Taking our students from HKIS on service trips to Thailand twenty years ago was what prompted me to consider that service needed to be a much more integral part of student experiences during their high school career. This article summarizes how the concepts of community service and service learning have grown at HKIS over the last two decades.
When I began teaching as a first-year humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School 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. I remember the shame of unintentionally blurting out at a gathering of teachers in my second year that I felt “alienated” and “shot at” as a humanities teacher at my school. Where was the power of education to transform lives?
From Community Service to Service Learning
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.
Several years later I began taking students to an orphanage nearer to Hong Kong in the southern Chinese city of Foshan, and these experiences confirmed that I was indeed onto something. One of my students, Bethany, wrote on one of those first trips, “Service scars you in the most beautiful way possible.” Such a paradoxical statement had the ring of truth, which encouraged me to begin a Service on Saturday program in Hong Kong. On about ten Saturdays a year, groups of students would, among other activities, teach English, visit the elderly, or teach horseback-riding to special needs students. At the same time, the number of service interims, our weeklong field trips to various Asian countries, grew rapidly. By the mid-1990’s, extracurricular service experiences, which can be called community service, were becoming an increasingly visible aspect of school life.
The next big jump in my understanding of the role of service in education occurred in 1997 when a colleague and myself visited Ateneo High School, a top Jesuit school outside of Manila, Philippines. I was very impressed with a required Senior economics, sociology and theology course that prepared young men and women to give back to their country. Their interdisciplinary vision presented in the course, which included an experiential component of working in a Manila slum for a week, was so appealing that I returned to HKIS feeling called to start such a course at our school. In the year 2000, I initiated a senior elective course called, “Service, Society, and the Sacred.”
Building on this course, in 2003 I implemented a core grade nine, interdisciplinary course entitled, “Humanities I in Action,” a wide-ranging curriculum that investigates human nature and behavior, genocide, the environment, globalization, and social entrepreneurship all within the context of trying to make a difference in society. The course includes 10 service or experiential outings in Hong Kong, and the highlight for many students is a powerful weekend caring for babies at the Foshan orphanage. Whereas community service seemed eye-opening to many students, the inclusion of service in the context of study about urgent contemporary issues, what may be called service learning, began yielding the transformation, at least among some students, that I had been seeking as a young teacher.
Research on Social Conscience Education
In 2005 I began a qualitative research study of students and teachers who had experienced community service and service learning activities at HKIS. I first needed to understand what prevented students from caring about society. Interviews with HKIS students made clear that the intense focus upon achievement created a sense of disconnectedness from the realities of life that most Asian people face, including our home city of Hong Kong which has the largest gap between rich and poor in the developed world. Students’ most common metaphor to describe their life experience was that of “living in a bubble.”
A solution to this fundamental problem of disconnectedness, I discovered, are courses that intentionally aimed to develop students’ social conscience. The goal of such an education was to burst students’ bubbles and re-connect them to social reality. At its best, social conscience education challenges students to embark upon a personal journey to consider their “role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally-engaged understanding of the world” (Schmidt, 2009, p. 124). A socially-conscious curriculum aims to not only raise awareness, but also to engage students on an emotional level. When awareness and emotional engagement are combined, students want to act. Thus, service-learning experiences serve the dual purpose of bursting students’ bubbles of indifference, while also providing them the opportunity to act upon their burgeoning emotionally-engaged understanding of the world. Through all of these dimensions of social conscience education, the research indicated a growing sense of relatedness between students and those “invisible others” in society. The research can be represented graphically in this way:
If social conscience education occurs over time, student awareness grows into “perspective transformation,” indicating that they see the world in a whole new way. Their initial emotional responses, much of what we might call negative emotions (e.g, disillusionment, guilt, anger, etc.), becomes transformed into empathy for others. And finally, their initial action responses mature into self-efficacy, which suggests that they have gained the skills, confidence, and willingness to make a difference in the world.
In practice, this means that I regularly have conversations with students or read student writings that witness to the impact of social conscience education. Here is a recent late-night email from one of my students, Ava:
“I know it is really late but I feel like I had an epiphany. I see how a lot of the units connect now! It’s about how we can make a difference! One person who has the courage can change the group script. One person can blow the whistle on something inhumane, one person can help the orphanage in Foshan, one person can stay civil when the island is turning into savages, and one person can help those in need like Crossroads [a local charity]. You are teaching us that we can be those people. That we can be better people morally. We as kids can make a difference! I’m sorry to email so late, but I was afraid that I would forget it in the morning.”
Here are two examples of student writing that attest to the power of social conscience education:
“I went into this course thinking that I already knew there was suffering in the world, I already knew life was unfair and people were dying, but that knowledge was tucked away, deep in my heart where I could avoid it at all costs and pull it out only when it was necessary. This course literally pulled that knowledge out of me and with it came compassion, sadness, sometimes anger, and for the first time in my life I felt motivation to do something about it.”
– Mel, grade 9
Before a journey begins, there is a moment . . . when a darker side of the world is thrust upon us. The journey begins when the blindfolds are untied and fall away from our vision; it is when we see. When we went to Foshan in my freshman year, I saw. When I went to Mongolia that same year, I saw. It was a slow stirring of my soul, an insistent urging to go further out, to see more, to do more, feel more, give more, empathize more with the rest of the world. My journey began at the draw of a window curtain, at the flick of a light switch, at the light of a matchstick. It was ultimately, the ignition of a fire that I hope will never cease to burn.
– Tiffany, grade 12
Social conscience education is a powerful moral calling that asks teachers to give the best of their mind, heart, and soul to students both inside and outside the classroom. Teachers need to be create curricula that integrate student interest and local and global issues with a spaciousness that encourages reflection upon the human condition itself, as it manifests itself personally, culturally, and globally. All these factors need to weaved together into a curricular tapestry that students find engaging. As Martin Luther King once remarked, “We don’t do this work because it’s easy. We do this because it’s necessary.”
My privileged students want to lead whole lives, which requires venturing beyond their bubbles of affluence. This difficult, even painful, process of student growth asks teachers to be empathetic mentors who can guide young people along this journey. Our world needs teachers who can bridge the divides so obvious in our era. For the world to survive, it is imperative that students see from the perspective of wholeness, even oneness, that is an implicit feature of social conscience education. The responses from so many students have been unequivocal: they want an education that helps them find their place in the real world beyond their bubbles. My experience has been that social conscience instruction offers an education for transformation that is deeply meaningful to students and genuinely beneficial to the world.
Schmidt, M.E. (2009). Teaching for social conscience in Hong Kong secondary schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia.
*Note: This article was first published in the Indian magazine Recess earlier this year. To access this article online, hit here. The reference for that publication is:
Schmidt, M. E. (2013). Teaching for Transformation: Social Conscience Education as Pedagogy for the Privileged. Recess, 1, 1.
During our final exam period I take students to a local Catholic retreat center where each student shares their personal journey through Humanities I in Action. This ritual recognizes that they have been through a rite of passage that aims to offer a transformative journey from the innocence of young adulthood to a more mature and complex understanding of their place in the world.