From the classroom to the community

Teachers can use service learning to make abstract subjects real for students of all ages

There are some issues that are difficult to address but important to learn about. Take poverty, for example – in 2011, just over one billion people lived in what the World Bank calls “extreme poverty”, surviving on less than US$1.25 a day.

And health – according to the World Health Organization, 1.5 million people worldwide died from an AIDS-related illness in 2013. But how do you teach these topics to students? By reiterating these unrelatable facts? What if you could turn those figures into something more than just numbers, by getting students truly involved with the issue? Service learning, where classroom instruction is supported by activities to help the community, aims to achieve exactly this.

A teaching method championed by the IB, service learning is formally recognized through Creativity, Activitiy, Service (CAS) activities but is encouraged as a teaching method in all four programmes. But, with the time-consuming demands teachers already face, service learning can be easily forgotten. Furthermore, the process has a detailed teaching methodology, which discourages some teachers.

Cathryn Berger Kaye, president of CBK Associates, an education consultancy company which focuses on promoting service-learning activities in schools, insists the process is not dissimilar to other teaching methods and just requires some patience to learn.

Kaye recommends teachers follow a five-stage process; investigating the issue, preparing for action, taking action, reflecting on what has been done and demonstrating what has been learned.

Finding a real need

Service-learning experiences are most effective when students are working towards tackling an authentic need in the community. But how do you identify this need? Guessing carelessly is dangerous.

“We need to replace assumptions with authentic research and engagement with the community,” says Kaye. “It’s critical students investigate the need and, once they’ve authenticated a real need, that they verify it with the community. They need to ask, ‘Is this correct? Is this what you need?’” Researching a need can’t be done solely on the internet.

“For research to occur, students need to add to the body of already available knowledge,” says Kaye. “So research should be asking questions through interviews and surveys, and through deep observation. This heightens valuable skills.” When IB Diploma Programme students at the American International School of Johannesburg, South Africa, talked with people already involved in service-learning projects, they found their local community lacked advice about reproductive health.

In response, they set up ‘Project Dignity’ to help spread information. Their project is successful because it addresses a legitimate need in the community, says Tara Barton, Service-learning Coordinator. “A lot of students don’t know much about their bodies so it’s about having conversations about their choices,” explains Barton. “They also talk about other issues that are prevalent here, such as gender-based violence.” Sometimes students’ curiosity can spark a project.

When Nathalie Herve Azevedo Delgado, PYP Coordinator at Concordian International School in Bangkok, Thailand, taught her class about the school’s mission statement, they became curious about the word ‘compassion’. This inspired her to set up a ‘compassion field trip’ to a school for refugees in a deprived area.

Her first trip was so successful, she later arranged a second trip to a school for the blind. “I thought this might be a good opportunity because we’d been talking about what it means to give to others – not donating money, but giving your time,” she says.

Delgado has a few tricks to get her students’ imaginations firing. She regularly uses books to captivate her class. “I choose books that I know have issues in them, such as prejudice or disability,” she says. “I want to provoke students. Provocation is a great way to get them thinking about what they can do.” For Lucy Whitfield, MYP Coordinator and science teacher at Cedar International School in Kingstown, British Virgin Islands, it was a news story that inspired her students’ service-learning project.

Because of their school’s location, many people in the community regularly travel to the USA. When it was announced that there had been cases of the Ebola virus in the country, people were naturally concerned.

Her class wanted to address people’s fears, so they started a campaign about Ebola epidemiology and transmission, including displaying posters, creating pamphlets and giving talks to the school’s younger students. “Because the students were naturally interested in and cared about the topic, it was really easy,” says Whitfield.

Stop and reflect

Documenting and reflecting on service performed is important, and teachers need to think about how to do this effectively. “Just having students respond to prompts on demand is not reflection,” says Kaye. “Students should have more choice and voice on how they reflect.

“If the teacher is determined to give the student cues, the students should have the ability to change or modify those prompts. This will make them more meaningful to the students,” she adds. Reflection should be encouraged throughout the project. Dr Graham Gisby, Director at Casuarinas International College in Lima, Peru, whose students are involved in an outreach project for young mothers, is strongly against performing reflection as a forced activity at the end.

“We don’t do something and then say, ‘Reflect.’ That’s a false way of doing it and it doesn’t get the best results,” he says. Gisby encourages his students to share their reflections. He’s found they can be effective critics. “They’ll be brutally honest so they give effective feedback,” he says. “When they get good feedback, it gives them a better sense of accomplishment.” Meanwhile, Delgado asks her students to keep a learning journal to aid their reflection.

“It’s like a personal diary,” she says. “They have a choice if they want to show it to me or not and I’m respectful of that. The day after one of the field trips, I gave them the choice of writing in their journal or reading books and they all chose to reflect on the field trip.” Delgado also took photographs and made a video of her field trips to help her students’ reflection.

