By Dennis L. Stuebing, Ph.D.
The “s” in CAS stands for Service. So fundamental is service learning to the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) that Diploma students will not receive their diploma if they do not fulfil their CAS requirements. TIS also acknowledges the importance of service learning for all of its students, in a variety of ways. This year, CAS has been used as the model for Experience Week in Secondary School. Fundraising, tree planting, recreational activities for children with special needs, and a beach clean-up, are some of the ways Secondary students will spend their time during Experience Week. At the Elementary level, students and their families travelled to Northern Thailand to participate in service activities during the October break. Through the Laotian Outreach Project, teachers from TIS will continue to build the capacity of Laotian educators by providing training in inquiry-based learning, above and beyond their regular classroom duties. And, TIS students have participated in local community service through activities and events organised by the Volunteer Team.
But what is ‘service learning’? Service is defined by the IBO (2015) as “collaborative and reciprocal engagement with the community in response to authentic need”. The definition includes some key concepts worthy of further examination. “Collaborative” and “with the community” ensure that students avoid past failures initiated by ‘outsiders’ for ‘local people’. These concepts also provide guidance to students so they don’t ‘burn-out’ by taking on more than any individual can handle alone. “Reciprocal” acknowledges that both students and the intended service beneficiaries get something positive out of the experience. Reciprocal also means that students are not to be exploited solely as a free source of labour or subjected to unsafe conditions. And, service, as indicated in the definition, is in response to “authentic need”. Authenticity is achieved when service is collaborative and engages the community for whom it is intended. Who knows their needs better? TIS has worked to address authenticity and community engagement by partnering with organisations that have operational experience locally, and abroad. In this way, as outsiders, TIS students benefit from the established, positive relationships in a variety of locations and become, albeit temporarily, insiders.
Service learning provides students with the opportunity, through experience, to learn by doing. Most teachers don’t expect students to arrive to class at the beginning of a new school year, already proficient in the subject matter that will be taught in the months to come. Instruction, homework, readings, group assignments and other academic tasks enable students to acquire knowledge and skills that lead to competency. So too with service, the process of learning and how to respond to others’ needs, requires time and practice. Developing empathy, and recognising one’s obligation toward others, is reinforced by engaging in service learning. Will travel to a rural village in a neighboring country automatically awaken TIS students to the privilege they experience by living in Macao? Will it lead them to do something about the inequality they see? Travel alone, whether to a different country, or an unfamiliar neighborhood in Macao, is usually passive. TIS and the IBO expect more than passivity. CAS, and service learning, challenges students to be active: to investigate, plan, take action, reflect upon, and demonstrate the learning they have achieved. As a result, service is not the destination, but the path upon which students make their journey.
TIS’ commitment to service learning remains a priority as demonstrated by curricular expectations like CAS and Experience Week. That priority is further reinforced by extra-curricular activities for students, families and teachers. CAS provides a useful framework to guide TIS’ commitment to service learning for its IB and non-IB students alike. Moreover, through the development of positive character traits like empathy, and by providing students with the means to respond to others’ needs, CAS and service learning enables students to transcend academics and cultivate their humanity.
Dennis L. Stuebing has a doctorate in Global Studies from the University of Saint Joseph (Macau). His research on children's rights focussed on protection and participation. He brings years of experience in project management and policy analysis to the new role of CAS, Experience Week, and Service Coordinator at TIS.