Revolution in the Classroom: Part 4, Service Learning

Gareth Stevens discusses the interplay between modern education, neo-liberalism, meritocracy and democracy. In part four he highlights the huge failings of service learning and the citizenship curriculum in our schools. He also gives examples of ways in which it can be done better.


On Service learning

I want to point out the paucity of thought given to civic engagement and service learning in schools. Later I will argue that the value of a more effective and pronounced emphasis on citizenship has a huge bearing on the central issues with which this book is attempting to deal.

The deep irony that pervades all international schools offering The IB diploma is that they value community engagement but, with notable exceptions, it is largely tokenistic and misguided. You may be aware that alongside the Theory of Knowledge and the Extended Essay requirements every student is charged with fulfilling a CAS (Creativity, Action and Service) commitment in order to qualify. Although not weighted with any bias, the service element tends to predominate.

Although well intentioned, this service component of CAS sadly usually ends up being nothing but another hoop of many that the students need to jump through. Unfortunately IBO schools have created the conditions where service learning can all too often become a tickbox activity and even worse, some concentrate their service learning into patronising, harmful and post-colonial trips to other countries which, by omission, disregard needs and service opportunities closer to home. On top of notching up substantial carbon footprints with international flights, students routinely drone into other cultural, social and economic contexts without even a meagre understanding of development issues, the pitfalls of aid and of what constitutes sustainable service work.

On top of this, busy CAS co-ordinators are at the mercy of service learning trip providers that bundle up the necessary CAS experiences into 5 day stays where the service element is often tantamount to hugging a few orphans. Set against last year’s damning OXFAM report on Hong Kong’s wealth gap and poverty levels in the very city where are students hailed from, you can begin to see why I, and some of my colleagues, were beginning to see service learning abroad as piecemeal; at best vapid and, at worse, harmful and patronizing.

As Cathryn Berger-Kaye asserts, effective and worthwhile service learning is always well “planned with mutual agreement and respect with partners so this builds understanding and perspective of issues and how other people live.” The process is reciprocal and has to be deeply respectful of the history and systems that have created the identified need. Of course having this understanding before planning any service venture also allows teachers and students to decide whether charitable fund-raising would be preferable to faux service and might have more of a long lasting impact.

Even in longitudinal and well planned projects we were slipping up. At our school there are a number of staff who are wholly committed to making a difference in a tiny rural community in Guangdong Province. Over a good number of years large groups of students and teachers have biannually visited this village and have clearly had a positive impact. One year a parent donated around 150 pairs of shoes to this project and the teachers involved were excited at the prospect of taking these up for use in the desperately poor village. Unintentionally and in one swift move this gesture put the local cobbler out of business. Ouch!

Often times service learning does not help the advantaged students to shirk their privilege, it restates and emphasises it. This is an example of the ‘cobra effect’. During the British reign in India there was growing concern about the growing incidence of cobra bites in Delhi. The governor there decided to offer a bounty for every dead cobra submitted to him. At first this worked well and a large number of snakes were killed for the reward. Gradually though business minded people began to breed cobras for the income. Once it became apparent that this was happening the same Governor abandoned the reward scheme. This caused the cobra breeders to set all their worthless snakes free. Thus the cobra population further increased and the frequency of bites rose. So the cobra effect happens when a proposed solution to a problem or identified need has exactly the opposite effect.

This can be the case that when students and aid organizations take it on themselves to embark on ill-conceived service and charity projects. Often they do more harm than good. Recently there have been occasions when voluntourists and schools involved in supporting orphanages in countries like Cambodia have helped create and sustain the very orphanages they were trying to help. Some orphanages have been directly responsible for separating children from their parents and then deliberately malnourishing and mistreating their young residents so that they might better attract the voluntourist or service learner dollar for the benefit of a few cunning and cynical gangsters.

