27 March 2011 ~ 14 Comments

Learning to Serve

It seems that nearly every GAP year program, international school curriculum, and business incentivizing “volunteer leave” is now harping on the concept of “service learning”. They are no longer calling it “volunteering”, as the learning is being emphasized, but what I think we need is a further revolution of this concept. I no longer believe in “service learning” as the best thing to promote to travelers visiting a new place. I now believe in and want to promote the concept of:

Learning Service

or

Learning to Serve

By prioritizing learning, we are able to live the mantra I now try to repeat and remember: we have to learn before we can help. By noting that learning comes before serving, we are reminded of participatory development theories, about researching before we act, about how doing good isn’t something we can take for granted – it takes work. Learning Service means we are learning HOW to be of service: learning about development issues and how we might help or hinder progress through our interventions, about how to vet responsible partners for our money or our time, and about who the players are in the areas we are passionate about and where our skills might add the most value.

Businesses, let your staff members have that same “volunteer leave”, or even more of it, if they decide to learn before they help. Invest in their learning service options so they can become better world citizens and they, your company, and our society will be better for it.

Schools and parents, incentivize your students to learn before they help. Don’t send them out telling them to solve problems they don’t yet know about. Remind them that, just like writing a great paper, we need to do our research first. Show them how that is done by modeling learning service in your school programs.

If any of you reading this are interested in writing a short paper with me on this topic at some point, let me know as I’d love to send this concept out to schools and CSR programs as a challenge to them to incentivize more responsible service by prioritizing learning first.

What are your thoughts on this? Is there a better way to do or to describe whatever you believe to be the most responsible way to travel to a new place?

  • Britta

    This is great! Thanks do you have any other blogs or resources on service learning? I happen to be facilitating a course tomorrow on just this topic and am scrounging for good critical perspectives. nnBritta (frm Dragons Bolivia)

  • http://www.philanthropyindaba.com Maryann

    Daniela, thanks for another thoughtful post. I completely agree and will be using “learning service” from here on out. I think that whenever we bring individuals out into the field whether it is focused on their philanthropy or service, there is always a component of learning, so we do prepare them to go out into the field with background information on country, culture, organizations, and start engaging them before we hit the ground. We also help people process their new experiences through discussions while in the field to enable people to exchange perspectives and deepen the learning opportunity.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Britta and Maryann! Hope the course went well! If I didn’t miss the deadline, the next post I just put up relates to this a bit…. hope it helps! This is also a piece we wrote on how we changed from “service learning” to “educational adventures” http://lessonsilearned.org/2010/02/traveling-responsibly-u2013-learning-trips-over-giving-trips/

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottpburke Scott Burke

    Hi Daniela, great post here (just found your blog today). You’re articulating something that I’ve told my clients going abroad over the years, but you’ve done it much better by coming up with the succinct “Learning to Serve” phrase! I had a volunteer arrive in Kenya last week, and she’s been writing to me about all she has seen, heard and learned so far. It’s clear she understands that it’s ridiculous to think you can simply show up in a new place and start trying to solve everyone’s problems, without knowing intimately how people and the culture etc work! Looking forward to reading your blog regularly. –Scott

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottpburke Scott Burke

    Hi Daniela, great post here (just found your blog today). You’re articulating something that I’ve told my clients going abroad over the years, but you’ve done it much better by coming up with the succinct “Learning to Serve” phrase! I had a volunteer arrive in Kenya last week, and she’s been writing to me about all she has seen, heard and learned so far. It’s clear she understands that it’s ridiculous to think you can simply show up in a new place and start trying to solve everyone’s problems, without knowing intimately how people and the culture etc work! Looking forward to reading your blog regularly. –Scott

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottpburke Scott Burke

    Hi Daniela, great post here (just found your blog today). You’re articulating something that I’ve told my clients going abroad over the years, but you’ve done it much better by coming up with the succinct “Learning to Serve” phrase! I had a volunteer arrive in Kenya last week, and she’s been writing to me about all she has seen, heard and learned so far. It’s clear she understands that it’s ridiculous to think you can simply show up in a new place and start trying to solve everyone’s problems, without knowing intimately how people and the culture etc work! Looking forward to reading your blog regularly. –Scott

  • http://twitter.com/brittrice Brittany Rice

    I spent a year in South Africa working for an internship organization that promoted the idea of volunteering/interning…you’re spot on…it’s the fad right now for students to take a year off and travel. Structurally, it was a mess. The business side of the internship organization flourished (because so many of American and European students are looking for an excuse to travel and learn new cultures), but the organizations that these students were a part of had no idea how to use “interns” for 3 months. I didn’t see it positively impacting Cape Townians…..and the interns/students were bored much of the time AND came away with a bad view of South Africa thinking that they lack “structure” within organizations…all because they wanted to be catered to and given direction when there was no direction to give. Would love to talk more about this!!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for the comment, Scott. I wonder how we can get more people to make these realizations BEFORE they pay and sign up to go do these types of trips. I personally, like so many others, learned by doing. I did a lot of volunteering abroad before I realized things I wanted to avoid like: I stopped believing that young people should be able to fundraise for “volunteering” time like as happens with many building trips, that setting up “rewarding” volunteer trips for travelers can often be dichotomous with setting up “rewarding” trips for the host areas/people because of timing (waiting for the volunteers), skills (the main things needed were not things the volunteers could do, and what the volunteers could do, usually others could do just as well), etc….nnSo, how can people learn these lessons without making these mistakes first themselves? I’d love to get more people to think/talk about these things before they are abroad realizing they are about to start to try to “solve” someone else’s problems which they know little about… maybe this speech from Ivan Illich (or at least the last few paragraphs) should be issued with all new passports? http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm

