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Cultivating Service Learning in Myanmar

If you’re a parent, you’ll know that Generation Z – children born between 1995 and 2015 who grew up with easy access to the internet – are always glued to their devices. As a result, parents and teachers are always on the lookout for ways to get these kids off their phones and into the “real world”. 

Interestingly, studies have found that this early exposure to the digital world and access to unlimited information have made Gen Z children more social, more driven, and eager to be engaged in the learning process. A Barnes and Noble survey found that 51% of students said they learn best by doing while 12% said they learn best through listening. They are not passive learners. They thrive when they are fully immersed in their own educational experience. 

Schools therefore have to adapt to the needs of their students by offering more hands-on, more social educational approaches where students are immersed in their local community. Service Learning is an educational philosophy that is well suited to answer this need and at the International School Yangon (ISY), it is fully part of our curriculum. 

Established in Yangon in 1955, ISY operates as a private, non-profit school. We were established to provide education for families serving in the diplomatic and business community in Yangon. Today we serve a diverse student body of close to 800 students comprising 48 different nationalities. There are 14 different nationalities represented in the faculty. 

Whether it is an animal shelter set up by one of our teachers to help the street dogs of Yangon or a community kitchen project to help feed people in need, we at ISY have been actively finding ways to bring about positive change. 

Last year, when we evaluated the school’s mission and vision and established a series of strategic goals, Service Learning stood out as one of the main themes. 

Understanding Service Learning 

Service Learning in schools is where programs are developed to allow students to study a particular issue in their community, present ways of addressing those issues and then, if possible, implement those changes. 

Service Learning has to be woven into the curriculum and practiced in a collaborative way to be more effective. Recently, we had a collaborative project between the integrated science and computer science classes.

The types of activities that fall under Service Learning can be diverse. The activities can address issues within a particular community (like the school) or a connected community (like the parents of students at the school) or the wider community.

There is always an element of learning in each of the activities as well as an element of reflection about the activity. Visiting an animal shelter and helping clean out cages is a worthwhile activity, but should be classed as community service. Meanwhile, learning how an animal shelter operates and how much dog food is required and then raising funds to provide that amount of food qualify as a good example of Service Learning. 

We have been encouraging students to form Service Learning groups throughout the school, and to drive student-led programs with teachers as sponsors, and this has led to some very promising outcome. 

A group called SEEDS was formed to focus on all things environmental. One of their projects is to study air-conditioning and the amount of power used by the units we have at the school. SEEDS have come up with a number of ways the school can minimize power usage while maintaining the cool and conducive classrooms. Girl Up, meanwhile, is a group dedicated to raising awareness about gender equality issues. This year, they led educational campaigns at school events, created videos, held information sessions during assemblies, and managed a social media presence. 

Little steps, big impact 

Yet not all Service Learning groups need mission statements or a big-themed focus area. There are groups that help students with their English skills, or a group dedicating to gardening at the school; all of which bring meaningful impact.

Service Learning has to be woven into the curriculum and practiced in a collaborative way to be more effective. Recently, we had a collaborative project between the integrated science and computer science classes. The integrated science class calculated the carbon footprint of the school’s various activities like energy use, travel, and waste and made suggestions as to how this can be reduced. The computer science class then worked on a database to house this data and allow it to be collected on a regular basis over time. This in turn enabled the school to track and measure how energy use changes and whether the implemented changes are having an effect. 

Service Learning is also about engaging the school as a whole, and the wider community. We have partnered with United World Schools (UWS), a charity that works with communities to develop schools in remote areas. They build a school, train teachers from the local community, provide instructional materials, and support the school for 10 years. After that, the goal is to turn the school over to the local community.

UWS has worked in Cambodia for 10 years, where it has almost 100 schools there, as well as in Nepal. More recently they have started working in Myanmar. ISY sent a group of parents, teachers and students to Cambodia to learn about the program there and they came back excited to run it here in Myanmar. We are now in the fundraising stage of the UWS project in Myanmar where we are raising $30,000 in the first year (and $10,000 per year subsequently) to build local schools. 

It’s heartening to see students deeply involved in organising the first of our fundraising events: a Sport-a-thon, in which they were sponsored by their parents and friends to complete certain challenges on the day. A group has now taken full ownership of this project and they are coming up with strategies so we can continue working with this project after the charity school are built and launched, hopefully in June of 2019. 

In September, we are opening ISY Nay Pyi Taw, a second campus which will provide that same service to the foreign and local communities in upper Myanmar. We are working closely with the Myanmar Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Shwe Taung Group in developing this new campus to fulfil our promise to support our host country in its aspirations. Service is at the core or everything we do, and we look forward to bringing this service culture in Nay Pyi Taw very soon. For more information about this project and ISY, please visit: https://www.isyedu.org .