Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action

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After more than a decade of teaching Humanities I in Action, my colleagues and I remain excited to welcome students into our classroom every August, knowing that from day 1 they begin a journey that challenges and expands their minds and hearts, and leads many of them to act differently as a result. Offering this kind of transformation seems to be the kind of education that is needed in our schools today.


This blog, first written in an interview format*, introduces what Humanities I in Action is all about. The second half of the entry has an annotated list of hyperlinked articles contained in this blog about the course or about social conscience education in general, allowing the reader to quickly peer into various aspects of related theory and practice.

Before reading the following responses, however, you may want to watch these two short videos to get an overview of our 9th grade course choices, Humanities I and Humanities I in Action, in this very well-done video by teacher Mike Kersten to introduce the courses to prospective students. To see a student view of Humanities I in Action, watch this excellent summary of Bea Carandang’s first semester in the course. (She also did a second video on her Elixir Project, which can be viewed here.)

Part I: An Overview of the Humanities I in Action Course

  1. Can you introduce the Humanities I in Action course and what you think makes it work?

I’ve been teaching “Humanities I in Action” to grade 9 students at Hong Kong International School since 2003. What makes it so powerful is a combination of factors:

  • Total curricular freedom in a core interdisciplinary course with high academic expectations
  • Immense amount of time in the classroom: 80 minutes/day for 180 school days
  • About 10 experiential or service outings, including a weekend trip to an orphanage in China
  • With high achieving bilingual and bicultural students who choose to be in the class.

Beyond these factors, I think that what makes the course successful is that the teachers listen carefully to student input into the cuShooting_dogsrriculum. We keep the powerful materials, while weeding out those topics that may be interesting but are not transformational.

Probably the most powerful unit is the one on genocide, and the idea for this came from students. Ask students about the Rwandan Genocide, especially the film “Shooting Dogs,” and you will see how deeply they have been impacted by that unit.

  1. Can you give me a broad understanding of the curriculum?

We begin with a unit on worldview, trying to get across the idea that every action springs from a belief. And beliefs can be flawed. So we, especially as privileged students, need to think very carefully, humbly, and with an awareness of our own assumptions, if we hope to bring about lasting social change.

To continue with the concept of worldview, we study human nature and human behavior. We read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and study the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments to understand various psychosocial factors that lead to violence. We then study the Rwandan genocide as a worst-case scenario of what can happen in a society. We also read genocide memoirs which, like the Rwandan genocide, are quite shocking to these young students.

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In November we take our classes on a 4-day trip to a Chinese orphanage. This is certainly the highlight of the course for many students, as their study of a government policy meets the flesh-and-blood reality on the ground. For many students, this experience makes everything else we study real. Having had an experience of compassion, we come back and study what’s right with human nature.

During the second semester, students embark on an Elixir Project in which they try to make some positive impact in the community. They write a research paper as well on whatever social problem they have chosen. Our key text during the second semester is Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, which offers a historical and anthropological hypothesis for where we all went wrong. Following this overall framing device, over the next few months, we study issues that are of most relevance to 21st century students: globalization, the environment, and the future. The course concludes with students completing and sharing their Elixir projects, and we read the Chinese novel To Live, which leaves a final impression of contentment in the midst of the challenges of 20th century China. I end the course with a heroic journey ritual in which students share with each other how they have changed throughout their experience of the course.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 2.41.03 pm.pngAt the end of both semesters, the main question that students need to address in their exams is, “Given your study and experiences in Humanities I in Action, how has your worldview been expanded, deepened, challenged, or affected by this course?” The true measure for us, then, of the course’s impact is the change in consciousness of our students.

  1. In what ways do your students undergo the transformative learning process?

From day 1 when we do a free vs. fair trade chocolate social experiment, students are challenged to come to terms with many things, such as: many people lack the advantages they have; suffering exists on a scale they had never contemplated before; their consumer choices play a role in the plight of others around the world.

