This is a picture of the 2014-2015 Humanities I in Action class on day 1 of our journey through the curriculum. Now 10 months later as the school year comes to a close, we have recently completed our final exam and end-of-year heroic cycle ritual in which every student shares something of their story this year. As a class, we have become aware of the deep personal growth and the genuine sense of community that we have experienced collectively.
Abstract: This small action research project addresses the question whether student integrity is enhanced by the study of contemporary issues in a socially conscious classroom environment. Student responses suggest that the social conscience approach appears to implicitly require integrity to enable students to come to an understanding of their own worldview, which is a central aim of the course.
When I was asked by the Indian social enterprise “Commotion”* to write something about integrity, I wondered what my grade 9 Humanities I in Action students at Hong Kong International School would say in response, since I doubt I’ve used the word all year in class. I have been given the extraordinary gift of teaching 19 students in this English-Social Studies interdisciplinary course in daily 80-minute classes, plus about 10 out-of-the-classroom community service experiences, totaling more than 300 hours a year of contact time. When trying to convince students to choose this course, rather than the history and geography alternative which investigates four global regions, my selling point is that Humanities I in Action goes beyond academic study to encourage students to “make a difference” in the world. We call this approach social conscience education, which can be defined as a student’s discovery of his or her “role and responsibility in society in the context of an emotionally-engaged understanding of the world” (Schmidt, 2009, p. 124).
I was surprised and pleased, in equal measure, with their written responses. All but two students said that in fact the course did teach about integrity, but that such instruction, if it can be called that at all, was indeed indirect. Their answers were quite revealing and offered three themes about how integrity can be “caught,” even if, or perhaps because, it’s not “taught.”
Theme 1: Be honest with yourself
The cornerstone of the responses was that the course required each student to be honest with him or herself. The fundamental question of the course, which is the essay prompt for their semester and final exams, is this: “Given your study and experiences in Humanities I in Action, how has your worldview been expanded, challenged, deepened or influenced by this course?” Students need to answer for themselves how the course has impacted them. Commenting on the course, Chris wrote:
“We are always asked to give our honest opinions on everything . . . and reflect on ourselves . . . . You can lie to anyone, but you can’t lie to yourself.”
Zoe echoed this sentiment:
“I feel integrity comes in with being honest with yourself.”
Another student explained further:
“This course has always taught me to question myself and re-evaluate my thinking and myself.”
The foundation of integrity in Humanities I in Action, according to student comments, is honesty with oneself.
Theme 2: Develop a belief system about how the world works
The second theme relates explicitly to the course curriculum, which is designed to connect long-standing perennial questions of human civilization – is human nature good or evil? is society progressing or declining? do humans see themselves as part of nature or apart from nature? – to contemporary world issues that matter to them. The three top issues that we address are genocide, globalization, and the environment. A second theme, then, of integrity for these students was the development of a worldview, or a life philosophy, about human nature and human behavior. One student wrote,
“I learned more about different worldviews, how to make conclusions on my own, and why humans act the way they do.”
Another student explained,
“By learning about current events, case studies, and experience such as Foshan [visiting a Chinese orphanage], we have learned what integrity is and how it affects people surrounding us.”
Developing such a belief system speaks to the deep desire among students to truly understand the world, to form an opinion on its future direction, and consider how they might participate in its long-term health. Students seem to recognize that to be a member of an “in Action” class – to be asked to make a difference in the world – is an implicitly moral act requiring integrity.
Theme 3: Develop respectful relationships
A third theme that emerged from student responses reflected the sense of community that is created in a social conscience course. The core of any community is how relationships are lived out, especially those of unequal power. Thus, the teacher-student relationship is of paramount importance. One student explained:
“There’s a certain bond between teacher and the students. He trusts us when we do class-work and we respect him. I believe as long as the teacher is teaching well and respects the students, then the students show integrity back.”
A second student described the role of relationships in the class:
“We learn about trust with each other from trips and experiences with each other.”
A third student linked the classroom relationships to our goal of making a difference in the world:
“This class teaches that it [integrity] should be an essential part of all of our lives . . . . Common decency is exhibited in this class through respecting others’ opinions and building respect and decency for others in the world.”
