There is a lot of discussion these days about creating an interconnected, globally competent generation, so it’s no surprise that the service learning movement is burgeoning. Faced with a variety of interactive and immersive experiences, discerning travelers wonder what service learning is, exactly, and why so many diverse programs are popping up all over the world.
In 1990, Congress passed the National and Community Service Act, which defines service learning as a method through which students learn and develop by actively participating in thoughtfully organized service on-site to meet a community’s needs. Integrated service learning enhances a curriculum and provides structured time for reflection, which helps foster a sense of civic responsibility — just one reason that a tremendous number of resources have emerged as the percentage of players involved has significantly increased. Educators have access to thousands of articles, books, toolkits, and research papers as well as numerous professional development events and conferences. Furthermore, increased funding from federal, state, local, and private sources helps service learning practitioners design thoroughly researched programs and disseminate best practices.
This upward trend is expected. Service learning can expand education and call to ethical action a generation of students developing social responsibility. Engaged youths provide direct assistance to a community while learning about the context of their service, the connection to their own learning and ambitions, and their roles as global citizens.
However, the two halves of the service learning equation aren’t quite equal. Educators’ research shows that volunteers cultivate social responsibility, counteract racism, and strengthen leadership, personal, and social skills — all positive developments. On the other hand, important questions remain unresolved on the service side of the equation. How and why are the service projects being set up? Does the community design them? Who is facilitating discussion and directing the learning goals? While often a transformative experience, service can reinforce prejudices if opportunities are not handled with mindful intent, humility and compassion.
What’s needed now is the same critical analysis already applied to learning. The truth is not all service learning programs are created equal, and the market is saturated with both service and learning programs that are not mindfully designed, executed, or assessed. EF recognizes the importance of the quality of the overall student experience, and our goal is to design innovative programs and activities with equally strong service and learning components. This means responding to the legitimate interests of all involved: students, faculty, parents, educational institutions, community agencies, and the communities themselves — and adhering to principled guidelines promoting truly reciprocal community partnerships, advocacy and community development, and evaluation strategies that ensure continual improvement.
EF partners with global and local non-profit and community organizations to ensure project authenticity and community buy-in. As part of our continuing innovation, we have developed weShare, an online educational tool that connects students to their travel experience before, during, and after their trip. Our reflection exercises include critical analysis of community issues, service strategies, social changes, agency and social policies, and community structure. In addition to the standard Tour Director, EF provides tours with a Service Director to facilitate group discussions and reinforce service learning goals. Lastly, and most importantly, our programs emphasize mindfulness, training students to calm their minds, focus their attention, connect with their peers and the community, and open their eyes to all there is to explore.
I invite you to learn more about EF’s innovative approach to service learning. Come take your first step towards truly experiencing different cultures while, at the same time, taking an introspective journey within your own mind. Also, stay tuned for future posts, where we delve into the specifics of our unique programming and reflect on the success of projects that have been completed.