What is service learning?

Many people are familiar with the term “service learning,” which, at least in an international context, is perhaps best understood as “voluntourism” or volunteering abroad with an explicitly educational bent. However, most people aren’t familiar with the term “learning service.” This post will explore the question, “What is service learning?” by attempting to reimagine a volunteer’s relationship to international development as an education experience designed around the concept of “learning service” rather than as volunteer labor. I believe the existing “service learning” model is flawed and a fundamental rethinking is needed.

In my earlier posts in this series, I discussed the educational merits of service learning programs, the problems and controversies about volunteering abroad generally, and some suggestions for how to vet a service learning program. Here, I address the fundamental problem with the existing service learning model and offer up Sustainable Summer as one example of the “learning service” approach.

The Problem with Service Learning Programs

The vast majority of service learning programs – eager to capitalize on the desires of young people to “make a difference” – skip over the critical first step in designing an effective volunteer program: we have to learn before we can help! Development work is incredibly complex. It’s extremely challenging for most short-term volunteers to make long-term impacts, and in some cases there is potential for volunteers to cause more harm than good. Many established and respected NGOs and development projects understand this and decline to work with short-term “voluntourism” programs. However, there is no shortage of cash-strapped NGOs that are happy to facilitate a “feel good” experience for volunteers while privately acknowledging that those volunteers have no positive impact on the intractable issues of poverty. Unfortunately, poorly conceived projects can even create a culture of dependency, cause divisiveness within and between communities, and disrupt local labor markets, among other problems. In most cases, short-term volunteers that really want to make a difference would be better served by making a donation to an organization that supports long-term development professionals, rather than traveling abroad to volunteer themselves. Yet, many student travel operators are either ignorant of these issues or choose to ignore them since it undermines their business model. (And, yes, this is very much a business with voluntourism the fastest growing segment of the travel industry for several years.) For more on the problems and controversies of volunteering, please see this blog post on the subject.

An Alternative Model: Learning Service

Sustainable Summer‘s direct focus is on educating for sustainability, rather than so-called “service learning.” We are similar to in some ways to service learning programs, but we are also quite different. By comparison, our programs emphasize a “learning service” approach and focus on topics such as sustainable agriculture and natural resource management. We leave the paintbrushes at home and instead use our minds to unpack the complexities of international development. We use expert-led workshops and discussions to frame the experience of living and traveling in a developing country that is uniquely educational and intellectually engaging. Our programs are designed to develop the skills that young people need to be “of service,” not just for a few weeks on a volunteer trip, but for the rest of their lives. We believe this is the preferable approach to educational travel in a developing country, but I have no delusions about the fact that service learning will continue to be a considerable segment of the student travel industry for some time to come. So, if you’re looking for some suggestions on service learning programs, please take the following into consideration.


For students that want a pure “community service” experience (ie; 8 hours per day, 5 days per week of service work), we’re not the best fit. We encourage you to consider volunteering at home – in YOUR community – in addition to (or instead of) volunteering abroad. And if you do plan to volunteer abroad, please do your homework on the provider and be sure to ask them some difficult questions. Here are some tips on how to vet a service learning program.

However, for students that are looking to better understand the environmental, political, and economic circumstances that are at the root of global poverty while also living in communities struggling with these issues, we’re definitely a great option. You can learn more about what makes us different here: sustainablesummer.org/why-us/