So what are the lessons here? Well, service learning is good for all if it is planned with a systems view and if it is intelligently integrated with a programme of citizenship or, dare I say it, a school’s requirement of students to become civically engaged. Preferable to focussing on service learning, might it not be better to take an almost anthropological route and for students to consider the whys and wherefores of the re-emerging theories of gift economics or microfinance?

Turning back to my thoughts on the Umbrella Revolution, I am not advocating that our students should have been straddling the barricades with other protesters. No, but they should at least understand what is going on and what the causal chains were that triggered the protest. They should be inclined to intervene within the law, to lobby for change.

Frankie Boyle distils what I am trying to say with great aplomb when he said …

“Even our charity is essentially patronising. Give a man a fish and he can eat for a day. Give him a fishing rod and he can feed himself. Alternatively, don’t poison the fishing waters, abduct his great-grandparents into slavery, then turn up 400 years later on your gap year talking a lot of shite about fish.

In a further nod to satire, Comic Relief this year focused on Malawi and Uganda. I didn’t see any acknowledgement that Britain had been the colonial power in those countries. “Thanks for the gold, lads, thanks for the diamonds. We had a whip-round and got you a fishing rod.”

You might think my views are cynical. Students raising funds by holding bake sales to stop child soldiers or sex trafficking is all good – right? As had happened at my school, students forming a Social Justice group that organized Helper Schools for the city’s Filipina maids when each and every student involved had a live in maid with meagre rights and privileges at home, still has an inherent value? Well yes, but the ‘warm, fuzzy glow’ of compassion is just not good enough. I would point the reader to the ideas of Prof. Paul Bloom on empathy. In his book “Against Empathy” he calls for a more systems based and outcome focussed “rational compassion” that is both pragmatic and less emotional.

I had also had a bee in my bonnet about the unregulated companies that provided so-called service learning oriented school trips. How could we as busy educators be sure such companies were not damaging the community ecology of the places they took our students to? Surely some sort of self monitoring kitemark system would drive standards up and lessen any harm done? Early discussion with other interested parties led to a decision that we should model a version of the Campus Compact that so many top US universities sign up to. The principle aim of the compact was to “Advance the public purpose of colleges and universities by deepening their ability to improve community life and to educate students for civic and social responsibility”. And so a protracted attempt to devise our own set of standards began and is currently in process.

As a result of this brief discussion of the pitfalls of service learning I don’t want to dismiss it, I merely want to call for ‘deep’ learning in the service of others and their communities. We need to join up with citizenship, development studies, ethics and to emphasise the local. My developing thesis is that every student (whether working class or otherwise), should be encouraged to understand and contribute productively to their own communities and, where there is no pronounced collective identity locally , they should investigate why that is and to become active agents for change and the betterment of their neighbourhood. This is real multi-dimensional aspect of mobility. A more expansive model that is tied up with building the self esteem of students and a deeper understanding of political themes and dynamics within their own locale. This is one way of breaking down power starved students’ feelings of impotence and low ambition. As I said, improving life chances of our students is not just about increasing their value as a mere subject of capitalism or about bolstering their ability to earn dollar, it is about nurturing their sphere of influence and capability to do good.

And so yes! Deep, sustainable, connected service learning synthesized with an authentic citizenship programme and focussed on underlying causal structures of how students’ immediate social and economic structures came to be as they are, will do.

In retrospect my early attempts to address my concerns were clumsy and invited detractions. With a colleague we convened a working group of Year 12 leaders to work up a set of guiding principles that aimed to direct all charity endeavours within the school. We had a strong tradition of student voice at all levels and aspects of the school’s work and so this was rather routine. In this context it is a failsafe way of future proofing policy documents. We had already found that students are more likely to adhere to and uphold thinking that they have been directly been involved in. On the theme of ‘Purpose and Authenticity’ students agreed the following.

We aim for all charitable activities…

● To be driven by individuals who have genuine empathy, concern and a desire to help others in a sustained way

● To be led by individuals who have a deep and rounded understanding of the causes they are supporting. Where possible, they are connected to, or have met with the NGOs working in the field

● To be followed up with questions that help us to understand why this need for charity has arisen. We believe that charity is a short term solution and should never be seen as an alternative to a series of actions that may bring about long term and sustainable change.

