Reflections on the 3rd Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Service Learning: “Make A Difference: Impacts of Service-Learning”

My HKIS colleague, Mike Kersten, and I attended and presented at the 3rd Asia-Pacific Regional Conference on Service Learning, June 9th-11th at Lingnan University in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong. Following similar gatherings in 2007 and 2009, this biennial conference cast the net wider, inviting not only academics and service learning practitioners, but also other community partners from the region and North America, to partner with Lingnan in building and sustaining high-quality service learning programs.

This blog entry will share some reflections on the highlights of the conference that are very much abuzz in my mind the day after the event.

1)    Visionary and Inspiring Leadership: The driving force of this conference at Lingnan University was the Office of Service Learning (OSL).  Last night’s closing banquet for the conference also served as the 5th anniversary celebration of the OSL.  During the dinner I was better able to understand Lingnan’s ethos and the role of service learning in the school.  Lingnan is Hong Kong’s only liberal arts university and its motto is “education for service.”  The OSL believes that the best way for students to realize this goal is through service learning.

During the dinner, the head of the OSL, Professor Albert Chan (pictured in foreground below), spoke of the history of the concept of service learning at Lingnan.  About ten years ago he and his colleagues began doing “service learning” before having a name for it, leading student trips to Yunnan.  However, in consultation with then-President Professor Edward Chen (in background below), the inspiration for service learning at Lingnan, including the creation of a service learning center, began to take shape.

Dr. Chan expressed his deep appreciation to Dr. Carol Ma and their 18 (mostly) female staff of the OSL for their commitment to the service learning vision.  During the conference Carol Ma remarked to me her high regard for her “passionate” staff in the OSL.                               Carol Ma at the OSL

Following Dr. Chan’s remarks, Professor Edward Chen then addressed the attendees, speaking about the pillars of service learning at Lingnan University:

  • A clear understanding of what service learning is: Service learning is not volunteer service, but rather integrating service into coursework.  It is course-based service, which makes service learning integral to the academic enterprise, and therefore lies at the heart of the institution’s goal of “education for service.”
  • Strong institutional support: Given the motto and shared vision of service learning’s role at Lingnan, Chen himself as President was directly responsible for implementing service learning.  Commitment at the highest levels is necessary for the ongoing growth of the OSL.
  • Process over product: Service learning is about teaching and learning, it involves developing relationships with the local community; it is about the depth and integrity of the learning process.  It is not about numbers, how many people helped or programs implemented; it is not about meeting some external measurements of success.  Rather, service learning is something living and organic.

Professor Chen’s passionate and bold articulation of the pillars of service learning at Lingnan demonstrated the visionary leadership that is needed to create a vibrant service learning center at an educational institution. Reflecting on the creation of the OSL, Professor Chen said that for several years he breathed, ate, slept, and dreamed about service learning.  Listening to Dr. Chen’s inspiring description of service learning for these few minutes explained why a local Hong Kong donor decided to give $5 million HK dollars to start the OSL, an amount that was matched by the University Grant Center.  This $10 million foundation provided the financial resources to start the OSL with a flourish.  As a result, Lingnan University has in a short number of years become the service learning leader among Hong Kong universities.

2)   “Quality Matters!”  A second highlight of the conference was attending a presentation by University of Massachusetts professor Dwight Giles.  (Dwight is wearing a bow tie in the picture with Tim Stanton of Stanford between us.)  He and his colleague, Janet Eyler of Vanderbilt, wrote Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning (1999), a seminal book that summarized service learning research in the late 1990’s.  In his presentation, he provided an overview of the current state of service learning research, which has further strengthened the general findings reported in Where’s the Learning.  Some further observations from his talk are:

  • Giles quoted Eyler in summarizing the effect of service learning: “Service learning has a small, but consistently significant effect upon student learning.”  This clear-eyed summary of the research should encourage service learning practitioners to confidently, but also with some measure of humility, continue to implement as well as investigate this pedagogy and its impact upon students.
  • A significant shift has occurred in the research agenda in recent years from measuring learning outcomes to understanding the long-term holistic impact of service learning.  We know, for example, that service learning builds subject matter depth; develops complexity of thinking; promotes curiosity; applies knowledge to real-life situations; and enhances problem-solving skills.  In general, it can be said that service learning strengthens cognitive development.  However, does service learning lead to greater social engagement once students enter the workforce?  Are these students more likely to involve themselves in future political processes?  In short, what is the long-term impact of service learning upon students’ lives and the communities that they join?
  • Giles complimented the work of Astin and Astin at HERI (Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA), highlighting the recent publication of Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (2011).  This book provides research evidence for their claim that students’ spiritual lives are enhanced by involvement in service learning.
  • Towards the end of his presentation, Dr. Giles commented, “The key point of this presentation could simply be stated: quality matters!”  There are no short-cuts.  The quality of relationships, the integration of service into a given curriculum, the preparation for and follow-up after service experiences, and all the many factors of service learning need to be done well to develop in-depth learning.  As we practitioners strive to build larger programs and to further extend the benefits of this pedagogy, seeking depth before breadth is a wise admonition.

