Service Learning from Multiple Perspectives

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A Practical Guide to Managing Good Intentions

By Sally Hirsch, CEO Tracker Apps

For many years, I worked in schools in Switzerland that had active service learning programs. We connected with organizations both locally and internationally to see how our students and teachers could be of support. There is no denying the heartfelt intentions behind each of these projects and experiences. Both teachers and students gained new perspectives and experienced challenges that would not have been possible without service learning programs.

Now, I work on the other side of the experience; I am the General Manager for Ideas Academy (IA), a school that provides secondary education for refugee students in Malaysia.

Some fast facts for you;

  • There are approximately 40,000 refugee children in Malaysia who are registered with the UNHCR. In reality, this number is probably double.
  • Refugee children are not permitted to attend Malaysian public schools and international school expenses are out of reach of refugees. This leaves extremely limited options for accessing education
  • There are approximately 140 learning centres catering to primary/elementary school aged refugee children but only 3 learning centres catering to secondary/high school aged refugee children
  • Learning centres such as Ideas Academy rely solely on donations for funding.

Almost every day, I receive calls and emails from people wanting to help us. Sounds ideal, right? We need help and people are offering. But in reality, the help that is being offered is frequently one-off requests for ‘spending a morning’ at the school or donating books (usually a high proportion of them not suitable for a secondary school library). I see now that when I was involved in service learning, I rarely took the opportunity to sit down and ask a group what they needed or considered planning something that would result in a long term partnership.

Using three of the IB’s service learning outcomes, here’s a comparison of what is the unfortunate norm when it comes to service learning, and what an organization like Ideas Academy actually needs.

  • Work collaboratively with others
    • What this often looks like: The focus on collaboration tends to be within a student group planning their service learning experiences.
    • What it should look like: Working collaboratively with an organization or community partner. This should be done from the outset in terms of planning, taking part, and reflecting on the impact of a project. For IA, we appreciate the opportunity to get feedback from our volunteers to learn what worked, what we should change and how we can increase and prolong volunteer engagement. Honesty is something that we value highly when working with donors and volunteers at IA. I want to know if people can make a long term commitment, if organizations can donate on a regular basis, if partners have a strong connection to the problems that we are trying to solve with our organization.
  • Recognise and consider the ethical implications of my actions
    • What this often looks like: Developing service learning can sometimes start from the end point of ‘what will this look like in our school publicity materials?’ or ‘what will this do for my college application?’ or ‘what should I do over my summer vacation for required service learning?’.  Having a group come and visit IA to ‘see the good work we do’ is equal parts exciting and distracting. I welcome the chance to teach people about the plight of refugees but at the same time, it is time out of my work supporting teachers and students or setting up partnerships that might offer long term and more useful support.
    • What it should look like: Be open and upfront with yourself and the organization you are hoping to work with. Be prepared to say how much time you can commit and be open to other suggestions. Take time to reflect personally on if this service learning is mainly for your benefit or are you actually providing help? Connecting in with the point above on collaboration, have you actually asked the organization what help they need? Your good intentions need to align with the needs of an organization.
  • Show commitment to and persevere in action
    • What this often looks like: A commitment bound by a required number of hours or a period of time eg a term, a two week trip etc.
    • What it should look like: I believe that this outcome should be something that applies to a school service learning program, and not just an individual student project or experience. Service Learning coordinators have a huge role to play in helping students take part in principles action and service learning. As someone on the receiving end of these actions, I would most like to hear from schools who want to set up a long term partnership. Rather than a one off visit, I’d like to have opportunities for sharing and collaboration throughout a year or even better, three years!

Have you got an experience to share about service learning? Perhaps a project that went from something that was around money/gift-giving and morphed into something more meaningful. We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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