What is Service Learning? Is it just going out into the community and lending a hand? Although that is a great thing to do, it is not, in itself, service learning.
One of the goals of an IB education is to make students aware of the world around them and the needs in the world. Just because you have a nice home and clean water that magically comes out of multiple faucets in your home doesn't mean that is everyone's reality. Discovery students will learn about world issues such as poverty, hunger, and a lack of health care, but it won't just be facts and figures they come to understand. They will learn, for example, about how poverty affects a family and how an impoverished family's life differs from their own. They might be asked to perform certain tasks for an entire day (carrying water for use rather than turning on a faucet) that an impoverished family must do to simply
survive. Learning about world issues that sometimes don't even touch us is important, but it too is not service learning. So why discuss it? Because creating awareness of these kinds of issues lays the foundation for helping kids become attuned to the needs around them in their immediate surroundings, their communities, and even the world.
Service Learning starts by being able to recognize and identify a need. It isn't just jumping on the bandwagon of a cause and pitching in. Identifying a need starts by being aware of the world around you and asking questions. If you hear the acronym, "NGO" (Non-Governmental Organization), you'll most likely start thinking about positive things that these types of organizations do: they are advocates for the poor and hungry; they try to relieve suffering and promote development in underdeveloped nations/communities. Although the intentions of most NGOs are good, it is possible that they sometimes do more harm than good. Why? How? For example, take an NGO that is focused on feeding the hungry. So, we Westerners donate money to an NGO whose mission it is to buy food that gets distributed to an impoverished community. You think, GREAT! We're solving the hunger problem there! But are we? What happens to the local farmers trying to sell their products? What happens to the local economy of that community when massive amounts of free food is distributed? What happens when the food support stops? Local food goes to waste, farmers lose their market, and the economy not only suffers but becomes dependent on a solution that is designed to be temporary.
The problem is that NGO's are often Western organizations who develop their own plan for helping a Non-Western, underdeveloped community without asking the community what they really need. An NGO should spend time in the community they are trying to help in order to learn about their local culture and work on developing sustainable solutions to the problems the community faces. The bottom line is that if you are going to help someone, you need to talk to them, learn about them, and ask them what outcome they want to see become a reality. Only then have you truly identified a need, and only then can you develop a sustainable solution WITH that local community.
Service Learning is an opportunity for children to use the inquiry, analytical, reflective, compassionate, and risk-taking skills they have developed to make a real difference in their communities. They will learn that just because something has been done a certain way for years, decades or centuries, doesn't mean that is the best way of doing it--but it also doesn't mean that it isn't. They will learn to think for themselves and question their world around them for the purposes of making it better; and they will, through serving, learn that they CAN.