Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Power of Service Learning

This past weekend I had the good fortune to make my way to the Jakarta International School and attend a workshop entitled Service Learning for Humanity and the Environment conducted by a front-runner in the world of service learning, Cathryn Berger-Kaye. It was one of those workshops that has direct implications on teaching and which empower you, as the participant, to walk away thinking that "wow, I can make the world a better place with this"!  

But even in this setting, with all of us service learning believers, conversations came up that could well have been placed in faculty meetings. Thoughts about whether this was a good model for higher level coursework (IB, for example) or whether using this model of educational approach would somehow sacrifice curriculum. Time and time again Cathryn put our concerns at ease by explaining exactly how the service learning format can be used from our prep reception all the way to our HL IB courses (Hint: According to Cathryn, the "IB people" love this!). The concept is simple. Put mindful, solution-based action at the forefront of learning. 

It's an empowering prospect. How many teachers would disagree that doing this is a more powerful teaching tool than traditional classroom-based learning. Every teacher training course instructs pre-service teachers to do what they can to "make it real" and to allow students a chance to recognize the age old "why do I need to know this"?  Service learning is essentially a way to get students to marry their skills and interests with community problems in a way that allows them to be part of the solution. 

The process is straight forward when you first look at it. Exactly at the center of the visual used to represent service learning is the word "curriculum" where the entire process begins.  A circular diagram of clockwise aiming arrows joining concepts surrounding "curriculum" includes "investigation", "planning" and "action". Between every one of those three steps are nestled the terms "reflection" and "demonstration" adding to the importance of those particular elements to ensuring a solid educational process. It is important to note, however, that service learning can be applied to many settings. It can be done in the classroom, in organized trips (like GAP and Malaysia Week) or within the context of clubs. What makes it powerful is the process. 

None of these words are new. The concept seems so simple. Yet the end result can be so powerful.   Time and time again examples were shared of students making positive change in their communities. Time and time again the participating teachers were impressed with the power of student thinking and the variability of solutions that students can find in addressing community concerns. 

Why does this matter to ISKL?  Well, apart from my position being established, we are all on board with the concept that 21st century skills (our SLRs are based on many of them) are important to being successful in life. The new educational paradigm is that students actually address problems here and now. Why study about them from a book and come up with hypothetical situations when you are actually able (and so often willing) to do something about them now? Whether it's the environment, social inequality or health-related issues (note the strong connection to ESD) students are being asked to come up with solutions in their future. The best way for them to make a difference is for them to try and try again. Even failure is success sometimes, because it allows one to re-evaluate, to reflect, and to address an issue from a different angle. This is what service learning has the power to provide in our students.

The world's adult population is a sign of how people can be successful. Imagine how successful the world would be if students were allowed the possibility to engage here and now. It brings solutions into the hands of so many more people. It empowers us all. It generates the realization that, yes, every one of us is part of the change we want to see in the world. It also allows our students to recognize the power in themselves to make positive change and, in so doing, makes them better world citizens: Our mission as a school.

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