Lessons in service

Beijing student Rebecca Liu (right) samples service learning in Botswana

In the first of two postings, regular Insights blogger Brian Keeley reports from Botswana on service learning.

Classes end early at Maru-a-Pula school in Gaborone. But as students spill out into the intense heat of the African afternoon, their day is far from over.

After eating lunch, they get to choose from the sort of activities found in most schools – sport, music, art and so on.

But on at least a few afternoons a week, the students also take part in “service learning” – in other words, helping out in the school or local community.

For some students, that can mean cleaning out science labs or covering books in the library. Others leave campus and head off to help out in care homes for the disabled or to a nearby village, where they run education and food programmes. The scale of the school and the students’ commitment is impressive: at two o’clock, buses line up to take the youngsters to their projects. Once there, they all pitch in and may take on relatively demanding duties, such as working with children with severe disabilities.

Service learning isn’t a new idea. At Maru-a-Pula (or MaP), for example, projects have been running since the school opened its doors 40 years ago. Nevertheless, in recent years the concept has really taken off, as Andrew Furco noted in a recent OECD report: “Service-learning is one of the fastest growing educational initiatives in contemporary primary, secondary and post-secondary education.”

Cynics might suggest that this is because universities now routinely expect to see signs of extra-curricular life in college applications. But there are also sound educational reasons for asking students “to study real problems in real time for real people,” as Andrew puts it.

I had a chance to see some of those benefits when I traveled recently to MaP with a group of students from Beijing. Young people in China are technically required to do some sort of community work, but the requirement can usually be met with a spot of sweeping around the school grounds. Indeed, there’s a lingering suspicion of service learning in China. In part, that’s a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when universities and colleges were shuttered and at least 12 million students and young people were sent down to the countryside to “learn from the peasants”. But it may also reflect a belief that “real” learning only happens in the classroom – a belief that is surely not restricted to China.

Once you see service learning in action, however, it’s hard not to feel that such thinking misses the point. Academic work matters, of course, but it’s not the only way to learn. By asking kids to step out of their comfort zones, service learning can confront them with sometimes difficult truths about both themselves and the wider world. One of our students admitted that before embarking  on the projects, he had felt that he knew just about everything he needed to know. “But now,” he said, “I realize I’m just a silly little boy.” He was being a bit hard on himself, but his statement acknowledged the way that service learning can pose questions that simply can’t be asked in the classroom.

But for all the current interest in service learning, there are inevitably going to be objections – isn’t it too expensive, too time-consuming, a waste of scarce school resources? Can it be made to work in a regular curriculum? And, fundamentally, does it work? I’ll come back to look at some of these issues in the very near future.

Find our more

The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (OECD, 2010)

OECD work on education

OECD educationtoday blog 

Brian Keeley

3 comments to “Lessons in service”

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  1. Julie Harris (@jhwordsmith) - 05/03/2012 Reply

    Fabulous piece, Brian, and one with which I am certain Sir Ken Robinson would heartily agree. Looking forward to the follow-on pieces!

  2. rachelkasumba - 12/03/2012 Reply

    Brian, thanks for these insights. It is great to start teaching children the spirit of volunteering early on – both to learn compassion for others, gain real life work experience, and also humility, among others. That said, sceptics might argue that this is just a “formalized” form of child labour as opposed to the traditional informal activities that have tended to attract criticism from respected forum including ILO. I hope that your future articles can clear up some of these contradictions. Thanks

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