Another example of the types of thing we increasingly tried to do was a discussion event focussing on Alinsky’s book “Rules for Radicals”. We were cognisant of the ever present pressure for students to try and make a difference, but there was a conspicuous lack of resources laying out effective strategy for doing so. Enter Alinsky.

A partner of the school and an editor-in-chief of a Hong Kong based newspaper about local politics, policy making and diplomacy, had already planned an event around this book. The book itself proffers the notion that sometimes those involved in trying to bring about change were too emotionally invested and practically inexperienced to face the ‘establishment’ and plan strategically. Imagine Hemmingway wrote non-fiction, this book reads well. Alinsky’s direct and no-nonsense style is lean and mean. It draws on over three decades of the author’s experience as a recruited ‘organizer’ of political strategy and direct action.

I took some students down to central Hong Kong to attend the first event. The organizer himself was non-partisan in the extreme and was certainly not a radical – if anything he is a policy and strategy nerd (his words). He framed the discussion like this. He said if you want to organize yourself against power or injustice you need to understand Alinsky’s espoused methods. If you are worried that someone is organizing themselves against you, you better believe they have read Alinsky and so you too need to know the tell tail signs. Needless to say the audience was a mixed bag!

As a follow up and along with the students that had attended we organized the same event up at the school. It was co-chaired by Ian Gilbert himself. It was a very small (and perfectly formed) event and would have been the first of many – and the beginning of a more coherent and embedded strategy for raising the political awareness and levels of civic engagement of our students, had I stayed at the school. I have to say that had it not been for the support of my Principal, who totally got why we were trying to do with this event, it might not have happened. Head office heard about it and were a little concerned. In my terms a sign we were doing something right! Looking back – I should have applied some of Alinsky’s ideas to the aim of evolving our curriculum experience to be more ‘political’.

I had been working with a large group of students to plan a series of conferences which invited speakers and facilitators in to school. It seemed to me to be a no brainer to get community leaders and creative thinkers in. We needed to establish a debate and a growing understanding of what was going on in Hong Kong as a foundational stepping off point for future community engagement.

The fourth conference focussed on the concept of ‘community’ and had the following to say about itself.

“FuturED 4 will focus on the theme of community and will be called “With Community comes Unity”. Arguably traditional close knit communities in Hong Kong are diminishing. Increased numbers of people live in high rise public housing estates or residential developments. The frenetic lives of many Hong Kongers preclude them from doing more to strengthen a sense of local community and identity. Disadvantaged people have little community infrastructure to fall back on outside the nuclear family. Thus it seems timely to reflect on what we mean by community and to ask how important it is to commit to making the city’s communities stronger and more sustainable.”

Students helped forge a line-up of speakers who had successfully set up pragmatic and ‘grassroots’ community, political and environmental initiatives in the city.

Michael Leung, a community farmer (or insurrectional agriculturalist?) and active believer in growing ‘thick’ social networks to advance the cause of participatory democracy in Hong Kong, spoke with his heart and made a very compelling and evidence based case for getting involved in local community initiatives. As this entry on his website suggests, he spoke of how “Competition is a behaviour instilled in us since we were young. Exam results, money accumulation and omnipresent advertising all support the neoliberal condition that puts profit before people, value before ethics and capital before community. We have so much that we want to do to offset the damage to community often created by capitalism, consumerism, and the government’s failures in urban planning and enriching public space.”

Kevin Ming also spoke about his work “To improve the social mobility of youths in urban disadvantaged and marginal areas of Hong Kong.” The most touching and unforeseen consequence of FuturED 4 was the way in which the group of contributors themselves networked and planned further collaborations.

As a follow up all Year 9 and 12 students were involved in a two hour session that required them to consider what makes strong communities, how we build social capital and why being part of a local participatory culture was a positive thing.