In my dissertation research findings** I described the journey of social conscience, an 18-step model in which students move from self-absorption to care for their community. For many students the knowledge and experiences in the class shatter their autonomous sense of self, as the plight of others is considered both academically and personally. For a good number of students, the weekend experience in a Chinese orphanage brings them to the understanding, as one of my students said some years, that “all the things we study are true.” Holding a baby girl who is a victim of the one-child policy verifies for them that every issue we study in class happens to real people who suffer. It turns their world upside down. In terms of adult transformative learning theory, this is Mezirow’s “disorienting dilemma.” They also experience, as Mezirow predicted, a range of painful emotions: fear, guilt, helplessness, and hopefulness. It seems there is no other way to come to social conscience without the painful stripping away of rosy illusions about the state of the world.

Following this difficult coming to terms is offering them ways to act on their world. During the second semester each student chooses an Elixir Project, which are mostly off-campus, self-generated activities in which students try to make some difference in the community. Some activities seem quite humble – holding a wiffle ball training activity at a local Hong Kong School, teaching kindergarteners English, or singing at an elderly home – while others are dramatic – establishing a health clinic on an isolated island in the Philippines, spending a week with orangutans in Malaysia, donating money on site to a spec2014-04-29 06.11.42ial needs school in India. Regardless of the scale, what is of most importance is the sense of self-efficacy that develops within these young students to help them realize not only that they are capable of positively influencing society, but that there is joy in the experience. Even the simple smile on the face of a child can be enough to reverse the downward spiral of fear and guilt of their disorienting dilemma. This is the power of student-initiated action projects.

  1. What would you say to researchers who doubt that transformative learning can occur with young people?

I have had so many students speak of how the course has changed them – whether it be in conversations and essays during the class, or emails years later from alumni. Here are a few examples:

Jacqui: “I believe that in a decade’s time, the only high school course that I can remember vividly is the Humanities I in Action course. It was an eye opening, a unique experience that touched my heart. It allowed me to be connected with the abandoned orphans, the neglected elderlies, the unwanted addicts, and the helpless disabled. Not only had it opened my eyes to the sufferings of those who are less fortunate, it also moved me deeply into appreciating what a wonderful life I had been leading, and how I should share my love and care with those who have nothing . . . . And I do believe that the insights that I have gained from Humanities I in Action will always remain in my heart and mind, and become part of my core values, steering the way I feel and act towards others.”

Rohan: “I chose ‘Service, Society, and the Sacred’ as an elective class [in my senior year] 2012-06-12 01.20.57because 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.”

Isabelle: “I realized that since taking Humanities I in Action, I had based a lot of my decision making on what I had learnt in that class. Humanities in Action truly inspired me to think outside of my own bubble and explore more of the world and of the issues that are prominent in our world today . . . .By the end of my sophomore year, a couple friends and I started up Greenpeace (we established it as an official branch at HKIS) and now, we have around 100 members . . . . All of these decisions I have made throughout my high school career may be attributed to the things I learnt during Humanities in Action . . . . I’ll be continuing my journey to social consciousness in college for certain. I have decided on majoring in Environmental Analysis – as it is a broad major that provides insight in the science and ethics of our environment.”

One of the striking aspects of teaching these courses is just how predictable student responses are. Every year I know that many of my students will go through a journey of transformation – and certainly for some of these students, it is irreversible. How many? I don’t really know – and that’s what I would like to investigate at some point: how many students can point to lasting change ten years down the line? My sense is that a significant number of students were deeply influenced by the course in that their values were fundamentally re-alligned and their perspectives deeply expanded. However, I know that this is anecdotal evidence; I’d like to see a longitudinal study done on our students to get a better sense of the long-term impact of our courses.

  1. What’s your pitch to students?

My pitch to students is that simply repeating “business as usual” in our world is a recipe for disaster . . . and students know this. Few question that climate change is real, that income inequality results in some winners but more losers, that gross injustice occurs globally on a daily basis. But they feel powerless to effect change. I’m reminded of the documentary “Scared Sacred” in which the director Velcrow Ripper (yes, his real name) has a recurring nightmare of being oscared-sacred-500n a train to a concentration camp. And in the dream a woman riding in the train says, “I never thought that they would come for me.” Velcrow explains that in making the film he decided to do the opposite of his instinct: instead of running from his fear, he decided to run directly into it. Over the next several years he visited many of the ‘ground zeroes’ on the planet – Bhopal, Cambodia, Hiroshima – in search of hope.

