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Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve

By Bambi Betts, Director - The Principals' Training Center
Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash

I visited a school last year that had this statement painted above the entry: “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.” And it got me thinking.

So a few months later, during one of those particularly reflective moments we occasionally entertain, I sent out the following tweet: “What might the curriculum look like if the primary purpose of school were to prepare all learners to be of service, to make the world better for others?

‘Primary’ being the key word that might significantly inspire movement and potential impact on learning.” And plenty of international educators weighed in…positively. Wait, what? Isn’t this already what we do? Don’t most of our schools already apply this notion as a strong driver of their curriculum and related practices?

To investigate, I dug out the many school mission statements we review in an effort to better tailor our professional learning programs to the needs of international schools. After 35 years in the world of international schools, the outcome of the investigation was entirely predictable. In the 200 or so mission statements examined, service was given a great deal of lip-service. Send your child to our school and we will (among other things) help him/her: become “a responsible, compassionate global citizen” “enhance the lives of others” “foster meaningful participation and service” become “a socially responsible global citizen” embrace “a life of service contribution” So, yes, we have already promised to prepare thousands of learners worldwide in hundreds of schools to be of service to the global community.

But the mission statement is the easy part. It establishes a mindset or philosophy that directs our approach to all facets of the place called school. While it helps to set the stage and exemplifies good intentions, we have far less evidence of systemic, on-the-ground progress when it comes to such critical questions as:

•What is the relative value of learning to serve with respect to all other mission-driven learning goals and mindsets laid out in our mission?

•Will we value it on par with all of our other commitments?

•Is the acquisition of a service mindset an actual learning intention, right up there alongside academic standards?

•Have we modified day-to-day curriculum to reflect this commitment?

•Will there be implications for graduation requirements or even protocols for moving students from one grade/course to the next?

•How might our entire formal schooling system look if we were to genuinely shift the relative value of learning outcomes so as to be guided by the mindset of contribution and service?

And even more practically:

•When teachers are gathered in team sessions to work on a unit plan, are they obliged to begin by asking the questions: “Is this learning outcome important for building the capacity to contribute to others? What content and topics will be most conducive to promoting the ethos of contribution?”

•When they are around that same table designing assessments, are they first asking: “Will this assessment give learners the opportunity to demonstrate the ways in which the particular skills we are assessing through this task might serve others?’

•When teachers are in their classrooms, is it foremost in their planning and execution to craft learning experiences that capture the ways in which the topic at hand is related to serving others?

•When children are asked, “Why are we learning this?” will they be able to include in their response: “Because if I know how to do or understand this, I might be able to make or do something that will help others. My learning will make a difference to other people.”

•In describing our partnership with parents, do we encourage them to ask not only “What did you learn today?” but “What did you learn today that will help you be of service to others?”

I am clearly not suggesting that we throw out the curriculum and its related practices and start over—the proverbial pendulum swing to which we seem so vulnerable in schools. And this is not just about international schools. Authors such as Education Week’s Tom Vander Ark are taking up the charge (see recent article in Forbes: “The Case for Contribution: Why Schools Should Empower Difference-Making”). But it is a gauntlet thrown, provoking us to confront even more squarely the critical question inherent in our very own mission statements: Where does the notion of learning for contribution actually “live” in our “guaranteed” curriculum?

Even more broadly, what is the responsibility of schools of privilege—as so many of our international schools are—to take the lead in the systemic advancement this practice of schooling for contribution? At a school I work with in Cambodia, guests arriving at the campus gate are greeted by a student who says, “Welcome to Liger. We are here to help make Cambodia better.” I think they are on the right track.

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03/18/2020 - Kelly Scotti
Thanks Bambi, for articulating what so many of us working in these schools are thinking when what is happening in the classroom does not match the mission statement on the walls. I agree that throwing out the curriculum is not the answer, but making adjustments to include deliberate and authentic service learning elements is not as difficult as it seems. Educators have to be moving in this direction, if it's not coming from above it needs to start in the classroom and move up from there. I was in a school recently who call their student council The Changemakers - and they were moving their school forward by serving their school and local community to address identified needs. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this.
03/07/2020 - Laurence Myers
Bambi, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. All too often teachers are overwhelmed by "adding" service learning to the curriculum, but we find that as they begin to dabble with it they cannot but recognize the power it holds on making student global citizens in such authentic ways. There is rarely the question of "why am I learning this" at all because both students and teachers are actually engaged in their own learning in ways that is meaningful and relevant to them. Service learning is not only service. It's inquiry, real world, skill based, civic responsibility across disciplines and project based with a purpose. In short, it's a great way to teach, period. Both individualized and collaborative all it takes often is a willingness by the teacher to let go and allow the kids to determine the direction of he learning within the curricular sphere. Thanks again for sharing this!
03/06/2020 - Tara
Thank you Bambi! You made my day, I just had the exact conversations with leadership today at AISL. I’m ready to help schools, if they are ready to live their vision, mission, core values. To be able to prepare students now for the future. Who want a sustainable service learning program with curriculum, resources, and pd to support this achievable reality.



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