Whole People for a Whole Planet: In Search of Inspired Education

TEDx sideviewMike Kersten and I shared our vision for social conscience education at the TEDx “Inspired Education” on May 31st at the Sunbeam Theatre in North Point, Hong Kong. In this talk, we suggest that an inspired education needs to take into account two dual concerns: the stress that students are under and the assault upon the earth. In response, our remedy is “Humanities I in Action,” a course that aims to simultaneously provide meaning and purpose to students and to bring healing to the community.

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Mike:  How can we as educators heal the people-planet divide that has become a mark of our time?

Marty:  Consider this: The World Health Organization has made the rather dire prediction that by 2030, the leading disease burden worldwide will be depression.

Mike:  In fact, depression is already the top cause of illness and disability for 10-19 years olds around the world.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.36.54 PMMarty:  This is just one symptom indicating that individual people, the world over, are struggling more than ever to find a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives.

Mike:  Meanwhile, all of us are fed a daily diet of disturbing news from the world around us.  These headlines from the past couple months show a litany of global challenges that have become an all-to-familiar refrain.Front shot TEDx

Marty:  The frequent reminders of poverty, climate change, war, and inequality create an aura of apathy about our collective global future.  For us as high school teachers, these two trends paint a disturbing image for us as we walk into the classroom to work with teenagers each day.

Mike:  People are hurting individually while the planet is suffering globally.  It’s a dual crisis that seems to be unfolding ever more rapidly on both fronts.

Marty: If we are to reverse this trend, we believe that inspired education is absolutely essential.  Unfortunately, by and large, that’s not really happening.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.37.33 PMMike:  Our educational institutions remain trapped in an industrial model that is not seeking to inspire students to become whole and change the world but rather to become highly functioning cogs in the fast-paced modern machine.  Kids are still organized into batches and moved through school in assembly line fashion.  In this model, students are reduced to widgets in a factory and teachers are simply the quality assurance agents, making sure each one is trimmed and fitted, then stamped with the right label — A, B, or C — before sending them down the line.  Is it any wonder that so many of us are becoming sick while the planet groans under our weight?

Marty: This model isn’t working and you have to empathize with those that are brave enough to stand up off the conveyor belt and beg for something that really matters.

Mike: Take a look at one such student.Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.37.53 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.38.12 PMMike: We think that Calvin has a valid question.  What’s the point?  It’s time for educators around the world to listen up!

Marty: In the face of such a challenge to people and the planet, Einstein urges us to dig deeper.  “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels.”

Bethany at FoshanIn the mid-1990’s as a young teacher I was looking for a new way of thinking.  But it didn’t seem to be happening in my classroom. That was when I began to notice the transformative impact that service trips were having on my students.  After a week at an orphanage in China, one of my students, Bethany, wrote in her journal: “Service scars you in the most beautiful way possible.” This profound insight became the heart of a new course called Humanities in Action.

Mike:  Today, we’re excited to share Humanities in Action with you — the content we teach, the experiences we provide, and what students have to say about social conscience curriculum.  Listen to a couple of our students talking about what they were like before they entered our course (0:30-1:01):

Marty: When we have asked students why they don’t have a social conscience, they describe themselves as self-focused and disconnected from life’s realities. The most common metaphor they use to talk about themselves is that they live in a bubble.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.38.44 PMMike: This is the bubble that separates people and the planet.  It’s the result of our old method of education and it’s not going to work for another century.  In our new way of thinking then, the first step of social conscience education is to the pop the bubble.

Marty:  Over the years, students have consistently highlighted three areas of study that have served as an effective needle.  All are contemporary events.

Mike: The first, and sharpest, is looking at the horrors of genocide.  We have found the beautiful paradox that exploring humanity’s darkest moments doesn’t lead us deeper into despair, but into a spirit of hope and endurance.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.38.54 PMMarty: The second major idea that drives our curriculum is globalization. Many of our students divide the world’s people into two separate groups. Those with “normal” lives – themselves – and everyone else — the “unfortunate” people.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.39.04 PM Mike: Studying globalization helps students realize that all of our lives are interconnected in many ways, all people have valuable perspectives, and we all have something to learn from each other.

Marty: Finally, students want to study the environmental crisis, and to reconsider our relationship with Planet Earth. They seem to understand intuitively that earth is our one and only home.Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.39.17 PM

Mike: As we study each of these issues, we press deeper to look at the question of why through the lens of our human nature.