As occupy went on it became increasingly beset by internecine fighting within the pro-democracy camp and from this furrowed ground sprouted a movement of so called localists. Arguably the more confrontational and impatient localist movement was detracting from the protest’s singular aim of attaining increased levels of democracy. Some say their cause was clandestinely supported by Beijing to do exactly that. Fuelled by similar discontentment with the plight of the city’s poor and the government’s perceived dereliction of its core duty to protect disprivileged citizens, they began to focus on championing “greater autonomy for Hong Kong, and protection against what they saw as the dilution of the city’s identity amid growing social and political influence from mainland China” (BBC). By implication there was a concomitant call for secession and independent sovereignty for Hong Kong. On 20th June 2016 we held a formal debate at our school. Working with The Harbour Times we carefully crafted the motion “This house believes that the future of Hong Kong’s people is best secured through real self-determination”. Although conflating the dual debates about democracy and sovereign independence into one sentence, by labelling the event as the ‘Hong Kong Secession Debate’ we made it clear what issue the debaters should be tackling. Two prominent localists were pitched against Regina Ip, an incredibly adroit and long term Hong Kong politician who is currently one of the contenders for the SAR’s Chief Executive position, and another colleague who would together fight the motion. The hall was full and unexpectedly two journalists from The Economist flew down from Beijing to cover the event. Without going into the details of how the debate itself played out (the whole debate is online if you are interested), I want to argue that this is exactly the kind of thing all schools should be doing.

At the time I went on record saying “I am convinced that we have a responsibility as educators to encourage students to engage with local political issues. One can not be an active and contributing citizen without understanding core issues to do with political ideology. We will continue to develop this approach and to organize similar events whilst remaining non-partisan.” As with other similar events at the school, the debate was public and, more importantly open to other schools. Colleagues from other educational colleagues began to comment that we were taking risks and that we had ‘balls’ to run such an event. Someone contacted me on Facebook and said she hoped the teachers involved didn’t disappear like the “Hong Kong booksellers”. An eminent journalist drinking buddy of mine warned I was ‘playing with fire’. He asserted that although it looked like business as usual, Hong Kong was at the epicentre of the new cold war and that I should watch myself. I think all these reactions were over dramatic. We had to do this if we believed in our own mission statements.

Besides Regina Ip not only attended and took part in the debate, but was one of the few politicians who believed that open discussion about Hong Kong secession was essential if the wider public were to see how untenable the idea was. As it was she certainly won the debate by any technical criteria. She was level, rational and was served well by her skills as a demagogue.

As aware as I am of the ‘Post hoc ergo propter hoc’ fallacy, I couldn’t help but think that our debate somehow precipitated the huge public outcry that followed concerning whether schools should or should not be discussing secession. It was all over the Hong Kong news. Professor Wang Zhenmin, the legal affairs chief of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, claimed that debate about independence was unacceptable as it “amounts to a violation of the laws in Hong Kong.” Henry Tang Ying-yen a former candidate for chief executive had a more hardline perspective. Tang compared talk about Hong Kong independence to taboos about immorality, such as “incestuous, criminal and triad activities.”

The point is, and I will expand on this later, it is folly to think of schools as non-political places and it is fallacious to argue that they should not debate current local affairs because to do so is to inevitably breed non-impartiality.

In retrospect I am more aware of my failures rather than any achievements. Hindsight tells me I did not do enough to build consensus around my rationale for raising the profile of politics and civic engagement in our school. I was rather naive not to be more strategic and explicit about my agenda.

Look these are some examples that I was closely involved in. There was lots more developments that arguably had deeper and more lasting impact. As part of our 11-16 curriculum innovation, every student was required to study for a GCSE in Global Perspectives (CIE). This qualification was gained after a curriculum experience called ‘Explorations’ that had its own weekly slot longer than two hours over a duration of three years. This course involved vertically grouped students systematically developing leadership skills and planned authentic action. There were many other ways we moved forward to help students become more politically aware.

