This is a guest post from Jonathan Brown, a high school teacher in the UK.
I was a teenager in England in the early 2000s. At that time I saw opportunities to volunteer abroad being advertised in schools, but I had little desire to do it myself. Most of my friends that travelled did so for more “conventional” reasons – seeing new landscapes, interacting with different cultures and having new experiences. I also might have been not that drawn to the idea as I was studying modules related to International Development and had more of a nuanced understanding of the issues.
Even during the eight years that I have been a teacher, I have witnessed a surge in the trend of overseas volunteering. The reasons for this are complex and vary between individuals – for example I have seen students of faith volunteer internationally with their religious groups, driven by teachings about our obligation to help the less privileged. But far more frequently I think students undertake voluntourism projects as an alternative to the conventional travel my peers took 15 years prior.
I think the reason for this is that students these days don’t want to be seen “wasting” their time, which is the common stereotype about backpacking. This desire is driven by parents, travel companies, universities/employers, and by the education system in general, and while the motives between these different driving forces vary, the results are the same. As parents often are supporting the child financially during their time abroad, they want to feel as though their child is getting something in return, for example a new skill or attribute which could help them in the future. Another driving force is the competitive market of the travel companies, which have to keep diversifying their products and offer what that their client base demands. Increasingly, experiences like working with a community or building something is seen as more desirable or ‘authentic’, and looking at this cynically, are also travel products for which high prices can be charged. Then there are the pressures exerted by universities and employers about how students can build up their personal statements and CVs. We are at a stage where many students in their final years of school plan their lives and social activities around acquiring skills and experience that they hope will impress to a university or potential employer.
In many ways, this generation of young people are more connected to what is going on in the world than students of the past, largely due to their increased access to information via the internet and TV. This in turn has led to a far larger number of students with a real interest in global issues than I remember from my own school days. For example, when I studied World Development in 2006 there was one class of about 20 students, whereas at the same college just ten years later there were four classes of close to 100 students. There are also certain issues on which young people’s knowledge is on a par with or even surpasses that of adults – for example climate change, which is covered in both the science and geography curricula at school. Also the increase in awareness of the issue of ocean plastics since the latest David Attenborough documentary has been tenfold.
However whilst the number of those who take an interest in development issues has grown there are still some misunderstandings that are widely held, most of which revolve around the continent of Africa. In most students’ minds, “Africa” goes hand in hand with “poverty”. This is largely driven by the British media which heavily focuses on the issues and problems faced by the continent. This is the focus of almost all documentaries, charity fundraising and news reporting.
The other common misconception that students have is that being poor economically translates to being poor in all other senses. Almost all students have no understanding of being rich or poor in any other ways apart from monetarily, and most students believe that a lack of money directly translates to everything else in a country being poor (like health, education and general wellbeing). I think there is also a misconception that economic development directly correlates with happiness. Students often assume a very narrow definition of happiness, connected to material possessions, without considering that other communities and cultures might have different definitions.
The thing is, that instead of an education system that is responding to this need and to the global reality of the world being more interconnected, UK public education has been pushed to the brink. Over the last decade or so there has been a cultural shift in the school system towards one that is increasingly exam-focussed. And with this increased demand for grades is increased pressure on teachers’ time and resources. This means that teaching students about global issues has become of secondary importance and is often left entirely to the priorities of specific schools and teachers.
So here’s the situation. On one hand there are external pressures on young people to go abroad and “do something” for their futures and careers, along with their own motivations to take action on global injustice. On the other, I am worried that we have an education system that is not supporting the kind of learning that is required for students to make informed decisions about how to do this effectively. Most students who participate in the traditional “old school” form of voluntourism truly think they are helping. This may be naïve of them, but I genuinely think that the desire to participate in such programs is driven by a lack of education.
I am not against young people being motivated to volunteer, and I think it is important to give students ownership of their own choices. What is important, however, is that the student has access to the information needed to make an informed and educated decision. So if a student told me they were interested in some kind of voluntourism I would encourage them to research different types of travel and the pros and cons first. And if they then decide to participate in a voluntourism experience I would strongly encourage them to research the various companies, projects etc so that they make a considered choice. That’s where Learning Service comes in – the more knowledge and information young people can gain, the better. I do believe that a vast majority of students want to make better decisions but don’t know how.
Working with young people gives me great hope and optimism for the future. I don’t recall my own generation having either the same access to information about the wider world or the same passion to make a difference. However I have seen my students demonstrate inspiring idealism and real desire for change. This motivates me to give them the kind of education about global issues that they deserve.
Jonathan Brown has a BA and PGCE in Geography and a Masters in Education, Leadership, Policy and Development. He has worked as a teacher in schools and colleges in the UK since 2011.