Did We Make A Difference? Action Research of a Teaching for Empowerment Program in South India


For the last seven years HKIS students have come to our two sister schools, Concordia-Ambur and Concordia-Pernambut, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to implement a “Teaching for Empowerment” curriculum developed by our students. Once again we returned to Ambur in March to facilitate this week-long program, but this time an HKIS alum, Caroline Scown, who participated for three years here as a high school Screen Shot 2018-05-14 at 12.10.33 PM.pngstudent and co-wrote the empowerment curriculum, returned during her university’s spring break to do action research on the program. Her surveys and interviews of the program participants aimed to respond to the nagging question that is always present in school service learning events: did we actually make a difference? In this context, can HKIS students honestly say that the “Teaching for Empowerment” program truly empowered the Indian students?

This entry proceeds, first, to describe the forces of disempowerment faced by the Indian students that set the context for our empowerment program, then details an overview of the empowerment curriculum, specifies the data gathering method, and then presents our findings. In the final section, several contextual factors are offered to explain the cumulative effect of this program upon the Indian students.

Forces of Disempowerment

While poverty is the most evident feature of the life challenges faced by the Indian students, throughout the week our HKIS students came to understand that the low social status of their Indian counterparts results from several, more complex forces of disempowerment.


  1. Caste Discrimination: The two Christian schools that these children attend were started by the Lutheran Church in the early 20th century to serve the needs of Dalit (Untouchable) children in the local area. Still today nearly 100% of the children come from the Dalit caste and face discrimination. Visiting the poorer rural school of Pernambut, seeing the crumbling school facilities, hearing of their financial struggles to even eat sufficient food or clothe themselves certainly gave us a sense of the “weightiness” of their millennia-long oppression.
  2. Economic Powerlessness: One Indian administrator explained that the students feel disempowered because they see their parents as oppressed and voiceless. The parents themselves work as drivers, guards, or even scavengers for recyclable materials, jobs that are expendable to their employers; they simply accept their lives that have been given to them. He described their situation as one of “bondage” and “slavery.”
  3. Lack of Vision and Hopelessness: Given their status as Dalits and their lack of economic power, it is not surprising that the students lack a vision for a viable future. Especially for children at Concordia-Pernambut whose parents work in brickyards, roll cigarettes, or are scavengers, despair is common among the families of the students. When asked why students and adults often give into the temptations of smoking, despite knowing that it causes cancer, one student replied, “That way they will die faster.” Their basic orientation towards life in society, according to one administrator, is fear.
  4. Substance Abuse: For all the incredible energy and engagement that the Indian students display every day of the program, it is hard to escape the conclusion that many of them, like the population at large, will succumb to the money-squandering and potentially addictive pleasures of alcohol, smoking, and drugs because of the long odds they face to make a good life in their society. One administrator estimated that 70% of the children’s families have to deal with alcoholism. A typical scenario is that a man who works menial jobs, making perhaps 300 or 400 rupees a day ($5-6 US), will often spend 100 rupees of his daily earnings on alcohol to provide some relief from the tedium of his life. Another administrator suggested that a “good job” working the line of a shoe factory will earn workerIMG_20170310_115421091.jpgs 200 rupees/day. Most of the workers are women; the men often stay home and use the earnings to support their drinking habits. There is a belief that the collective influence of mass culture – through movies and now their recently acquired phones – is having a corrosive impact upon the self-discipline needed for poor students to escape the cycle of poverty.


In the context of systemic poverty, the evident forces of disempowerment include students’ historical disadvantage, economic dependency, lack of a personal vision, hopelessness, and substance abuse, which cumulatively create great challenges for the students in the two schools.

By contrast, the greatest force for hope, it appears, is these Christian schools’ commitment to the pro-social values that every child is a gift from God, and service to the community is the appropriate response to God’s love. These messages are communicated in the daily devotions that begin each empowerment session. It is out of this commitment to their students’ welfare that the school administrators make the empowerment program a priority in their schools.


 “Teaching for Empowerment” Program Overview

The five-day “Teaching for Empowerment” program is held in a large open air church hall near the Concordia-Ambur campus. The twenty HKIS students lead small groups of the fifty secondary school students (ages 12-17) from the two schools. The explicit goal of the program is to consider social issues in the local area and develop action plans to ameliorate these social ills.

