From Service Learning to Learning Service via SSIR

We often use “service learning” to describe volunteer programs and international volunteer travel, emphasizing learning through service—service that teaches life lessons that help both the traveler and the world. The profound lessons that international volunteering can bring is one of the main reasons that academic institutions are incorporating it—and sometimes requiring it—in coursework.


But the concept of service learning is outdated. We are firm believers in the power of international travel to help people gain experience, perspectives, and skills that can help them improve the world, but think that going on a trip billed as “serving others”—when the travelers themselves are often the ones who disproportionately benefit—can undermine these effects.


Globalization, mass communication, and ease of travel have brought about a new sense of global interconnectedness, often accompanied by an increased sense of responsibility. Traveling to a place that exposes people to the realities of poverty and other global issues can spark complex emotions and a desire to take action. In our research on volunteer travel, we found that the motivation behind international volunteering was overwhelmingly the desire to “help” or “give back.”


Continue reading on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog!

Frequently Asked Questions: What is Learning Service?

Since we began promoting responsible volunteer practices and the importance of learning before serving we’ve received a lot of questions on the topics. In this FAQ post we hope to give you a better idea of what the Learning Service movement is all about.


1. What is meant by ‘learning service’ and how is it different from ‘service learning’?


‘Service learning’ (which is what international volunteering is often called in academic settings in North America), emphasizes learning through service. That is, the name reminds us that that service teaches us life lessons that can help us and the world, and through service, we are able to learn. Although we recognize the truth in this, we believe that the concept of ‘service learning’ is outdated. What volunteers can learn from overseas service are not new lessons but are in fact the same lessons being learned over and over again by a growing number of international volunteers.


‘Learning service’ is a concept that literally flips the concept of ‘service learning’ on its head. What we are calling ‘learning service’ is a philosophy where ‘learning’ is not the outcome or bi-product of service, but is a fundamental part of serving the world, and a prerequisite to serving responsibly. Emphasizing learning that comes first and throughout, recognizes that helping others requires the willingness and openness to change our own perspectives. It starts with the individual and the capacity for self-reflection and it entails learning about the people, issues, and context in which we operate. It means researching the organizations we are considering partnering with and not side-stepping an examination into their impact by being willing to ask difficult questions. It includes learning to constantly inform and improve the action we take; learning as a lifelong process that continues to ensure that our actions do good in the world.


Instead of the volunteer traveler motto being: “I’m here to help you”, we’re suggesting to shift it towards: “I’m here to learn from you if and how I can be of help, now and in the future.”


2. When you say “we have to learn before we can help” what should we learn and how?


The kind of learning that we are suggesting is not just academic book-learning, although this can be valuable too. At Learning Service we talk about ‘developing a learning mindset’ – and this starts with cultivating self-awareness. You can do this by analyzing your own background and influences, by understanding how your perspectives have been constructed, by identifying the limitations or biases of the sources of information you have had access to, and by questioning and challenging your own assumptions. In fact, your ‘learning journey’ may have to start with a lot of ‘unlearning’!


We recommend beginning the process of learning long before embarking overseas on a volunteer trip, and continuing that learning during your placement and after it. It entails:

  • Examining your own biases, cultural lens, and needs and  how they might or might not match with those in the areas you plan to visit
  • Learning about the issues you care about and how they relate to your own life locally as well as current and historical issues globally
  • Researching the organizations you are considering working with
  • Learning about the people and contexts in which the organizations you are looking to support operate
  • Finding out about the potential pitfalls of volunteer travel, so you can make sure to avoid adding to any problems which might be happening in the areas in which you work

Specific topics you might want to consider include:


  • History of development
  • Development theory and economics
  • Particular issues you are interested in

About the country you plan to go to

  • History
  • Demographics
  • Politics and current affairs
  • Religion, culture and lifestyle
  • Issues, root causes and responses
  • The context of tourism and volunteering

About yourself

  • Your core values and beliefs
  • Your interests, passions and goals
  • Questions, ‘what you know you don’t know’ and your plans to find out!
  • How to deal with unfamiliar and challenging circumstances, and how to handle emotion, frustration and changing expectations
  • How to challenge your assumptions and change your mind!

Building skills

  • Professional skills and academic qualifications
  • Language
  • Cross-cultural communication and other ‘soft skills’
  • How to mentor or train others
  • How to monitor and evaluate impact


 3. What does Learning Service provide for potential volunteers?


Learning Service is primarily an advocacy organization, with the aim of reframing the conversation around international volunteering and trying to ensure that volunteers themselves are aware and informed to be better able to make responsible choices. Our toolkits, videos, book, and resources are designed to be conversation starters, helping people examine their own biases and spark conversations about responsible travel options. We don’t offer our own volunteer programs and unfortunately do not have the capacity to assess each of the thousands of volunteer service providers out there to be able to give specific recommendations. However, what we CAN give are tips and tools to help volunteers to be able to make responsible choices for themselves.


You can download our guidelines and toolkits, and you can watch the series of short videos that we are releasing (if you watch before mid-February 2014 you can enter our contest and win some awesome prizes).


The videos that have been released so far are:


Finding a Responsible Volunteer Placement

Being a Valuable Volunteer

Returning from your Volunteer Experience


We are also writing a book covering all these issues, which we hope to release later in 2014, so if you are interested in updates you can sign up here.