This is the mindset of students that choose to take Humanities I in Action. It is uncomfortable to watch a film on genocide, to contemplate the disadvantage of an orphan one is holding, to consider the consequences of a world with melting icecaps, but in choosing this course, they collectively choose to run into their fear rather than continue business-as-usual. When the future of the planet is at stake, studying urgent global issues seems far more relevant than polishing one’s resume. Of course, we as both teachers and students know this is all a heady gamble. Staring into the face of an orphan might mean putting personal well-being and hope on the line. Yet what they don’t know is that beneath the fear are layers of resilience that can emerge. Oftentimes the hope comes from the close-knit relationships that develop in a class that’s driven by a mission to make the world a better place. We see this every year.

  1. What is your advice to teachers that want to teach for transformation?

The bottom line is: in order to teach for transformation, you need to be willing to go on your own journey of personal change. Here are some questions worthy of reflection for potential social conscience teachers:

  • Are you willing to enter into the dark side of human nature with yourself and with students to come out the other side?
  • Is your great joy seeing a student grow into a more aware, more compassionate human being?
  • Are you comfortable “getting your hands dirty” with students on field trips and outings?
  • Are you open to dealing with students beyond the academic expectations of the course, delving into the personal and emotional?
  • Are you willing to apply the class materials to your own life?

It’s obvious that teaching a social conscience course is not for everyone. This is one of the reasons the course is optional for students. Students and teachers can opt for a more conventional academic experience. But for those teachers and students that believe that education is all about transformation, Humanities I in Action offers a powerful combination of in-class study and out-of-class experience. I believe that this is the course that is needed to shift students from an instrumental view of education – what’s in it for me? – to one that calls on them to participate in the quest to sustain life on the planet. This is a high calling, and one that many students of the 21st century are eager to hear.


Part II: Hyperlinked Articles about Humanities I in Action on this Blog

The second part of this entry provides an annotated list of links to other blog entries about the Humanities I in Action and the social conscience concept.

I. Overview Articles

  1. Teaching for Transformation: Social Conscience Education as Pedagogy for the Privileged.” This entry, first written for an Indian magazine, summarizes my own personal journey from teaching conventional social studies courses at HKIS to engaging students in service learning, which eventually culminated in Humanities I in Action.
  2. Social Status or Social Challenge: Mission Statements at International Schools.” How do we move students from self-preoccupation to living out the idealistic visions of our schools? This article, first presented at a conference at Hong Kong University, proposes that Humanities I in Action challenges the value systems of privilege that is a mark of international school students.
  3. Whole People for a Whole Planet: In Search of Inspired Education at TEDx Hong Kong.” Colleague Mike Kersten and I propose in this TEDx talk that the future of education needs to simultaneously address two needs: global issues and the mental health of our students.
  4. Inspired Education” by Andrea Zavadsky. This article from the South China Morning Post provides an overview of the course, and interviews myself and two students.
  5. Reinventing Freirian Pedagogy Among Privileged Students in Hong Kong.” Certainly the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was one of the intellectual inspirations for social conscience education. In this entry I summarize some of his major ideas and show their influence on Humanities I in Action.
  6. Stirring the Soul with a New Story: A Letter to HKIS Alumni.” Mike Kersten and I co-wrote this article for our school magazine to inspire alumni to get back in touch with us and continue to dream of bringing positive change in our communities.

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II. Research on Social Conscience Education at HKIS

  1. The Roles of the Social Conscience Educator: Literature Review.” This excerpt from my dissertation suggests that there are four roles of a social conscience teacher: (1) model of authenticity (2) facilitator of provocation (3) empathetic mentor, and (4) facilitator of wonder and hope.
  2. The Roles of the Social Conscience Educator: Research Findings.” My research, based on teacher interviews, found that HKIS teachers saw themselves as playing these three roles: (1) curriculum innovator (2) pedagogue of critical thinking, and (3) empathetic mentor.
  3. Social Conscience Education and the Chinese Worldview: Helping Students Navigate Cultural Differences.” Social conscience education emerges out of a Western educational paradigm and does come into conflict at times with traditional values in Asia, as is detailed in this entry based on my dissertation research.
  4. Four Instructional Strategies to Teach for Social Conscience.” 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, and create a sense of class community.

