Learning via hands-on service in Japan and the region


EXPOSURE TO REALITY: Many universities are making civic engagement part of their curriculum

A NEW pedagogy is quietly but steadily spreading in higher education in Japan.  In service learning (S-L), students go off campus and perform voluntary work, often applying what they have learned in the classroom.  Then, back in their universities, they link the service experience to academic learning.  It is different from ordinary volunteer work or traditional philanthropy.

It needs a reflection process incorporated within the programme to ensure that the learning is relevant to higher education. It is one form of experiential learning, which lets students serve others, unlike corporate internship.

Today, dozens of universities and colleges in Japan are formally offering service-learning in diverse styles and many more are attempting to install it in the curriculum in the future. More than a hundred other institutions have volunteer centres or centres for community collaboration for promoting similar civic engagement of students.

Such activities expose Japanese students -- often short of social experiences in their youthful life devoted to academic competition -- to the realities of society. The experience helps them to develop social skills, build their identity in engagement with others and inspire them to redefine their academic endeavours.

Kansai University of International Studies in the western part of Japan requires its students to get involved in service activities every year. Some work with local farmers in the rice fields, while others entertain senior citizens or work to maintain local forests. Every department offers course-linked S-L activities for getting students engaged in civic activities.

Showa Women's University in Tokyo collaborates with the local town administrators and FM radio station to offer students' manpower and talents to fulfil local needs.

It also sends students to international non-governmental organisations to support the operation with their English competence.

The International Christian University in Tokyo, where I teach media studies as well as service learning courses, is known for its international service learning. Annually, more than 60 students perform service in non-profit organisations for a month, more than half of them working individually in other parts of Asia.

"The service experience made me aware of social challenges and and my roles in the future," says Sayaka Maruyama, a junior student who joined the university's S-L programme last year.

She worked for the less privileged children at New Hope Rural Leprosy Trust in Visakhapatnam, India. She found the pedagogy so useful that she organised a group of students back in school to promote the programme.

ICU dispatches a few students every year to Seoul and to Nanjing. The two countries and Japan contest different perceptions of past history, creating ripples or lately, a big splash of diplomatic debates.

Yet the S-L students always return home excited about "discoveries" they made about their neighbouring countries, their culture and the people they met. They meet local students sharing similar interests and values, often work together in service and discuss their lives and history. Sometimes, through uncomfortable confrontations or disagreements, the students learn directly from each other and about the others.

"I once had a somewhat negative image of the Chinese people perhaps based on media reports," one student says after her visit to Nanjing. Her ideas changed drastically through her experiences and eyewitness observations.

Service-learning in higher education first spread visibly in the United States in the mid-1980s on the grounds of experiential learning theories of John Dewey, an influential American educator of 100 years ago. Today, it is practised at 1,200 colleges and universities across the US representing more than six million students.

Many American educators believe it not only promotes students' academic pursuits but it also fosters their civic responsibility and willingness to serve for others, communities and the world

Many other education specialists across Asia, or even top administrators, appear to share such a belief. The governments require universities to promote such students' service activities in India and China.

In Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Korea and in other countries in the region, higher education institutions are expanding civic engagement of students.

In Japan, higher education was overhauled and reformed since the 1990s, partly to cope with rapid changes of globalisation, the IT revolution and fast-greying population, among others.

A highly authoritative advisory body to the Education Ministry pointed out in 2001 that volunteer work and other civic activities, as well as hands-on fieldwork at home and abroad, should be included more actively in higher education courses.

Service-learning has, not surprisingly, become a popular answer to such a call. In June, the ministry unveiled a University Reform Action Plan, which aims to "build universities that will become engines of social innovations".

Among the major issues raised in the plan were "fostering human resources suitable for globalisation age" and making universities the "centre of community" that would lead rejuvenation of local communities.

S-L seems to be more relevant than ever to those renewed calls in higher education in Japan and perhaps in many other countries in this century.

International Christian University student volunteers helping out at a farm in Kesennuma Oshima island, 490km east of Tokyo, after the tsunami struck northeastern Japan last year. Pic by Mutsuko Murakami

Writer is a Tokyo-based veteran journalist

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