The morning always begins with a devotion and singing led by one of the Christian administrators who oversees the program. Then there are two sessions (9:30-11:00 and 11:15-12:45) divided by a chai break. Each day also features icebreakers to engage students, some of which are intended to teach empowerment concepts, such as the power of teamwork. An overview of the five-day program is summarized below:

Day 1: Introducing the Empowerment Concept and Social Issues

  1. Introduction of the empowerment conceptScreen Shot 2019-01-04 at 4.45.53 PM.png of “I Can, You Can, We Can” with a TEDx talk by Indian teacher-activist Kiran Sethi.
  2. Issues Pictionary: Groups brainstorm social issues, then compete with other groups by drawing the issues. Students then choose the issue they are most interested in, and then re-organized into small groups based on their chosen area (e.g., child labor, air pollution, water pollution, etc).

Day 2: The Power of Team and Analysis of a Social Issue

  1. Meter stick activity about teamwork, and debrief.
  2. Safe space discussion about how the IMG_20170307_095403066_BURST000_COVER_TOP.jpgteam will function.
  3. Analysis of their social issue and how to solve the problem, recorded on a poster.

Day 3: Medical and Veterinary Camp

A new addition to the program this year was that our group sponsored a medical and veterinary camp in a village about a half hour drive outside of Ambur. Six medical personnel provided free services and distributed medicines to 86 villagers, and veterinary deworming medicine to 521 animals. Our group of twenty and a group of ten Ambur students observed and helped record these medical services.


Day 4: Understanding a Social Problem and Developing an Action Plan

  1. Further processing of their social problem by making a poster and developing their action plan solution.
  2. Public speaking skills and planning for the next day’s presentation to the whole group.

Day 5: Taking Action and Presentations

  1. The groups fine-tune their presentations an act on their plans (e.g., write letters, make trashcans, etc).
  2. Groups deliver presentations, including skits, songs, and posters about their social issue.


Research Methods

Caroline, along with her close friend and Teaching for Empowerment co-author Brittany, created a strategy for data gathering during our week in India.

Surveys: The HKIS students filled out surveys at the beginning and end of the program. The local Indian students also filled out a survey at the beginning, and handed in an essay at the end about the impact of the program.

Written response: The Indian students wrote an open response in English about the overall impact of the program. They were encouraged to provide their honest assessment of the weeklong activities, including any suggestions to the program.

Interviews: Caroline and I interviewed the Indian administrators of the program, some of the HKIS students, several current Indian student participants, and one returning Indian student who was in the program for several years and now is in college.

Nightly Debriefings: Every night the HKIS students gathered as a group to discuss the day’s events and their own reflections on the empowerment program. Caroline took extensive notes on student reflections during these meetings.



In response to the central question whether the program makes a difference with regards to empowerment, the following themes emerged as we analyzed the surveys, responses, and interviews. The two essential catalysts that resulted in the forthcoming outcomes were social awareness and deep personal relationships.

Catalyst 1: Social Awareness

From the very start of the program in which a TEDx talk is shown about Indian kids making a difference in society to the closing presentations, the curriculum emphasizes that the purpose of the program is improving society. Students are introduced to important issues in their social world, such as pollution, child labor, or alcoholism, and given a platform for critical thinking in which they were analyze the problem and apply practical solutions.


Catalyst 2: In-Depth Relationships

The emotional bonds between the two groups of IMG_20170306_093358583_BURST001students were clear from the students’ writings about the program. Students wrote about the fun that they had playing games and dancing with the students as well as the learning they gained from listening to the students. The HKIS students seemed to serve as role models for the Indian students.

Every year many tears are shared in the final moments of the program. In a final statement this year one Indian student celebrated the intimacy between the students, referring to her new Hong Kong friends as her brothers and sisters. Other students used similar language, addressing the teachers as their elders in this extended multicultural family.


It appears, then, that the study of social issues in an atmosphere of trust, care, encouragement, relational bonding, and attention to student voice results in the overall program goal of empowerment.

Outcome: Four Dimensions of Empowerment

The data suggest that the program does indeed create a sense of empowerment for students, which can be described in the following four dimensions.

