Service Learning: Have we got it backwards?

Service Learning is a growing area in Anglican Schools around Australia. Opportunities to learn through service exist locally and internationally, with some school groups travelling thousands of kilometres to serve in some way. ‘Service trips’ are known to offer an experience of a lifetime, a chance to make a difference in the world and for participants to return home feeling that they have made a valuable contribution to an-Other.

Yet what has not been widely discussed to date are the principles of service, best practice and the foundational motives that are critical to the development of students in our Anglican schools.

It doesn’t help that for-profit organisations have noticed the increasing demand for international service learning and have been catering for this hunger by facilitating orphanage tourism, building projects for unqualified teens and tours that sanction slum sympathy (as opposed to empathy).

There is no doubt that the intentions of service learning in Australian Anglican Schools are honest and good, however more and more community development practitioners are suggesting that many Service Learning programs have got it backwards.

Daniela Papi and Claire Bennett from suggest that the term ‘service learning’ needs to be flipped on its head where “learning is not the outcome or by product of serving the world but a fundamental part of it.” In other words, one cannot serve the world properly until one has learnt how to serve. They are suggesting that much of the western education system has gotten ahead of itself in the area of service and actually found itself in the deep end without really knowing how to swim.

Overseas service programs that spend one or two weeks abroad to work on simplistic short term solutions to deeper, complex challenges may be teaching the wrong lessons to everyone involved. Without care and diligence an international service learning program can do more harm than good, foster mutual misunderstanding and encourage attitudes of dependency from both parties. This is certainly not to say that school-led cross-cultural experiences are a bad idea. Not at all – I contend the opposite. We just need to engage in a deeper and wider conversation so that these experiences can be the very best they can be for everyone involved.

“Are our students being transformed to have eyes that see and ears that hear?”

I’d like to suggest that Learning Service in the context of Australian Anglican Schools should begin by training ourselves to listen. Throughout this process we are primarily listening for two things:

Firstly, we are listening for the voice of God. For want of a better metaphor we are essentially putting on our theological headphones. We’re certainly not listening for the false voice of approval from those who are simply concerned that the school is seen to be doing something good. We must pause to recognise that every human being is made in the image of God (Imago Dei), has intrinsic worth and God-given dignity. Imago Dei forces us to adopt a perspective of solidarity, rather than one of charity, which is as refreshing as it is thoroughly grounding!

Daring to see our Sisters and Brothers as God’s Image-bearers has a way of radically reorienting our old perspectives and smashing dangerous stereotypes that sustain socio-cultural hierarchies. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels repeatedly dared to cross strict social boundaries, inviting all with eyes to see and ears to hear into a new way of being – God’s way of being. This Jesus turned society’s norms upside down (or more correctly, the right way up) some 2000 years ago and this same Jesus continues to speak prophetically to the current structures of the world we find ourselves in. The question that our Anglican Schools need to ask is, ‘Are our students being transformed to have eyes that see and ears that hear?’

A person holding a globe on wooden background.

Further, we listen not solely in order to be stirred into responding superficially to injustices, rather to be transformed in spirit and character as global citizens. Listening theologically doesn’t settle for short-term solutions and quick fixes – It challenges us as to make ethical decisions and to live empathetic lives that drive us to promote human flourishing in everything we do. After all, God’s mission is about promoting human flourishing through the reconciliation of all things and we are invited to be active participants in that process.

Secondly, we are listening to the voices of our fellow Sisters and Brothers. Hence, we need to be putting on our anthropological headphones as well. Making an effort to understand the history and complexity of human cultures we interact with will help shape a more informed and appropriate response from us in the long run. Hastily jumping on a plane and going somewhere as service volunteers with the aim of helping ‘beneficiaries’ is not a very good way to engage in a meaningful service experience. We must be willing to ask tough questions, be willing to listen and to put ourselves in the shoes of our Sister and Brother.

Listening theologically doesn’t settle for short-term solutions and quick fixes

This will mean being purposeful in detaching ourselves from the individualistic materialism of Australian society by listening to the perspectives of those we seek to build relationships with. It could also mean that the best way for our students to serve the world is to be advocates for fairer government policies (both foreign and national), spokespersons for justice movements and peer educators in school. As Daniela Papi and Claire Bennett suggest, if educators “can focus on building opportunities for students and others to learn the skills and experience they need to make a positive impact on the world through everything they do, their long-term contribution can far exceed the tourist spectacles currently passing as volunteer opportunities.”

I imagine that for Anglican Schools in Australia, the concept of Learning Service might mean:

  1. Being engaged and connected with our neighbours at home and abroad. This will mean listening, learning and sharing life with our Sisters and Brothers.
  2. Recognising that our neighbour’s story is an essential and meaningful element of their own personal story as human beings. Our shared humanity ties us together as one.
  3. Responding respectfully with our hearts and minds in ways that will promote justice and the human dignity of every created person.
  4. Becoming a prophetic voice in Australian society that demonstrates holistically what faith-driven action in the 21st century can look like.

Our students are sure to benefit greatly from this.

The Anglican Church of Australia has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the area of Service, especially local and international community development. The Anglican Board of Mission and Anglicare organisations including the Brotherhood of St Laurence are committed to engaging and developing best practice approaches in community development and education.

Claire Bennett & Daniela Papi, retrieved from Standford Social Innovation Review (2014)

Greg Henderson Written by:

After numerous adventures around the globe Greg completed a degree in Theology and began working as an educator with ABM. His role sees him coordinating ABM's annual One World WonTok development education conferences around the country for Anglican School students, facilitating overseas pilgrimages for small groups and encouraging the prophetic role of Anglican institutions in Australia.

One Comment

  1. April 20, 2017

    Dear Greg, it is Claire Bennett here, from Learning Service. I just stumbled across your blog and was so happy to find it – it seems like you really understand the learning service concepts and apply them beautifully. I’d love to talk to you more about any collaboration we can have – can I have a contact email for you please?

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