The key message of this third theme is that integrity needs to be a felt-experience in the quality of classroom relationships.
These three themes illustrate the course’s approach which balances objective study with subjective experience. First, students need to be honest with themselves. Second, they need to come to a moral understanding of how the world works as seen through the lens of urgent contemporary issues. Third, the place where change needs to happen first is within the classroom relationships. If we can’t become a harmonious learning community, there is little hope of repairing the world. This holistic objective-subjective approach provides both tangible inner growth for individuals and a sense of class community as a group.
Whole Students for a Whole World
Upon reflection, it is quite thrilling for a teacher to discover that an “untaught” value as important as integrity may be learned through social conscience courses. But if it isn’t taught, what makes it work?
I believe that it is the implicit aim of the curriculum design: whole-child development in the context of whole world consciousness. While I attract students to the course by attempting to deal with many global problems – income inequality, climate change, orphans, refugees, human trafficking, and others – we often end up wrestling as a class with fundamental human deficiencies which have direct application to their daily lives: what causes relationships to fall apart? Through our study of human nature, a topic that most students find endlessly fascinating, we realize that “mankind’s essential illness” (Golding, p. 89) is our inherent self-focus.
On the other hand, we recognize and experience through our service outings, as Steven Pinker’s recent book argues, that we also have “better angels of our nature” as well. When we go to the orphanage in China, every student knows how to respond with love and care. It’s just seems part of our DNA, our human nature, which for many students brackets Golding’s pessimism.
In the end, students come to understand that global problems are a visible manifestation of the incessant struggle within each human heart between the desire to secure our own wishes versus caring for the needs of others. They sense the inextricable bonds between the inner life and the survival of the planet, coming to a personal understanding of Gandhi’s advice, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Students seem to intuit that integrity is a key connecting tissue that knits together not only whole human beings, but whole societies and civilizations as well.
Two final student comments exemplify the power of whole child development in the context of whole world consciousness. From day one when we study about chocolate slavery in Africa, I ask students to see the big picture beyond their own daily concerns. Commenting on this whole world perspective, Zoe explained,
“I like to think of it as connect[ing] the dots. When you’re honest, it is surprising how many dots you can connect to one’s emotions and experiences. Though it’s difficult at first, as you learn to open up, it becomes really interesting and makes this even more meaningful. If you let it, this course is one that will not only take you far, but also a course that you will never forget.”
It is my hope that students like Zoe will maintain this interpersonal lens through which she views global connectivity, resulting in a lifetime of contributing to the needs of others. Such growth into wholeness is a mark of integrity.
Finally, integrity can be seen directly in this observation by one of my Indian students:
“Being an Indian, I know what it can be like to see people around you who sometimes lie to get the easy way out of things. I used to be one of those until I realized that some of our morals can be contaminating, and shortcuts will get us nowhere in life. Humanities I in Action helps me to understand that our morals can be changed/influenced, but it’s always important to stay true to yourself . . . . Ask yourself, if no one is around me, would I be proud of myself?”
Teaching for integrity is often hindered by the question of why – why should a person strive to have integrity? What compelling reason can we offer to live a life of integrity? Humanities I in Action responds by providing a global backdrop for personal values. It is through highly emotive engagement with global issues that integrity becomes a necessity, not primarily for individual self-refinement, a valued but secondary result, but rather for the sake of something much larger – the future prospect of society and global civilization. Integrity, students come to realize, will make the difference between life and death for many on our fragile planet earth. Such a global call is the inspiration students of the 21st century respond to.
Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the flies. New York: Berkeley Publishing Group.
Pinker, Stephen (2011). Better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. London: Penguin.
Schmidt, M.E. (2009). Teaching for social conscience in Hong Kong secondary schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia.
* “Commotion is dedicated to working with the values and attitudes of young people. We partner with schools in their value education, counselling, life skills and character-development programs. Our activities involve organizing student and teacher workshops, running inter-school events, school consultations and curriculum development. “Recess” is our annual education magazine targeting the niche market of teachers, parents and educators. Our writers include those in educational leadership and other concerned voices from fields such as psychiatry, mental health, counselling, art, developmental work, social research and development, who are concerned about school education” (personal communication with Commotion staff).