Dimension 1: Educational Vision. One of the school administrators commented repeatedly that the empowerment program lit a spark inside of students. He explained that as students grow older and are tempted, for example, to take and give bribes, like he had seen his father do, now he understands that this is a social evil. The spark will inform him that there is a better way to live. According to this administrator, this spark affected some students in comprehensive ways, reflected in their character, body language, and dress. Most significantly for children whose parents work in the brickyards, roll cigarettes, or are scavengers, it has given these disadvantaged children a vision of a different future. Numerous students also commented in their essays how they felt inspired by the HKIS students to embrace their educational opportunities.

Nicky Yang wrote about this theme in her final essay: “Something memorable that a bright student named Nevietha in my group said: without education, we cannot decide the life we want to live. They talked about their dreams and ambitions (a lot of the girls in my group wanted to be doctors!). This was extremely powerful because through our discussions, they understood the importance of embracing educational opportunities that can give them a hopeful vision of a different future.


Dimension 2: Confidence. The biggest practical impact upon students was a developing confidence, Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 4.17.11 PMsummarized by the initial Tedx video slogan that was chanted throughout the week, “I can! You can! We can!” Even though students struggled to give practical examples of actions taken, they claimed to have the confidence to address social issues in the future. They seemed to gladly receive the support and acknowledgment of the HKIS students. If parental examples are generally ones suggesting suppression and fear, interactions with HKIS students provided them with role models suggesting that positive change is possible.

Dimension 3: Skill development. While students are taught at school about these various social problems facing Indian society, the week-long program gave them the opportunity to apply these pro-social values in the more real life situation of working with international students beyond the exam-based achievement system of their schooling. Through this program, students demonstrated an array of critical thinking skills: questioning, discussing, summarizing, problem-solving, and expressing themselves in Tamil with their peers and in English with their HKIS counterparts. These skills together suggest that the empowerment program contributes to student leadership development. Finally, they learned about the power of teamwork and learned how to work together to produce a presentation.

Dimension 4: Action steps. When asked about the impact of the empowerment program, one administrator responded that as a result of their experience, students now lead the school-wide devotions twice a week. He added that these devotions were more relevant to students than those led by the faculty.This is an example of increased leadership and communication skills. Another schoolimg_20170310_124609730-e1489219645202.jpg administrator said that out at his school, the students contributed significantly to the development of a night school for parents, teaching them practical skills like reading and writing, hygiene, and about drainage systems. He believes that the exposure to new ideas makes them more curious and enthusiastic about their future education. In the conclusion to this year’s program, one student made the bold suggestion that she will approach her father that he should consider curtailing his drinking habits.IMG_20170310_104416144.jpg

One student response illustrates the weaving together of these various dimensions of the empowerment. When asked how the program impacted her, this student stated that she was more confident as a result of the program and wanted to help the community. When asked to give a concrete example of any action she had taken, she had no response. But when queried further if she talked to anyone about what she was learning in the program, she said that she had spoken to her neighbors about pollution. While this may be considered a humble action, speaking to those who live nearby about social issues shows a nascent form of confidence, self-expression, critical thinking, and the ability to engage in dialogue about a social issue with those in her social sphere.

With these four features in mind, we offer our research-based definition of this program’s core concept. In this context, empowerment is a multi-faceted concept that combines the development of a long-term vision of the value of education, a growing sense of personal confidence, the use of various critical thinking skills, and taking action steps. Future empowerment teams should be encouraged to emphasize these four areas in their interaction with students.

A final comment should be made that did not appear in the data, but seems of significant


Wall built by HKIS donations.

import with regard to the question of making a difference. An indirect, yet absolutely critical result of the empowerment curriculum is the material support given by the HKIS group to the two schools. An administrator of Concordia-Pernambut estimated that 90% of the school’s maintenance, such as a school wall, pillar reconstruction, a well for the school’s water needs, came from donations by visiting HKIS groups. In fact, at the entry of the school a sign reads, “Courtesy HKIS.”

2015-03-09 11.36.11

School Support Systems

In this final section we would like to identify the most salient features of these two schools and their interrelationship that contribute to the ongoing and cumulative effect of this annual, one-week “Teaching for Empowerment” program. This underscores that the week’s impact is magnified by supportive features specific to these two schools.


