Service Learning: A Microcosm of International Development (Part I)

    Posted: February 21, 2017

    The world of international development is a dynamically shifting reality that is often chaotic and messy in its problems as well as its solutions. International service-learning creates a classroom out of real-world circumstances for authentic experiential learning encounters. Engaging students within this arena can be risky because it is difficult to control the factors that contribute to such unpredictability.

    Pedagogically, it involves thinking about faculty and students in a parallel way as learners, and it consists of a certain degree of risk for faculty in particular because it is a less traditional approach to education full of transition and experiential shifts. Because of these dynamics, the role of the facilitator will likewise be full of ambiguity and transition.

          Further Reading: The Challenges of Capacity Building in Service Learning  

    Part I: Parallels Between Facilitators in Service Learning and International Development

    The facilitator for service-learning and international development is in a position of both learner and instructor, which means there is an emphasis on participation in a collaborative, equity-driven environment. The diverse range of contexts also presents a certain ambiguity as to what is required of facilitators at any point in time throughout the learning process. In some instances it can be understood as combining counseling or therapeutic qualities with instructor-related ones.

          Further reading: 3 Key Similarities Between Facilitation of Service Learning and Conflict Mediation


    Common overlap between facilitators in each profession include: being hospitality-minded, open to change, transparent with motivations, innovative, curious, risk-taking, and genuine. The role is additionally highly contextual in that it depends upon the nature of the lesson or the experience. Facilitators are more than a teacher, not quite a counselor, and exist as collaborative leaders. They are also a participant in the live experiment that evolves out of each learning space. In this sense, facilitation is a form of experiential learning itself, for facilitators as well as for students.

    Instructors in service-learning and facilitators in international development then find ways of managing uncertainty and unpredictability in a way that reduces anxiety and enhances possibility. This management consists of individuals constantly deconstructing new situations, scenarios, behaviors, and attitudes, while also adapting to them to redirect and reorient both their own and student learning. Effective facilitators must be open to newness and change, as well as innovative, quick-thinking, and flexible. They exist as simultaneously a part of a group and as an observant leader of it; they get involved personally with their students while also maintaining boundaries.

          Further Reading: Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part II: Creating the Classroom Climate

    These boundaries are important both in terms of community development and in classroom engagement. Service-learning and community-based work is personal work. Most of us engage in this sort of experience in part to feel. We want to make a difference, and we want to have a positive impact. It is also important to consider the nature of our feelings, our approaches to classroom dynamics/interactions, and the purpose of our actions.




    What further complicates this process in terms of democracy, is the ambiguity associated with student or volunteer choice. Students/volunteers may choose to participate or not, and facilitators cannot entirely manage or control the experience to fit the range of expectations. Consequently, there is a degree of reciprocity that is required in order for the service to be structurally effective. Students/volunteers ideally feed their instructors the way instructors feed them, with training and support. In this way, all parties create a cycle of learning that is more capable of producing real and meaningful transformation.

          Further Reading: Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part III: Relational Learning 

    Facilitators of both fields should have vision for progress and a direction for participant attention, while also giving individuals the freedom to determine the ways in which they approach their own education/experience.

    The next segment will investigate the community-driven aspects of service-learning in the context of its relationship with international development.

    Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.