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III. Curriculum: Unit Plans and Lesson Plans

  1. Is Ignorance Bliss? Teaching about Chocolate on Day 1.” Here’s our day 1 lesson plan (see picture below) in Humanities I in Action for the last three years along with student reflection. The lesson was designed to encapsulate the social conscience approach in the first lesson that they experience in the course.
  2. The Victim’s View: Teaching about Violence in Humanities I in Action.” This entry overviews our first semester curricular, focusing on the theme of violence that occurs repeatedly, as we read Lord of the Flies and study genocide.
  3. Rule of Law or Relational Harmony: Asian and Western Perspectives of Right of Abode in a Hong Kong Classroom.” Our first unit in the course explores the concept of worldview. This entry looks at a controversial issue a few years ago in Hong Kong: should long-staying Filipino maids be offered the right of abode in the same way that expat students and teachers are permitted? It depends on your worldview.
  4. Using Contemporary Memoirs to Teach Genocide.” Without question our study of genocide remains the most deeply impactful unit in the course. This piece shares the books that we use and how we have allowed students to develop group projects to illustrate their learning.
  5. Genocide at Christmas Time.” This entry provides more background on the genocide unit, and my own personal reflection on this unit of study as we approach the darkest time of year and the celebration of Christmas.


IV. The Foshan Orphanage Experience

For more than 20 years I have been taking students to an orphanage in southern China in the city of Foshan. The trip continues to work magic in the lives of our students as they take time away from their normal routine to simply provide care for children at a state-run orphanage. It remains a powerful shared experience for many grade 9 students.

  1. The Role of Caring for Children in Social Conscience Education.” This article describes one of our Humanities I in Action experiences at an orphanage in Foshan, China.
  2. Foshan Orphanage Trip: A Journey into Karuna.” During the Foshan trip we take students to visit an enormous statue of Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, to help us process our experience at the orphanage.
  3. Discovering Empathy in a Chinese Orphanage.” This entry shares a number of student reflections on our weekend visit to Foshan.
  4. Kanyini in a Chinese Orphanage” by Nikki Kwan. When we return from Foshan, students write a personal narrative about their experience. Here is an excellent piece of writing by Nikki Kwan.
  5. Room for Compassion: Finding Presence in a Chinese Orphanage” by Yash Bardoloi. Another student, Yash, writes his narrative about how the experience helped him pause his frantic schedule of achievement to consider the needs of the Foshan children.

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V. Service Summit

Each year our students take on an Elixir Project, an independent project to bring their learning into the community. These four entries provide description and pictures of the kick-off event.

  1. Service Summit 2011: Expanding the Wave of Student Action.” This entry summarizes the 2011 event, telling the story of two students who built did a fundraiser to build a school in Africa while in middle school.
  2. Service Summit 2013: Using a Service Summit to Motivate Student Action.” This piece contextualizes the Service Summit in the course and in my research.
  3. Service Summit 2014: Initiating a Path Towards Adulthood.” This entry views the Service Summit through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s the Heroic Cycle.
  4. HKIS Hosts the 8th Annual Service Summit.” The latest Service Summit is summarized, and includes all the many student workshops which were offered as part of the program. Of special note is a music video, “Circle the Sun,” written and produced by two of my students about a girls scholarship program in China.


VI. Social Conscience Education’s Impact Upon Students

  1. What is Social Conscience?” This is a very short overview of my research findings, and also includes the abstract of my dissertation. In the middle of the entry are two short video clips by one of my students, Bea Carandang, who cleverly and empathetically shares her experience in Humanities I in Action.
  2. The Labyrinthine Journey Towards Social Conscience.” Mike Kersten and I interviewed and recorded Humanities I in Action students reflecting on the Humanities I in Action course. Their comments are placed on the symbol of a labyrinth, emphasizing the challenging journey dimension of social conscience education.
  3. Quotable Quotes.” This is list of ten, relatively short comments by students about Humanities I in Action course or about service in general at HKIS.
  4. Long-Term Impact of HKIS Service Programs.” I have collected a series of longer reflections by alumni that provide some anecdotal evidence of the long-term impact of our service programs.
  5. Whole Students for a Whole World: Catching Integrity in the Social Conscience Classroom.” Last year I asked my students to explain if they felt that that had grown in their sense of integrity through Humanities I in Action. I was pleasantly surprised by their affirming responses. This piece was written for an Indian magazine.

