Why “Service Learning” may prove a boon for Jamaica’s Education System

By Dr. Hume Johnson

P1010122This semester, as part of a Community Partnerships Project at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island where I teach, I engaged students taking my media relations course in a project with the Town of Coventry, RI. Their job was to help town officials raise the profile of their town and promote tourism by telling positive stories about Coventry’s history, arts, culture and business. My students met with town officials, attended town council meetings, toured the community to experience all it has to offer and interacted with residents of the town to hear about their ambitions for the town. Thereafter they pitched stories to local journalists (NBC 10, Fox Providence, Providence Journal etc.) to gain media coverage about the town.

In giving service to the Town of Coventry and working alongside community members, my students were engaged in what is called “service learning”. Service learning is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs. Many colleges and universities across the world now embrace the concept of service learning as a legitimate and beneficial means to allow students the opportunity to effectively learn through the practical experience of serving the community in one way or another.

I believe this kind of experiential education, of learning through service or “unpaid community work” would be especially beneficial at all levels of the education system in Jamaica. Growing up in Jamaica, I got a small glimpse of what community service and civic engagement was about. When I was a 16-year old student of Ferncourt High School in the rural hamlet of Claremont, St. Ann, I was involved in a full range of community work and civic activity. For example, I was a member of the Claremont Police Youth Club, which provided space for deeper interactions with the police in the community and a much broader understanding and appreciation for law enforcement and role the police in the community. I was a member of the Claremont Community Development Action Committee (CLARECODAC), a group comprised of community members and leaders tasked with developing strategic plans for the development of the community.

Community involvement was easy for me, as at Ferncourt, I was already an involved student, serving as a member of the school’s Debating and School’s Challenge clubs the student representative on the School’s Board, and Valedictorian. Indeed, among the many awards I received at the annual prize-giving ceremony, I was proudest of the award for “Best Community Spirit”. By the time I was 21 years old, I was serving on a Youth Advisory Council of former Jamaican Prime Minister, PJ Patterson, and later, as a post-graduate student in New Zealand, I volunteered at the Hamilton East Women’s Refugee Centre and worked as a poll clerk during New Zealand national elections. This continuous experience of service to community has had a lasting impact on me. It helped to build my character, made me civic-minded, broadened my understanding of my civic responsibility, and developed in me a keen awareness of, and a commitment to the community and nation around me.

Service Learning Will Improve Values and Attitudes in Youth

photoWhy is service learning so vital for Jamaica? First, Jamaica desperately needs to build social capital and improve values and attitudes particularly among the youth. The increase in violent crime, incivility and coarseness on the roads and in the media, as well as a general aggressive and impolite culture suggest a need for social renewal. In 1994, a values and attitudes Campaign, begun under the PJ Patterson administration, as a mode of transmitting positive values, was crippled not necessarily because, as some commentators suggested, it was sponsored by the Government, but because it relied largely on public education campaigns through the media, and not an entrenched institutionalized programme in partnership with schools and civil society organizations and groups, and activated through actual projects where young people could learn better attitudes by being involved, learning-by-doing so to speak. For example, research has shown that volunteer community work, learning through the giving of service service is one way to improve character and values and see responsible behavior. In service learning projects, students learn how to be respectful towards others and protect rather than destroy public property, and generally become more aware of ethical behaviour. They learn how to work collaboratively as a team, illustrate leadership, show initiative and also to work independently without supervision. They also learn respect diversity and to become tolerance as they work with others from different parishes and communities, various intellectual abilities and socio-economic background.

Service learning can promote social and emotional skills.

Furthermore, service learning is associated with positive outcomes such s lower levels of delinquent behavior, improved social skills, improved cooperation skills in the classroom, improved psychological well-being and a better ability of students to set goals and exercise the discipline to accomplish those goals.  There are also research which indicate that participants in service learning activities have lower levels of out of school suspension, rule non-compliance, incidents of profanity and obscenity as well as vandalism.

Service Learning Can Promote Civic participation and Strengthen Communities

In his inaugural address, Prime Minister Andrew Holness spoke to revitalising volunteerism. Service learning is one way the Government can establish an institutionalised program of voluntary community service as part of the school curriculum. In other words, learning through service can become part of a broader thrust of civic engagement and volunteerism. Service learning works because it is really a strategy of teaching and learning which tries to integrate meaningful community service with in-class instruction with the aim of teaching civic responsibility, and strengthening communities.   Indeed, it can help to address some of the important challenges Jamaican communities face. Planting a food crop, volunteering in a kindergarten, painting a building, cleaning a beach, engage an anti-litter project are all positive service learning projects that should be integrated into the education curriculum for credit or end of term grades. These activities are great opportunities for civic engagement – volunteer opportunities for students, teachers, staff and community members. The Church (which already engages in numerous in house projects), non-profit and community organizations, for example, can be avenues through which volunteer projects can be developed alongside the school system.

Service Learning Can Foster Connectedness and Commitment to Community

UWI graduatesResearch has shown that quality service learning programmes will not only promote students’ civic knowledge but also foster in them a commitment to continue contributing to their community and the society as a whole. It is important for our young people to feel a sense of connectedness to the community and to the society. This means feeling that they are also responsible for the welfare of the community, not just the government, having pride in one’s district or parish, exhibiting a higher tendency to take action for the benefit of the community versus waiting on the government to do it. Service learning can foster a real ‘government of the people’ in a context such as Jamaica where Governments cant and wont do everything. Service learning can also boost self-esteem as those involved in community work tend to feel and are more valued by community members.

Learning through Service Can Improve Academic Outcomes

One of the things I’ve realized from my experience engaging students in service –learning projects is that their academic performance have improved overall. Research has also indicated that students engaged in high-quality volunteer projects, service learning experiences that meaningful and relevant, and which includes interaction with the community over a reasonable period of time, and which offers time for reflection on their experience working in the community, have made gains academically, and on standardized tests. In addition, students have shown greater interests in learning, increased attachment to school, greater attendance, and are more engaged and motivated.

Overall, a service learning effort in the Jamaican school system has the potential to be a very effective programme through which social capital can be generated and values and attitudes improved.  Within the context of a fierce lack of trust in public institutions, deficits in leadership and the absence of a national vision, learning through service will open avenues for volunteerism in which young people can become ambassadors for their schools and communities, foster community, promote civic engagement among our young people, and may prove to be a boon for a new national self-image.

Dr. Hume Johnson is a political scholar and journalist.  She is a Professor of Public Relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island USA. She can be reached at humejohnson@gmail.com

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