How to get an 'A' in service learning

The phrase “service learning” tends to summon images of earnest young people toiling to build loos in third-world countries. Many people, for instance, might dream of working overseas to contribute to the betterment of another society, in an act of doing good which ultimately makes the doer look the best.

While I believe there is nothing wrong with that, our ideas of service learning must evolve if we want to make it less about an individual and more about the groups that service learning is intended to benefit. The most effective service learning, in my book, must encourage the lifelong skills of observation, critical thinking, personal reflection, civic mindedness and, most importantly, a sense of personal responsibility.

What do I mean? Well, bluntly and with no offence intended: if you still don’t believe you can change your environment for the better after a service-learning project (even if you’ve built a province full of toilets), then it’s an “F” in my book.

Any effective service-learning gig must eventually tune your sensitivities to your immediate surroundings. I often wonder why so few of our causes tackle the issues lurking within our own borders, where needs may not seem exotic but are just as urgent.

Singapore’s rapid urbanisation, for instance, has created a simmering pot of discontent behind this city’s polished facade. Diffusing that unhappiness is just as pertinent, as everyday and every man, as tiling the school floors of remote Indochina. Most of us can agree that, as a sprawl, the city can be lonely.

We have thousands of friends in social networks, but few we’d trust. We complain about the high cost of living, but I’d argue that the root problem is a high cost of social relationships. That’s the expense that comes from seeking out friends we need to travel across town to see and spend to socialise with, rather than making friends of neighbours next door as we used to before commuting became part of modern life.

How about more campaigns to get us to say “hi” or just make eye contact and hold the lift door for someone else, or befriend each other? Or host small block parties to stamp out the Nimby (Not in my backyard) Monster? Service learning does not need to involve a grand gesture or even wet concrete, just a little heart.

We might be facing first-world problems, but they are problems only we, as participants of our community, can understand well enough to develop solutions to. 

In my own life, I found the paper chase of my school years quickly becoming a primer for the rat race of adulthood: getting good grades quickly turned into the hunt for good jobs and good pay packets. It’s too easy to equate having more with being more, so we spend too much time chasing money and too little time on figuring out what gives us purpose, helps us grow and live our best lives.

Who is to say the same cannot happen with service learning? If we challenge one another from the start, in our schools, to become active participants in our communities, we are likely to grow up trying to outdo one another at improving it, small parts at a time. How much more pleasant a culture would that be?

Going overseas to save others is a wonderful adventure and, if we’re being honest, a great way to escape the Singapore we all love or maybe, when we’re packed like alfalfa sprouts in boxes of public transport, sometimes hate. But for an “A” in service learning, we must start to believe that we can change the way we are packed so that we like our boxes more; and not just think about escaping the box.

This article was first published on Sept 22, 2014.