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VII. Social Conscience in the News

There have been a number of articles written in the South China Morning Post here in Hong Kong that have focused on our social conscience courses.

  1. Hong Kong Students Get a Taste of Dire World of the Poor and Displaced” by Angela Baura (SCMP, October 6, C10, 2014). Every year Humanities I in Action students participate in a Refugee Run simulation run by Crossroads, a Hong Kong charity founded by HKIS family Malcolm and Sally Begbie. This outing is a key component of our unit on genocide, as we want students to have a visceral understanding of the books and movies that are part of our study. For many students, this is the second most memorable experience of the course (after the Foshan trip).
  2. Inspired Choices” by Andrea Zadvasky (SCMP, April 24, 2014): This overview article of Humanities I in Action includes interviews with two grade 9 students and myself about the curriculum and its impact upon students.
  3. Technology Doesn’t Make us ‘Appy: Young Hongkongers ‘Depressed by Social Media‘” by Kate Whitehead (SCMP, December 2, 2014). In my senior elective Service, Society, and the Sacred, I include a unit on technology, a topic of both fascination and real concern for young people. Two of my SSS students and myself are quote in the article, which focuses on the recent book on this topic by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis. I did some action research with my class and shared their thoughts on technology in this blog entry. Their responses provided student perspectives on Gardner and Davis’ research.


VIII. Social Conscience Education and Spirituality

As a Christian educator, I have always been interested in connecting social conscience education to the spiritual growth of students.

  1. We have souls: Developing a School Culture of Service.” This overview article was first printed in an Australian Lutheran publication about how my colleagues and I have developed service programs at HKIS.
  2. Beyond Holistic Education: A Pedagogy of Spiritual Activation.” Following a survey of holistic education literature, I make the case that we can more with greater confidence offer student the opportunity to grow spiritually in our classrooms.
  3. Defining a Spiritual Person in a Social Conscience Course.” Some years ago I asked one of my classes about 1/3 through the year if they thought Humanities I in Action was a spiritual experience. To my surprise, most students said yes. Then we as a class defined what spirituality was for them.
  4. Service Learning for Spiritual Growth: My Students’ Experience at Yaowawit.” Drawing on upon a large-scale research project done at UCLA, I attempt to understand how my students felt that they grew spiritually through a week-long service trip to a school/orphanage in southern Thailand.
  5. The Yin-Yang Symbol as Curricular Model: A Transformative Approach to Christian Education.” This philosophy of education statement argues that service learning needs spiritual practice in order to break the inner shell of the ego.

SSS in circle


Humanities I in Action offers grade 9 students a chance to change themselves and their world from their very first moments of high school. Those of us that teach the course see the growth in our students from their very first day. It is our wish that more teachers and schools would change their curricula to meet the genuine needs not only of our students, but of the world.


* Teacher and author Amy Bintliff asked me to respond to the 51vA-lXDbML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_questions as research into the second edition of her book

**In 2005 I began a qualitative study using interviews and essays to understand their perspectives on how to teach for social conscience education, which I completed in 2009 in my dissertation.

Journey Through 1st Semester of Humanities I in Action

One of my students, Liberty Chapman, created a magazine that summarizes her study and experiences during the first semester of the course.

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Signing up for Humanities I in Action

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Table of Contents

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Her initial worldview and first unit

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Lord of the Flies, Refugee Run, and Foshan

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Genocide and her worldview now

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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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27 Responses to Education for Transformation: Introducing Humanities I in Action

  1. Jim Handrich says:

    What a powerful compilation of curriculum and experience of Humanities 1 and transformational education. I hope you’ll send this to “Education Leadership,” LEA, and other journals that might be interested. It’s such a potentially powerful course for ninth grade students..

    • Thanks, Jim! I’ve been meaning to get this together for some time; Mike and I are going to Hanoi in late October to do a one-day workshop on service learning (thanks to David Elliott’s invitation), and seemed like the right time to pull it all together. Good idea to think about sending it onto some others to use if its usefulness in other contexts. I’m on my way to NY tonight – remember Yvonne Yu from 2000? Will visit her classroom – she wants to do ESOL in Action. Hope to team up with her – her class and my class on some project. Take care and thanks for all the support. BTW, there is a new video on India that’s related to your fund – Brittany and Caroline’s work in Ambur. It’s here: Three versions. Marty

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