 The majority of the HKIS student-facilitators took an interdisciplinary service learning course in their freshmen year called “Humanities I in Action” that for a significant number students impacted their social conscience development dramatically. The easiest way to describe this trip experience to HKIS students is as a 5-day version of Humanities I in Action for local Indian students. In addition, most of trip participants have gone on one or more service-oriented trips before the India experience. Finally, the trip has developed a reputation as a teaching interim, attracting students who come in with an attitude of reaching out to the Indian students.

As mentioned earlier, the Indian schools are a result of a Christian mission effort that IMG_20170310_090902401.jpgemphasizes the value of service to the community that is consistent with the teaching for empowerment concept. Additionally, the key role of visionary leadership by the school administrators of Concordia-Ambur and Concordia-Pernambut cannot be overestimated. The aims of the empowerment program match the 4-decade commitment of these administrators. Finally, the fact that HKIS and the two Concordia schools are part of the same mother church, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is a unifying factor between the leaders of both trips. The two HKIS teachers and the three Indian administrators are all members of the Lutheran Church. Finally, the degree of freedom that these Indian schools have to run this program with no oversight about the content has encouraged an atmosphere of experimentation and curricular development. The inclusion of spiritual values, too, gives a moral power to the teaching that it is believed would be absent in other contexts.

Curriculum Development. The two students mentioned previously, Caroline and Brittany, Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 4.21.30 PM.pnghave made a commitment to not only attending the interim 4 and 3 times, respectively, but have invested large amounts of time and energy in building the curriculum, which allows the HKIS students to successfully lead the lessons in their small groups. The two girls were coached by a doctoral student, Katie Larson, who assisted them in publishing their curriculum. Katie also invited the two girls to become co-researchers in her doctoral dissertation on adolescent transformative learning. My research on social conscience education has also been a useful guide in the development of the curriculum.

Student Leadership. A final factor that has made this empowerment curriculum successful has been the role that student leadership has played in both schools. For the last four years, starting with Brittany and Caroline, students who have participated in previous years as facilitators in the teaching delivery became student leaders. Implicitly, the trip then models the value of empowerment in calling upon student leaders to be responsible for running the pre-trip meetings and the four teaching days. Finally, this student involvement has generated a commitment by some students that extends far beyond the one week in India, as illustrated by Caroline’s return during her college spring break. Certainly this year’s students have been inspired by Caroline’s commitment and insight. In terms of the Indian students, the school administrator choose those students to attend who have the most spiritual maturity and leadership potential. Nearly all the Indian students attend two or more years, which results in a greater impact upon these students and their schools.*


To the left, one of this year’s leaders, Helena, prepares the HKIS students for the next day’s teaching, while co-creator of the Teaching for Empowerment curriculum, Caroline (on the right) takes notes on the meeting.


We are happy to report that the data supports our intuition that we are making a difference through this teaching for empowerment program, leading us to the inspiring conclusion that the impact seems greater, in fact, than we had previously believed. Setting a clear purpose of improving society in the context of deep bonds of friendship between students in the two schools has clearly empowered many of the Indian students.** Empowerment came to be understood in this action research as a multi-faceted concept that combines the development of a long-term vision of the value of education, a growing sense of personal confidence, an array of critical thinking skills, and the demonstration of action steps.

We hope that the results of this action research project encourage other schools to consider adopting the “Teaching for Empowerment” concept as a basis for similar programs. Caroline and Brittany are happy to share their curriculum with other individuals or schools. However, there are contextual factors that should be considered, such as school cultures that actively promote social conscience values and visionary leadership, that have supported the program goals in the respective school settings. We believe that these factors have had a substantial cumulative effect that has grown over time. With these considerations in place, we encourage other schools to adopt and further innovate the empowerment curriculum. We would like to close with the well-known Margaret Mead quote that captures an underlying belief of the students and teachers who have been committed to this program, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Image result for margaret mead quote


*It is important to add that the majority of the Indian students attend this program more than once, some as many as five times. All the interviews with the Amber students, for example, were with multi-year attendees.

