This is my first year as Director of Curriculum and Learning at The International School Yangon (ISY). Like everybody who joins the ISY community, I have been struck by the intelligence and character of our students.

If, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, the goal of true education is intelligence plus character, ISY is a very successful school and has been for some time. But ISY is not a school to rest on its laurels. ISY’s recently adopted Vision is proof of this: We aim to develop lifelong learners who will be a force for positive change in the world.

Intelligence and character are undoubtedly important but do not in themselves lead to positive change. It is what our students do with their intelligence and character that will make a difference.

To provide direction for our Vision and Mission, ISY adopted eight strategic themes with service learning being one of them. Through service learning, ISY strives to develop engaged global citizens working for social change. But service learning experiences alone will not generate a commitment to social justice. Susan Benigni Cipolle, in her book ‘Service-Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change,’ states that service learning can only become transformative if it develops in students a more critical consciousness (Cipolle, p.39)

In December, I was fortunate to accompany our Grade 9 students and teachers who traveled to Pyin Oo Lin near Mandalay, Myanmar. The theme of the four day experience was sustainability and included a hike, an exploration of permaculture and solar power, and the building of a library at a local school. According to Cipolle, there are four essential elements that contribute to critical consciousness development. I found the building of the library to be a particularly meaningful experience and an excellent example of all four of these elements.

Element 1: Developing a Greater Awareness of Self

Effective service learning opportunities help students develop a strong sense of self, giving them a sense that what they are doing is important. The ethic of service becomes a component of how they see themselves. Service experiences that are designed to give students opportunities to set goals, implement plans, and persist in their efforts increase their feelings of competency and efficacy. Doing work that has real impact on people and the community fosters a sense of agency and the belief that they can affect change. Additionally, when students take on leadership roles in service activities, it reinforces their self-image as capable and effective and increases their creativity, independence, and self-directedness (Cipolle, p.39-40).

The students worked together to mine clay, make bricks and mortar from the clay, and lay the bricks to make walls that they finally plastered. The students were adding to work that local people had already begun under the guidance of Zaw Nyunt, a local ecological architecture, engineering and permaculture expert. Mr. Nyunt was enlisted by Ryan Blair, Director of Asia Pacific Adventure (APA) who developed a relationship with Inya School and worked with a council comprising the head teacher of the school and 14 local people to get the building project off the ground. It was decided by the council that the school needed a library and Mr. Nyunt was to lead the project using clay that is abundant in the area but never before used as a building material. In the past, local people would purchase and mix concrete to make bricks to build with. The clay provides a free alternative that is easy to work with. The library that is taking shape on a hill has become a sort of ‘show home’ that people from hours away have been visiting to see how they can build using clay.

Our High School Principal, Christina Powers, had asked Mr. Blair and APA to help provide meaningful service learning experiences in the area. The library building project was an obvious choice. This was meaningful work that was not only making a difference to the school, but also opening the eyes of the local people as to the potential of the clay that is all around them. In making the bricks, the students worked quickly and with great enthusiasm as they developed increasingly creative ways of mixing the clay with water and rice husks. They plastered with pride and an attention to detail. Some students come to the fore as leaders and all worked hard as they saw the walls grow gradually taller. Judging by their comments and commitment, the students certainly felt that their work was important and that they were capable of doing it.

Element 2: Developing a Greater Awareness of Others

Students’ self-awareness and awareness of others increase as they work with agencies serving diverse populations. Working with people from (diverse backgrounds) initiates a student’s exploration of difference, similarity, and diversity within inclusiveness. Students come to see people as individuals with their own stories, rather than as statistics and stereotypes. Through these experiences, students recognize other ways of living and thinking, which encourages them to be more open-minded and to see the world from other perspectives (Cipolle, p.41)

The students from Inya School were from very different backgrounds than those of our students. This difference was obvious but did not seem to phase either set of students as they worked and played together on the last day. Volleyball, chilone, soccer and other games were played together without a lot of guidance from teachers. The interactions were the same as those you would see in any playground.

Element 3: Developing a Greater Awareness of Social Issues

Accurate information, constructive service experiences, and critical reflection develop students’ critical consciousness of the world. Students see the contradictions between what they (and society) say they value and believe in and the injustices they see others experiencing. This creates a dissonance that destabilizes their worldview and leads to self-examination and questioning. Given new information and opportunities for reflection and analysis, students accommodate new knowledge and develop a critical, complex view of the world (Cipolle, p.42)

If asked, I think all of our students would say that every student should have access to books and a library. The fact that some do not might not sit easy with our students as they reflect on the facilities and opportunities that ISY provides them.

Element 4: Seeing One’s Potential to Make Change

Once students understand that the world is more complex and social problems are more widespread than they thought, service learning becomes a vehicle for acting on their beliefs and making a difference (Cipolle, p.42)

Through building the library, students were able to act or reflect on their belief that all students should have access to one. Inya School had not had a library until now. The building is a product of our students’ collaboration with APA and the local community. This is positive change brought about in part by our students and this fact was obvious to them. Some students would have been comparing their privileged world with that of others and might have questioned, Why? Cipolle believes that this often leads to more research and analysis and contributes to students’ commitment to civic engagement.

The trip was a success for many reasons. The students worked exceptionally well together and with the experts, connections were made to the curriculum, possible future connections to the curriculum were identified, and APA and our teachers did a wonderful job in putting it all together. Once again, our students proved to be intelligent and of the highest character. More importantly, they might have also proved to themselves that they can be a force for positive change in the world.

Cipolle, Susan Benigni. Service-Learning and Social Justice: Engaging Students in Social Change. Rowman & Littlefield, 2010.

Inya School Library