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Service Learning as a Tool for Shaping Leaders
It is a Friday evening in September 2017. The sun has set and you are just about to settle down for the night. You have been up since 4am, as usual, with several hungry pigs and two little human mouths to feed before work–you can’t afford to sleep late. It may only be a shade past eight o’clock but you are tired and you need all the rest you can get–you can’t really afford to get ill either. You are paid by the day and the concept of sick leave is as foreign to you as the concept of making a living by sitting at a desk typing. It’s just not for people like you.
Then you hear it... Not again!
The sound of the motorbikes revving grows louder until they are right beside your bedroom wall. You turn over and try to ignore them but you know it is only a matter of moments before the laughing and shouting starts, and who knows what time they will eventually get bored and go home tonight? Why can’t they just find somewhere else to go?
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Bangkok, an international school student has just finished her homework and is looking forward to spending the weekend shopping with friends. She’s wondering where they will have lunch tomorrow–would she prefer pizza or sushi? She decides that trawling through online menus and reviews on Trip Advisor is the best way to choose. It’s not the most exciting way to spend a Friday evening but it’s okay because tomorrow night is the big birthday party that everyone has been looking forward to and she’ll need plenty of energy if she is to make it through to the small hours.
Under what circumstances might these two people, separated by 700km–and generations of diverging culture–meet? The answer could be summed up in a single word: service.
Except that service cannot (or at least should not) be so readily represented by and grouped under a single term; a term that can be written into a checklist or glossed over in conversation. Service is too broad to ever be discussed lightly and every discussion of an example of service should be filled with how’s, why’s, if’s and but’s before it can ever be considered complete. And if you are a student doing service, or an adult supporting students through it, you should feel confident that these discussions are possible before you can really say that it is being done well. The advantages of this approach to service are well known in the educational world, and a broader involvement and understanding of the project and community in question are some of the distinguishing features of what has come to be known as service learning.
Doing ‘just service’ (i.e. turning up to do some manual work for a group of people you know next-to-nothing about, and probably leaving having developed only the specific technical skills required for the work in question) is, in my opinion, hugely overshadowed in terms of learning potential by service learning, and the extra skills that are developed through service learning strongly overlap with the skills that are required for leadership. Hence, service learning is surely one of the most powerful exercises out there in promoting leadership in students.
As with anything, the more that the students put into the experience, the more they will get out of it, but service learning offers them the opportunity to develop a number of leadership skills, in an exciting and memorable environment: skills such as teamwork, problem solving, research, planning, collaboration and extracting ideas from others, decision making, time management, prioritising, meeting specific goals, motivating others, compassion, seeing the bigger picture and then being able to make decisions in the context of this bigger picture, organisation and bouncebackability–as not all their ideas will be approved by the team, adult supervisors and/or the host community. Not all of these skills are easily improved in a classroom environment or through traditional team building activities, and surely the capacity to develop all of them is enhanced by the practical and real-life nature of service learning. I don’t think many other educational experiences can offer such an extensive package of potential learning outcomes.
Let’s take the service project I alluded to earlier as an example of what service learning might look like. The two characters are fictional but hopefully they can be used to highlight the contrast between the lives of the students involved in the project and the lives of members of the host community. This is the story of two year groups from Bromsgrove International School in Bangkok and Pang Daeng Nok village in Chiang Dao district, Chiang Mai, and from the point of view from the students, it starts in October 2017 when two of the students joined their teacher on a survey trip to the village. The purpose of the survey was to gain an understanding of the issue facing the people in Pang Daeng Nok, as well as why villages in that area often rely on external support when implementing projects that require extra funding. They interviewed some of the villagers and took photos and videos to share with their peers back at school.
The issue in question was that in the evenings the village was being used as a hangout area by a gang of youths from neighbouring villages, who were breaking into a disused study room and getting up to the kinds of mischief that you might expect teenagers to get up to when there are no adults around. Given more time and opportunity for interaction between the Bromsgrove students and the Pang Daeng Nok community, we could have asked the students to come up with their own solution to the problem. In this case, though, it was decided that instead of working on their own solution, the students’ time would be better spent planning the details of a project that was thought up by the Makhampom Foundation–who have a long history of working with Pang Daeng Nok–in conjunction with the villagers themselves. The project in question was to turn the area into a useful community space that would encourage the locals to spend more time there and therefore reclaim it from the troublesome youths. This was to take the form of a playground where children could play whilst being supervised by adults, as well as renovating the study room so that it could be used for evening classes.
Armed with the findings from their survey, the two students worked with their peers back at school to put together a design for the playground. They were given a limited budget to work with and had to submit their plan, including a list of required tools and materials, which was reviewed by Makhampom and Traidhos staff for critical analysis before a final version was approved. They also fundraised for the project over the next few months and in February 2018 thirteen students came to Chiang Mai to build the playground. They made a fantastic start, which was then continued this academic year by the new Year 13s. The result is a newly renovated classroom with an extensive playground outside as well as petanque and takraw courts for the adults. And, importantly, the gangs are staying away. In the words of Khun Ap, from Makhampom, "this is the best image we've ever imagined…we’ve finally turned a deserted, dangerous area into a place that is ready for many kinds of activities, creating a lot of meaningful moments for the whole community in the future.”
By involving the students in more of the processes necessary for carrying out a project, they are able to develop skills in a setting where their ability to work as a team has a real impact, all the while being guided by experienced adults who are able to offer constructive feedback and advice, and who can set an example in the way that they approach the task themselves.
Of course, service learning is about so much more than leadership. One of the key aspects of service learning is reflection and the Bromsgrove students were invited to send us a quote to sum up their experience in Pang Daeng Nok. Here is one of my favourite responses:
“While working as a team I got to get closer to my classmates, some of whom I never thought I would even talk to or interact with. The time I spend with a team sharing the same goals showed me that no matter our differences we are all the same and are all capable of working together to achieve something so much greater.”
Richard James Montembeault