3)   Cultural Dimension of Service Learning: A third highlight of the conference was discussing with Carol Ma the cultural dimension of service learning in Asia.  My research at a local Hong Kong school demonstrated that doing service in the community, especially helping those that are not family or friends, appears to be at some odds with traditional understandings of Chinese culture.  As one of my Chinese students wrote in a recent essay,

My brother who is a lot less westernized as I am argued that I should not spend my time doing service for others  . . . because he thinks I should be visiting my sick great-grandma instead of wasting time playing with little kids.  [There are] many instances when I feel that my Chinese upbringing is in disagreement with Western values.  

As a pedagogy originating in North America, the question needs to be raised whether there is a Chinese or Asian epistemology that better undergirds service learning than Western assumptions. Carol is very interested in this question, too, and is doing research about a Chinese understanding of service. I look forward to learning more from her research.

4)   “Service without Learning is a Disservice”: A fourth highlight for me was attending Dr. Rob Shumer’s presentation, “Capacity Building for Research/Evaluation: Using Service Learning to Expand Research on Service Learning Programs.” Dr. Shumer of the University of Minnesota has been developing service learning programs for 42 years.  A number of key points that he made include the following:

  • The most significant comment for me was his statement, “Sending kids to do service without learning is a disservice.”  He made the analogy that those of us who hire tutors for our own children only want the best.  So why when we do service for others are we willing to send out ill-prepared students who are getting by on their good intentions rather than their ability to contribute?
  • Capacity Building means constant program improvement.  Service learning practitioners need to build a feedback loop into all programs.
  • Interdisciplinarity is critical for any type of capacity building.  Service learning practitioners need to engage the expertise of other disciplines in order to extend the work.  This occurred more naturally in the early days of the movement, but over time as service learning has become its own area of expertise, there has been a tendency to engage primarily with other service learning supporters rather than forge relationships with others in various disciplines.
  • His basic service learning philosophy can be summed up in two statements: (1) Service learning is the answer, and (2) Get the kids to do it.

5)   Meeting the Founding Fathers: A final highlight was simply meeting Dwight Giles, Rob Shumer, and Tim Stanton.  All of these “fathers” of the service learning movement are a pleasing mix of shameless idealists and prudent practitioners.  I was particularly struck by their open acceptance of everyone at the conference, regardless of their previous experience with service learning.  Over lunch, Tim Stanton invited me to visit his university in South Africa, and later Dwight Giles asked Mike and me to meet with him at some point in his month-long stay at Lingnan University.

A couple of weeks later, while Hong Kong was weathering a typhoon, Dwight, Mike and myself spent an afternoon drinking tea and discussing all things related to service learning at a traditional tea house in Chi Lin Nunnery Park in Kowloon.  Towards evening we hopped in a taxi and found our way to the Walled City park in Kowloon City to learn more about this interesting slice of the Hong Kong story.  Then, just as the wind and rain picked up, we headed for dinner at a nearby Muslim Chinese restaurant.  Here are some pictures from our visit:

An afternoon of tea and conversation at Chi Lin Nunnery in Kowloon

Muslim Chinese Food in Kowloon City.  We couldn’t helped but be struck by the two icons, one traditional and one modern, that faced us as we looked from our meal out the window and across the street.

In July Dwight and I also visited David Begbie of Crossroads to learn more their amazing work with simulations that help to build social conscience among students and business people.

David explains to a group of students that 2 billion people live in an average of 2 meters squared homes around the world.  Students are about to begin a paper bag simulation set in Bangladesh in which a mother tries to provide for her family by making paper bags to sell. 

A couple more pictures enjoying the blue, relatively pollution-less skies of Hong Kong during these hot summer days, and a delicious Peking Duck meal in Wan Chai. 

The conference was a valuable professional experience, and Mike and I were very glad to attend.  Finally, it should be mentioned that we were also pleased to present our social conscience courses at HKIS.  Our write-up and the Prezi that we used in the presentation can be seen below:

“Service Learning Theory in Action: Humanities Courses at Hong Kong International School” by Marty Schmidt and Mike Kersten

High school teachers Dr. Marty Schmidt and Mike Kersten will present how they have created popular service learning curricula in humanities courses at Hong Kong International School (HKIS) that enroll over 200 students annually. Marty will share key steps of his 20 years experience developing service learning at HKIS, including the “journey of social conscience” model developed in his doctoral research.  Mike will present student results and reflections from his new course, “Asian History in Action: Cambodia.”  Finally, Marty and Mike will conclude by sharing how integrating service learning into humanities course content is a highly effective strategy to help students develop meaningful personal and spiritual growth.

A picture of the our fellow presenters who spoke during the same session:

Our presentation can be viewed at the following link: Social Conscience Prezi

PowerPoints for all the keynote and breakout presentations can be viewed here:

Finally, we enjoyed all the people we met during the conference and hope to keep in touch with new friends and fellow service learning advocates.  Here is a picture with Li Huipu, a Chinese student from Chengdu who has just completed her sophomore year at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania.

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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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