  • Anonymous

    Hi Brittany. Thanks for the comment. This sounds a lot like things I have seen and been a part of in Cambodia. It’s tricky…. anywhere that there is a business potential, you can always be sure someone will be filling the demand… but if the people who tend to jump up to fill the demand are focused on making money by satisfying the “client” (that being the paying traveler), the stated beneficiaries or causes can sometimes be overlooked. In the end, as you point out, no one is truly satisfied, but as this is a business relying on travelers (rather than local repeat customers) even those people offering harmful volunteer opportunities tend to continue to be able to get clients through advertising to new market areas. Without a discerning client base who have the tools to be able to vet responsible options for their travel, this problem is likely to continue to grow. Would love to hear more of your thoughts on this!

  • Anna

    Hmm, yes, as a high school teacher who organizes/leads these trips, I have to say this can be tricky. I think the best route we’ve found so far involves making our planning as transparent and inclusive as possible for our students — presenting a few different options for locations, accommodations, activities, and (most importantly) host organizations to the students interested in the trip, researching the options together, guiding their choices and supplementing their research with points they may not have come to on their own.nnVideos like Al Jazeera’s piece on orphan tourism http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/101east/2011/02/2011210123057338995.html and articles like this one http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/nov/14/orphans-cambodia-aids-holidays-madonna can help jostle students’ understanding of what they’re signing up for, but privilege and entitlement are hard enough concepts to grapple with at any age, let alone at 16. Most of them watch the videos and read the articles and still say, “Ya, but that doesn’t apply to us because …”nnI teach at a private school, and the students on our trips come from wealthy families living in wealthy, safe, and leafy neighbourhoods (as is likely the case for many young people who can afford the plane tickets and costs associated with any kind of travel). Many of them are not accustomed to taking responsibility for their choices, and that tends to be our focus throughout the trip — coming to an understanding that their choices ARE their privilege, following the trail of consequences resulting from each choice, and taking responsibility for the outcome. nnI think that lesson is just as important when making the small choices in life (whether to clean up after yourself or leave it for someone else, whether or not to look someone in the eye when they ask you for change) as it is in the big choices (who to work for, where to invest your money, how to spend your time), and seeing the growth in our students as that sinks in is remarkable. At the end of the trips though, there will always be some students who I know still don’t “get it”.nnHas anyone else had any other angles that they’ve found successful in planning/delivering high school (or university student) trips? What are people’s thoughts on homestays?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Anna (et al), I thought you would appreciate this. It is a blog by students from Texas who just recently joined us for a week in Cambodia. These are the types of changes in attitudes and actions we are hoping to inspire through our trips. I’d love to discuss this more with you more!
    https://readershipwtcambodia.wordpress.com/

  • Anna

    These are great – thanks for the link. Some reactions:

    – These kinds of trips (at least for high school students) really need to be embedded in a course. Our school’s groups have always had weekly meetings leading up to and following a trip, but you just can’t expect the same kind of time/energy/analytical commitment before and after the trip as you could in a class. I couldn’t tell if the WT students were in a formal for-credit course or an extra-curricular class, but I imagine an extracurricular commitment of this scale would be easier to ask/expect from students a few years out of high school, especially if they had won a contest over hundreds of others. I developed a global citizenship course a couple of years ago with the intention of tying it to our school’s trips, but there were complications with students who wanted to take the course but couldn’t afford the trip. I’m still convinced that’s the best way to do it though.

    – It was neat to read thoughts from students who are just a little older than my high school groups. I haven’t been able to read anything by my students, only to hear their thoughts out loud (they only do personal journals), so it was nice to read some careful and thoughtful analysis. 

    – I like the online format as it lets students read other students’ thoughts as well. If I were doing it again, I think I’d use this format. I’d love to have a post-trip written assignment, but again, it’s hard to compete with all the other things students have going on, especially once the trip is over… The blog is informal enough that they’d be more likely to do it, but it’s formal enough that they’re putting some real reflection and analysis into their posts.
    – I like the fact that they had to win a contest too – that really drives home that it’s a privilege, and that they have a responsibility to themselves, their group-mates, and their school to give and get as much from the experience as possible. We’ve had short application essays for our trips, but it’s certainly not a contest and they don’t get their trips paid for (except by their parents).It sounds like they had a really amazing experience, and that you and PEPY really helped them make the most of their experience.

    Sorry for the long post – would love to hear your thoughts. Do you guys (PEPY) do any follow-up after the trip, and/or suggest ways for the students to incorporate what they’ve learned into their lives back home?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Anna –

    Thanks for reading and thanks for the thoughts! Yes, the WT students had a contest to win the trip and then were part of a weekly course before and after the trip. We did a few one-hour video conference calls before and after the trip with them – to do so pre-planning discussions about the culture, do’s and don’ts, setting expectations, etc and then some debriefing after they got home. I think it is really nice to frame a trip like that so that the learning and analysis of the experience can start long before they arrive and continue once they get home.  We’d love to do some of that with your students next time if you come back through Cambodia!

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