A couple weeks ago over 500 high school students boarded planes and headed out to all sorts of destinations. Some trips were academic in nature, others involved cultural experiences, and some focused on service related experiences. In all, eight service trips visited Bali, Cambodia, Ghana, Laos, Malawi, Malaysia, Thailand, Uganda and Vietnam. But given that cost, the carbon emissions involved, the time out of the classroom, etc. why would ASD initiate a program like INSPIRE, anyway?
Much research has been done with regard to service learning and experiential education. Time and time again such research will indicate that authentic connections with a community will allow participants to better understand and "internalize" a situation. Participants will also recognize the benefits and challenges of the areas where they visit. Often research (as well as anecdotal feedback) will reveal that students are surprised to recognize that people without much "stuff" are often happier than we expect. Many times they gain a good deal of insight into the local culture and are able to recognize the context in which people live, what they do, their community interactions, etc. No longer is learning related to some classroom discussion, or a video, a picture or textbook. It is now authentic, engaging, relevant. Nearly all research will point to the value of such educational experiences in the personal growth and learning of participants indicating, in particular, greater internal motivation to participate actively in their own communities. In short, such education is a powerful tool in developing world contributors.
It is in finding connections that students begin their journey of broadening their world view and understanding the often complicated dynamics associated with development work. This broadening is what we, at ASD, refer to critical consciousness. So, does a service-related trip make us feel better about ourselves? It generally does. Does it make a positive impact on the local community? If done properly, through a solution-oriented approach that addresses a community need it will.
Research also shows that the best service learning projects are on-going, involve constant community engagement and are less focused on "charity" and more focused on community engagement. In the end, the INSPIRE trips all returned with every student safely on the ground. In an ideal setting, your son/daughter would have returned a little bit different from when they left. Perhaps they talked about how they were surprised about something they saw. Perhaps they were proud of themselves in the support they gave to the service project. Perhaps they were tired. Perhaps there was a new found sense of appreciation for manual labour and the community within which they worked. Either way, one thing's for certain. They returned with a more complete view of the world's diversity and circumstances.
Experiential education is a powerful tool. If it takes place in an authentic environment it becomes more powerful still. Add to that the involvement with a community and the conversations that revolve around development work and you have, in small or large part, a growing critical consciousness for our students. One never quite knows then the switch will be "clicked" and your son/daughter will go from couch potato video content recipient to a world change maker, but one thing is for sure... experiential programs like INSPIRE will certainly fill our children's hearts and minds with context and purpose to become contributors to a rapidly changing world.