To demonstrate their knowledge, the children put on an assembly, in which Delgado had little involvement. “They wrote their own lines,” she proudly explains. “One boy started crying during the assembly – by the end, all the teachers were crying too.”

Suitable for all ages

Service learning shouldn’t be limited to older students. “Younger children are so eager to do everything,” says Kaye. “They are so excited about the world around them and they’ll naturally want to do service learning.” As Delgado discovered, they also ask some of the best questions. While looking at the IB Learner Profile, one student asked why the word ‘compassion’ wasn’t included.

“We’d been studying persuasive writing at the time and one of my students said, ‘Who’s the boss of the IB?’” she says. “We looked it up and they all wrote letters to the IB to ask if ‘compassion’ could be added.” Unfortunately, Kaye says people underestimate a younger student’s ability to participate in service learning “all the time.”

Even as a PYP teacher, Delgado was originally guilty of this. “I realized how much more powerful they can be, the younger they are,” she admits. “You can teach them at a very young age about tolerance and the value of giving to others.” “Young children have a tremendous sense of injustice, of what’s fair and what’s right,” agrees Kaye. “They care about the world around them.

They care about animals and the environment and people who are lonely. All we need to do is create environments that link the curriculum to authentic action and we’ll see children do amazing work in the world.” But, while younger students’ enthusiasm seems never ending, how do teachers deal with stereotypical moody teenagers who don’t want to participate? Results from a 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that just over one in 10 (12 per cent) of 15-year-olds in Organization for Economic Co-operation Development (OECD) countries did not disagree that school was a waste of time.

To fully engage their students with service learning, Kaye suggests teachers take the time to get to know their students. “We need to investigate the children. What are their interests, skills, talents and areas for growth?” she says. “Children become eager to use what they’re good at in meaningful ways. They’re not able to do that in typical academic situations.”

Barton agrees it’s important to tailor service learning to students and does this in her school. “They all have a project they’re working towards. They’re passionate about it because they choose it,” says Barton. “Although the teachers help guide them, they don’t tell them what service-learning project they need to get involved in.” But Barton also makes sure the students don’t pick something based on their existing talents – she encourages them to stretch themselves. “It’s not just, ‘I’m good at art so I’m going to do a mural.’ It’s actually, ‘I’d like to develop my creativity skills and that is one of my goals,’” she explains. And this shows in their reflection, Barton says.

“You can see the passion and how much learning has happened,” she says. “It’s because they’ve had the choice. They go out and select what they’re interested in and that’s where they get their passion from.” Leila Holmyard, Assistant Head of 6th form (equivalent to grades 11 and 12) at the British International School in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, discovered packaging your activity cleverly can help too. Her school regularly visits a nearby orphanage to entertain and play games with the children there.

While girls were keen to visit the orphanage, boys weren’t initially interested in joining in. “So we explained that the orphanage is run mostly by women, and there are many boys there who don’t have male role models,” she explains. “The boys really rose to the challenge.”

Citizens of the future

Although it may seem like a lot of time and effort, the benefits of service learning can be remarkable. It can help students better comprehend their learning. A study by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) found that 69 per cent of students who were involved in service learning believed that it helped them to better understand that course’s materials.

Similarly, a study by the National Youth Leadership Council in the USA found that children who participated in such projects performed better in reading, mathematics, history and science. “Service learning creates an environment where students are diving deeper into enquiry,” says Kaye. “They’re becoming more engaged in their own learning process.”

It relates to the IB Learner Profile and helps students develop personally too. Research by the IB in 2013 found that students felt they became more open-minded and reflective when they participated in service-learning activities. Kaye agrees it teaches students valuable life skills. “If we want children to be problem-solvers, we need to give them real problems to solve,” she says. Whitfield believes the teaching method has taught her students to be more internationally minded.

She hopes this will make them more proactive in the future. “We’re hoping when they become adults and there’s something happening they care about, they actually do something about it,” she says. Richard Dyer, who is Head of Secondary at the British International School, Vietnam, and works alongside Holmyard, agrees service learning helps to make students better global citizens.

“If we don’t get to the stage where students feel they have a sense of responsibility for their community and a sense that they can actually make a difference, then the planet has got no hope,” he says. “You can’t be a citizen without taking action. You can’t be a citizen without being responsible.”

Gisby thinks service learning is powerful enough to challenge people’s views on big issues, like poverty. “Some people think the poor people are poor because they deserve it and they’re rich because they deserve it,” he explains. “That’s a very juvenile idea.”

Delgado was amazed by how her students developed during their field trips. “I had one student who you could easily miss in a classroom because he’s very quiet,” she explains. “He’s just blossomed. He’s so much more outgoing and taking more initiative.” But, for Barton, the main benefit of service learning is simple: “It makes the learning authentic and meaningful.”