Marty: Why do we think and behave as we do, both individually and as groups?

Mike:  How could perpetrators of genocide cut down their neighbors in cold blood?

Marty:  How could a survivor find the strength to live on and the will to forgive?

Mike:  What prevents us from giving up our habits of consumption and disposal?

Marty:  And what would it take for us to make heroic changes in our lifestyle?

Mike: Indeed, from the first day of class, we make that exploration explicit by openly asking the biggest questions about ourselves that we can imagine.  Examining our worldview about these “big questions” becomes the backbone of our course.

Marty: As the journey goes on, students wrestle with these questions, and in time a new worldview, or philosophy of life, begins to emerge.

Mike: As we interact with each other every day, our own personal lives provide a fertile case study for our exploration.Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.39.52 PM

Mike: With each contemporary issue, our study plays back and forth across levels of depth and students get to the most fundamental questions of human existence: who am I, why am I here, and, yes, Calvin, what is the ultimate point of it all?

Marty: But all this isn’t just a head trip.

Mike:  It’s a heart trip as well.

Marty:  And to do that, we have to get out of the classroom.

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.40.21 PMMike: Service experiences are a laboratory for the self where we can try out our hypotheses about our human nature and form conclusions that direct the next step of the journey.

Marty: Social conscience is field tested and when the report comes back we find that there is more that needs to be explored and more that needs to be done.

Mike: This is the heart of our course; the place where people and planet intersect not just intellectually, but experientially as well (3:50-4:20).

Marty:  Social conscience education raises student awareness about issues that matter most to them – and then engages their hearts through in-class study and out-of-class experiences. When that happens, students want to do something about it.  They come to believe that this world is not static, but within our power to change.  It’s an experience that can be truly transformative for high school students (8:13-8:50).


Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 10.40.46 PMMike:  In a world with hurting people and a hurting planet, social conscience education knits together the head, heart, and hands in a way that connects students to a world desperately in need of wholeness. Whole people for a whole world.

Marty: We would like to send you off with one final student voice. Throughout her high school career, Tiffany took our courses and went on many service trips. Here is an excerpt of an essay she wrote as a senior about her journey of social conscience:

“It was a slow stirring of my soul, an insistent urging to go Tiff Chanfurther 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.”

Mike: People can change, the planet can change and our education system can change as well.   It has been put in our hearts and hands to make it happen.

Thank you.

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Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 9.17.17 PMted x poster front viewted x signboard of marty and mike

Screen Shot 2014-06-02 at 11.33.50 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-02 at 11.43.21 PMScreen Shot 2014-06-02 at 11.43.51 PM“The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men are convertible, and they are. They want awakening, to get the soul out of bed, out of her habitual sleep.”

– Emerson


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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20 Responses to Whole People for a Whole Planet: In Search of Inspired Education

  1. Karen Markin says:

    Awesome! 😎

  2. Thankful Humanities student says:

    This is awesome Mr. Schmidt!!

  3. Vivienne Tsan says:

    Congratulations Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Kersten! The Humanities in Action course will always stand out in my years of education as a truly unique learning experience. I’m glad you guys were able to share your work with the rest of the world.

    • Thanks, Vivienne! I still really believe in the course more than ever, and I also feel the same way – I’m relieved to have finally shared how and why this course works the way it does. It’s quite remarkable that HKIS gives us so much time and opportunity to implement such a powerful curriculum. I hope that someone will imitate what we’re doing. As always, I appreciate your support, our first Senator for Service!

  4. Lydia Kho says:

    What a fantastic presentation, Marty! It’s so touching! Your successful presentation brings back so much memories of the days when I was involved with Service on Saturdays and Service Interims at HKIS. I know putting together such a marvelous presentation requires a lot of work and dedication, but you reaped the results from the responses of these teenagers. The feedback from students of Humanities I in Action, and Service and Society and Sacred classes have always been positive and moving. You have truly provided them a platform to leap into a more profound and meaningful life in their future. Congratulations!

    • Thanks, Lydia, for such an encouraging note! We were quite excited to get the chance to spread the word about Humanities I in Action. We do think it’s a special course. We hope the video comes off well. It’s supposed to be ready end of June or early July. I’ll post it on this entry.

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