**Although not the topic of this entry, it can be noted here that in an informal survey, every HKIS student felt personally empowered by this year’s trip.

Related Blog Entries

  1. Empowering Students in India with the “I Can” Belief
  2. Teaching for Empowerment in South India 2015
  3. “I Can! You Can! We Can!” Empowering Young Women at CWEF Summer Camp (China)






17190578_1394679283940806_3016871079938743670_n20170308-IMG_0819-1 (1)


Caught a little off guard when our Indian cook at Bethesda Nursing School wanted to hold my hand for a picture!

IMG_20170310_132313545(1).jpegIndia: Service Through Empowerment 2017  A reflection by Nicky Yang

“People never forget how you make them feel.”

“Real happiness is being satisfied with what you already have.”


Through this empowerment trip to India, my problems got smaller and the world got bigger. It was my first time in India and I didn’t realize how big the wealth gap in the world was. During our visit to Concordia Pernambut, I could not believe that these cheerful and enthusiastic students we met had to learn under such poor conditions with no lights, barely any tables or chairs. I asked the students in my education group what their thoughts on school and exams were. All of them replied with huge grins and said they loved going to school to gain new knowledge and enjoyed the challenges of exams. If I were to ask the same question to my peers at HKIS, most people would say something different. At that moment, I realized I’ve taken so many of my own opportunities for granted and failed to truly appreciate my life and education at HKIS. I’ve learned so much from these students – their grit, perseverance, vulnerability, and kindness to accept others.

I’ve been involved in service since freshmen year of high school. I love working with Kids4Kids and reading English books to primary kids at my local community center. My previous volunteer experiences served as an important catalyst for thinking about service and my role in the world. But throughout last week, engaging in the empowerment program, interacting with the Indian students and having meaningful conversations about social issues and impacts, I learned the importance of empowering people to make change on themselves, instead of imposing change on them. I underestimated the power of education and how awareness can spark or inspire people to do something they care about. Something memorable that a bright student named Nevietha in my group said: without education, we cannot decide the life we want to live. They talked about their dreams and ambitions (a lot of the girls in my group wanted to be doctors!). This was extremely powerful because through our discussions, they understood the importance of embracing educational opportunities that can give them a hopeful vision of a different future. They were also very passionate about delivering that message to the rest of the groups because the students worked well together (using characteristics of a good group learned from safe space: unity, trust, listen, speak, communicate, family) to develop a skit that discusses the causes and effects of education. Everyone combined their strengths and became more confident in the different skills they could contribute to the group. I think they enjoyed taking control over the development of the story and the skit. They were proud of their hard work throughout the progress and I think it was partly because of our appreciation for their creativity. Given that their education system is exam and results based, they probably don’t get the chance to experiment with hands-on learning.

Since this is my last interim trip, it definitely raised a lot of questions and got me thinking in the long-run. How did I get so lucky to be born into this privilege? What did I do to deserve the life I have now that’s so different from the Indian students? How can I tie in empowerment type of service with my future college career and profession? Do I have to choose between my career and service? Is there some sort of balance where I can pursue my career and use my strength and knowledge to help people? I may not have all the answers, but I know I didn’t deserve any of this – I just got lucky. If I were to take anything from this trip, it’s to be thankful for what I have and to be educated not just for my own success, but for improving the lives of others too.

Untitled1Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 8.27.37 PM.png


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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4 Responses to Did We Make A Difference? Action Research of a Teaching for Empowerment Program in South India

  1. Jim Handrich says:

    Glad to see Caroline and Brittany back to do this assessment and contribute to research. It’s clear that all who participate in the week-long empowerment lessons from all three schools learn from it. It’s such a good vision for one way to help others move out of poverty and to live in hope. What a difference you all are making!

  2. Rishi says:

    Another successful Interim trip! Well done! Good that you were able to measure the impact on both sets of students.

    • Thanks, Richard! We’ve had a pretty good sense of how our kids have been influenced in the past, but this is the first time we’ve really tried to get at the impact upon the recipients! We were pleased with what we found.

  3. It’s been to build on your work, Bill, and it’s been a great school-to-school partnership over the past 8 years. And there’s room for more schools (like SPU) to come and visit. Hope to see the program grew in the years to come.

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