Dr Kearrin Sims researches international service learning programs for high school students in Laos and Fiji. People generally call this 'volunteering', but it is much more than that.
Dr Kearrin Sims’ research focuses on ‘International Service Learning’ – that is when high school students travel abroad, often to Asia or the Pacific, for short term projects. The children help out in communities to bring about a positive economic or environmental change, but also to become critical global citizens.
International Service Learning is not simply volunteering or volunteer tourism. “In order for it to be service learning it has to be some sort of structured, educational component built around it”, explains Kearrin.
Why best practices are important for international service learning programs
Best practices are important because “if it is done well, such a program can offer amazing opportunities for the children and the host communities. But if it’s done poorly, it can bring lots of problems for everyone,” Kearrin says.
What to look for in a good international service learning program
The three most important points in terms of best practices are: transformational learning, critical global citizenship education, and good pre- and post-departure learning.
Universities and schools, as well as the tour companies themselves have their own ideas about good global citizenship education. There is “a distinction between softer forms of global citizenship education,” says Kearrin, “such as when you go to a country and learn about different cuisines and ways of dressing and things like that”.
Instead, children on an educational travel program should contribute to “improved environmental outcomes or development outcomes,” explains Kearrin. “It’s about getting kids to think really critically about that. We don’t want to reproduce a kind of ‘white saviour’ mentality. Instead, it’s about getting kids to recognise the structural dynamics of global inequality.”
Asking the right questions for the benefit of the children
To help children avoid this mental trap, there has to be a well-designed pre- and post-departure program. That is because the learning isn’t merely about the time spent overseas.
“Children need to be well prepared to go to these places,” Kearrin says. “They need to be asked the important ethical questions before they go to visit a community, for example, in the Pacific or in Asia. And when they come back they need to be adequately supported so that they can reflect on their experiences in the right kinds of ways.” That is what makes their experience transformational.
“Kids will start to think about their own place in the world — they start to think critically about their own privilege.” This can be a very difficult process, and that is why children need to be supported even after they are back at home.
“If you don’t have good quality pre- and post-departure learning you are less likely to see that critical global citizenship education or transformation learning take place,” Kearrin says.
What is it like to go on an international service learning program
For his research, Kearrin has joined school groups on two trips to Fiji and Laos. In both cases, he says, “it was clear that the students had a strong emotional experience while they were in the country. One of the interesting questions for me is whether or not those kinds of experiences are lasting — How do we measure ‘transformation’?”
A very special night in Laos
One experience that Kearrin remembers vividly is a ‘closing ceremony’ in Laos, in which the children talked about their “experiences, what they value, what they have learned, what they have missed from home, what they want to do differently when they get back.”
At that special night in Laos, in a big wooden house that “has been built to look like one of those Kamu hill tribe communities buildings”, a storm was coming in, with lightning flashes over the Mekong river.
“As an educator I thought: this is the kind of experience that will stick with students much more than if I am just sitting in the classroom and reading a book.”