues was because we are all part of the human family, so we should not ignore the sufferings of other people. This idea of interconnectedness and universal brotherhood was not just a theory; it emerged in our class full-fleshed and took a prominent role in our relationships. We actually lived out the concept of interconnectedness . . . Of all the classes I’ve taken these three years, my Humanities I in Action class was definitely the most united.
Finally, in one senior class some years ago when students were asked why they didn’t seem to be overly discouraged by the depressing nature of the material studied, one young woman raised her hand and replied, “Those depressing things unite us as a class and bring hope out of us.” The collective grappling with suffering in social conscience classes can yield a sense of unity and even hope through the sense of community that develops.
As students wrestle with curricular questions of hope and despair in the midst of their own existential concerns of adolescence, 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.
According to interviews with teachers and students from my research, these are the four most effective pedagogical strategies to develop students’ social conscience. If these strategies were adopted more readily, I believe that we would have more social conscious students, more meaningful teacher-students relationships, and more satisfied students who have a greater sense of personal balance.