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Unpacking Service-Learning Efforts

By Sarah Lillo
Unpacking Service-Learning Efforts

I love the idealism that you find in international schools in the fall: veteran teachers refine curricula, new faculty members jump into unfamiliar school activities, student leaders enthusiastically fumble with new positions, administrators lay supports for school initiatives. While it’s not yet in full swing, the upcoming hiring season lurks in the back of people’s minds and prompts introspection. Fall is a time for intentionality and idealistic visions.
So many school visions in the international education realm focus on global citizenship. Increasingly, schools turn to service learning as a key mechanism for cultivating community engagement. This is especially the case as the International Baccalaureate Organization (IBO) continues to make service learning a central pedagogy. The IBO’s newest iteration of the Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) guide demonstrates its most explicit focus on service learning yet.
If service learning is truly a central pedagogy in schools, educators and administrators must be deliberate in approaching it. There is an abundance of educational research that has connected service learning with benefits such as heightened student learning, academic retention, civic engagement, long-term volunteerism, tolerance, and values reflection. Clearly there can be huge benefits to the integration of academic learning with genuine community needs; there are many reasons to get on board with service learning! However, I suggest that we pause and recognize the complexity of requisite skills.
Let me back up. I am a former international educator—I taught in classrooms in Kenya and Uganda and was active in service-learning efforts. Four years ago, I began my doctorate at UCLA to more formally study service learning. Last year, I spent nearly 7 months exploring community engagement efforts at three international schools in the African region with thriving service-learning programs: the International School of Kenya, the International Community School of Addis Ababa, and the American International School of Johannesburg.
While on those three campuses, my goal was to understand the supports and challenges for service-learning endeavors. I listened to the stories of dozens of student and adult facilitators and spent hundreds of hours observing them in action.
Ultimately, I found that efforts were highly complex and required skills and understanding spanning across a range of domains. Shared leadership models were key, as individuals within teams often had deeper knowledge of one domain than another. The six areas of knowledge and understanding that I identified through my study were: service-learning pedagogy, global issues awareness, understanding of the international school context, knowledge of leadership and organizational development, understanding of the local context, and communication/public relations.
Service learning has great potential. If schools are serious about launching effective service-learning programs this year, now is the time to be deliberate! Leaders should reflect on current teams’ strengths and weaknesses in each of these areas. They could explore resources within the school community and recruit individuals (teachers, students, parents, staff) with in-depth knowledge in one or several of the domains. Intentionality in both hiring practices and job assignments is crucial, as effective service-learning efforts require faculty with a wide range of skills.
It’s time to unpack the requisite proficiencies that allow lofty service-learning visions to become realities.

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