Another part of our new 11-16 curriculum involved teachers write their ‘dream’ courses. What would you teach if you could teach anything you wanted? The Principal asked all our teachers. The result was an array of over fifty elective courses each taught in 3 hour blocks over an 18 week period. These ‘Elements’ electives as we called them with a clear tip of the hat to Sir Ken, included amongst others, courses on Critical Thinking, Debating, Social Justice, Behavioural Economics and Marine Conservation. They had to involve connections with adults beyond the school community, off-site learning and the systematic development of collaboration, creative and critical thinking skills. No ‘content’ was externally imposed and the emphasis was on students taking ownership of their learning and the pedagogy itself was intensely experiential. Moreover each course would be framed with a spirit of enquiry and together with all the others, provided the opportunity for every student to personalize their route through. Clearly the examples of the ‘Elements’ I list here and the driving mission behind the implementation of all of them, shows how we were trying to up levels of engagement with the outside world and equip our students with the skills and experiences they would need to become more participatory and discerning citizens. As well as that, and I know our context is different from others in which schools bear the burden of externally determined curriculum and government imposed accountability agendas, ‘Elements’ courses allowed the school leadership to demonstrate the extent to which it trusted its staff. They also gave teachers a level of autonomy, a very real democratic route to follow. This is undeniably good leadership and is something we need to pursue in the UK context a lot more.

Another point to make related to this discussion is the unfortunate demise of the creative arts in the curriculum. We know all too well from the NCEE “All our futures report” in 1999, that without opportunities for creative arts experiences students miss out on their right to use artistic expression to build their self esteem and forge a more positive identity. Moreover the arts always (or should) provide ample ready opportunities for self reflection along the themes of personal identity. I for one lament the passing of Stuart Hall and the time when the work of ‘Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies’ in Birmingham had an impact on schooling in the UK and embodied transdisciplinary between the arts, politics, media studies and the lived experience of disprivileged students.

But we are OK in the UK now aren’t we? We have the citizenship national curriculum which has the following aims…

The national curriculum for citizenship aims to ensure that all pupils:

  • acquire a sound knowledge and understanding of how the United Kingdom is governed, its political system and how citizens participate actively in its democratic systems of government;
  • develop a sound knowledge and understanding of the role of law and the justice system in our society and how laws are shaped and enforced;
  • develop an interest in, and commitment to, participation in volunteering as well as other forms of responsible activity, that they will take with them into adulthood;
  • are equipped with the skills to think critically and debate political questions, to enable them to manage their money on a day-to-day basis, and plan for future financial needs.

This is well intentioned I am sure. I would have liked to take this opportunity for a closer analysis of this aspect of the current UK national curriculum but in the interests of brevity and not over diversifying I will decline. Suffice it to say that citizenship is woefully underplayed in UK schools. Whilst as every NC programme of study has got leaner and meaner and more freedom has been given to interpret and expand on the guidance given to schools, we are left wondering on the quality of schools’ attempts to create citizens. A recent report from Ted Huddleston of the Citizenship Foundation gives an evaluation of the resources available and concludes with a good set of recommendations. A better guide is that on dealing with controversial issues in the classroom. (Not least because it secures teachers’ inalienable right to protest in their ‘off duty’ hours). By its very existence this resource countenances and encourages the debate of complex political issues that are difficult to plan, particularly when a class demographic is widely diverse. My concern is that whilst school level leaders of citizenship are well qualified, trained and intentioned, they often head up teams of tutors who feel deskilled and undertrained. Such leaders boundary ride and in some cases generate ‘wash and go’ teaching materials; microwaveable activities that are often worksheet based and that neither engage nor motivate students. Thus teachers and students are complicit in jumping through hoops that they neither value nor see the point of.

I have to concede that a more radical, authentic and joined up approach is required if we are truly to generate a world of fully informed and discerning citizens.

To be followed in the fifth and final part, which will discuss themes around community and draw conclusions.

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