The service-learning pedagogy is practised, evaluated and researched around five continents, and is changing hearts and educational institutions worldwide. That was clear during the 20th International Service-Learning Week, which took place in Buenos Aires between 22nd and 25th August, with an audience of half a thousand educators, researchers and students from twenty-one countries.
Organised by the Latin American Center for Service-Learning (CLAYSS), the Week had a full agenda in which all voices could express themselves. The main activities included the 26th International Service-Learning Conference, the VI Service-Learning Researchers’ Symposium (JIAS, in its acronym in Spanish), a global meeting of the Uniservitate programme, the meeting of the Ibero-American Service-Learning Network Solidario (REDIBAS, in its acronym in Spanish) and the VI Service-Learning in the Arts Meeting.
“Service-learning is the best innovation because you can learn, but that doesn’t mean you get an education. We learn inside a classroom; to get an education, we must visit the community and learn about its problems. It prepares us to be leaders who accept and respect other people and make the world a better place,” said Peris Waithera Mwangi, a Muslim student at Tangaza University College, a Catholic institution in Kenya. Her presentation as a panellist is available on the CLAYSS YouTube channel, along with other conference presentations and plenaries.
No matter the political ups and downs, this long-lasting conference has promoted the service-learning pedagogy in Argentina for two decades with the support of the National Ministry of Education, regardless of the political colour of those running it. This year, it had the support of the Organisation of Ibero-American States, the UBA and the UCA Universities and the collaboration of the Ibero-American Service-Learning Network and Uniservitate. It stood out for its global scope, the large number of secondary school students, universities and civil society organisations present and the extremely emotional moments.
Out of the 500 participants, 150 were from abroad, and representatives of national service-learning networks from Portugal, Spain, the United States, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina participated in the Ibero-American Service-Learning Network meeting and later in the International Conference. Members of the International Association of Researchers in Service-Learning (IARSLCE) and the European service-learning networks in higher education, schools and organisations were also part of it.
The meeting brought together around seventy teenagers from seven public and private schools in Buenos Aires City and its outskirts and Jujuy, Argentina, who shared their community-based experiences with four university students from Kenya and one from Tanzania. “Many people think that this type of event is a waste of time; I think it’s an investment: people come to you, accompany you and share their situations with you. You will never forget such priceless knowledge,” explained a student from the Carlos Pellegrini school.
Tears ran in the audience when Ukrainian teacher Olha Matiychuk described the heartbreaking conditions caused by the war and the many initiatives that the students from different disciplines at the Ukrainian Catholic University carry out to face the new challenges, or when African student Patrizia Kamene shared how service-learning helped her overcome the difficulties caused by her blindness, heal the wounds of several attempts of sexual abuse and become an advocate for people with disabilities and victims of gender-based violence.
“As educators, we can’t help but engage in service-learning; we see that necessity is the mother of innovation,” said Mercy Pushpalatha, South Asia programme consultant, after listening to the service-learning experiences in diverse contexts. “And we saw how students’ academic competencies are improving and their attitudes are changing,” he added.
Maria Nieves Tapia, director and founder of CLAYSS, centred her presentation on the future of education according to UNESCO’s recent document “Reimagining our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education”. UNESCO proposes a new curriculum based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015. It also considers service-learning as an innovative pedagogy for the education of the future, along with project-based learning and participatory-action research. However, said Tapia: “I see in this room people who have been doing service-learning projects for 25 or 30 years (…) Here we stand those who have been doing the education of the future for many years, and we want to present it to everyone”.
The SDGs were the core of the meetings on the second day of the Conference, which accounted for what Nieves Tapia said afterwards: “Behind each goal, there are concrete service-learning experiences that are already in progress”. Tapia also stressed the importance of UNESCO’s underlining the need to train global citizens with the knowledge and skills to build a sustainable future. “We all know how to draw a little picture of people embracing the planet on Earth Day, but then we need to know how to care for and protect the planet and how to solve the problem of poverty,” she said.
Vannina Trentin, from UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), regarded UNESCO’s call for a new social contract as “strong” and valued the “deserved recognition” to service-learning which, in her opinion, “is much more than an approach, it is a way of inhabiting the world”.
Miguel Angel Schiavone and Father Gustavo Boquín; the president of CLAYSS, Jorge San Martín, and the Undersecretary of participation and democratisation of education, Luis Calderaro, in representation of the National Minister of Education, delivered the opening remarks of the Conference. Schiavone shared his conviction that service-learning should be planned, evaluable and compulsory, while Boquin recalled that there are chairs that apply this methodology in all the UCA faculties; he also advocates for an education “that leaves the imaginary case to address the real case; leave everything behind on the blackboard or in the Excel and go to the real difficulties posed by reality”.
Among those present were teachers who participated in the first service-learning projects in their adolescence. Nieves Tapia said: “It gives me great joy to see that we are entering a second or third generation of service-learning. Those who were our students are now teachers who are training new generations of students who continue to do service-learning, and we hope that they, in turn, will be multipliers of this pedagogy.
The Uniservitate global meeting, a network of Catholic universities that seeks to institutionalise service-learning in higher education, brought together 35 universities worldwide, whose representatives held an enriching exchange of experiences. This also happened during the two meetings of the Service-Learning in the Arts Programme, which examined the current developments in arts education in Latin America and presented initiatives from Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina. The meeting on the Integral Ecology programme, recently created by CLAYSS, was also inspiring.
Meanwhile, the Service-Learning Reasearcher’s Symposium 2023, held at the Faculty of Dentistry of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA, in its Spanish acronym), was the largest in its six editions: there were 208 researchers, professors and students from 22 countries. Fifty-one of the 78 papers submitted were approved and presented during the symposium and will be available on the CLAYSS website. Alejandra Catibiela, coordinator of the JIAS, concluded that there has been an important theoretical production on service-learning with a strong emphasis on higher education and encouraged those who work at other educational levels “to think about their practices in terms of research and knowledge production and dissemination”. In this sense, Andrew Furco, specialist professor in service-learning at the University of Minnesota, affirmed that “now is the time to do research. Doors are open for it”.