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Service learning? Great! But how to make the right choices?

By Emmanuelle Werner

Service learning is a key element of the creativity, activity, service (CAS) within the Diploma Programme (DP) and also a component of the Career-related Programme (CP) core. It is a wonderful opportunity for students, however, service learning has to be done the right way. Here, at Friends International, we recognize that good intentions are not enough and volunteering may cause more harm than good if not well thought out.

My colleagues and I at Friends International discovered in this article that in some regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, the youth travel market that includes volunteer tourism or “voluntourism” is one of the fastest-growing tourism niches. An increasing number of volunteer agencies are offering short-term volunteer travel opportunities in Africa, Asia and South America. However, concern has grown in recent years about the impact of voluntourism on local communities, especially when unqualified volunteers are working with vulnerable children.

For example, orphanage volunteering is probably the most obvious example of how good intentions can end up harming children. Why? First, children don’t always develop well in institutional care such as orphanages because they may not be getting the individual attention and care they need from a stable attachment figure. Sadly, eighty years of research proves that raising children in orphanages harms their health and development and puts them at risk of abuse. The good news is that 80% of children living in orphanages worldwide are not orphans; they have families that could care for them if they were adequately supported. In some countries, orphanages are run as businesses using children as commodities to attract well-intentioned tourists and volunteers. So it’s worth thinking about volunteering in community-based projects that are helping families to stay together instead of supporting orphanages.

How do you make sure your service-learning activity has the best possible impact?

Volunteering is valuable as long as it provides rewarding and mutually beneficial experiences for all parties involved. When embarking on a service learning trip abroad, make sure it represents a “win-win-win” situation. The best interest of local communities should be at the heart of students’ actions, they should benefit directly or indirectly from their work, and there should be no negative interference or consequences for them. Volunteers should represent an added value for the organizations they are volunteering with. If possible, they should stay a minimum period of time and bring a set of specific skills they can transfer to local staff, as well as make sure they are not taking away local jobs. And of course volunteering with an organization should provide a rewarding and beneficial experience for the volunteer.

Resources to help CAS Coordinators

Friends-International Switzerland has been working with the IB to create a new Teaching Strategy Material (TSM) aiming to help students, teachers and CAS coordinators to make the right choices when it comes to planning service learning experiences or projects.

The creativity, activity, service (CAS) Teacher Support Material (TSM) is a first port of entry not only for new teachers but also for experienced IB coordinators thanks to its clear definitions, examples and easy planning strategies to engage students with questioning, research and critical thinking.

The material helps you to implement service learning activities with ideas that build a strong foundation for the programme and the curriculum, starting with the description of the necessary components to develop it, including strategies to create links with the academic subjects as well as with the other two core components, and giving you ideas for specific areas of action in section four.

As you are learning to incorporate service learning as a teaching method, this material helps you become more confident with the programme as eventually it becomes embedded in your daily practice and, consequently, it is perceived as less of an external component added to the curriculum.

The TSM puts all the pieces together for IB coordinators to help complement our students’ holistic learning. — Lola Robledo, CAS and Service Learning Coordinator, Campus des Nations, Ecole Internationale de Genève

Discover critical tips to assess the quality of a project or organization; discuss case studies that will enable your students to reflect on important questions such as real impact; and receive useful background information on the issue of orphanage volunteering.

By helping your students to better understand the ethical implications of experiences and projects you will not only ensure a positive impact on them, the local communities and the organization involved but also position your school as a leader of best practices in the field of service-learning.

Educators at IB World Schools can find this CAS volunteer guidance resource via the Online Curriculum Centre