picture survey group

Volunteer Work

One inflammatory issue in the current expedition climate surrounds expedition organizations sending young people to developing nations as unskilled labourers. For example, this could entail participants doing jobs such as teaching in primary schools, helping to take zoological surveys, or working in national parks on conservation projects, and is often under the remit of undertaking geographical research.

Many of these projects may not fall under the strict definition of an expedition, as they may not involve a journey; they may be based in the same place for several weeks at a time—despite being remote and self-sufficient. A number of organizations have elements of expeditions as part of their programs. For this reason, the issue of unskilled labour is highlighted.

Some critics note that Western young people going to developing nations and working may often be considered a form of neo-colonialism (Simpson 2004). This is so, because there remains an imbalance of power in favour of the participants and the expedition provider. For example, the UK would not tolerate an 18-year-old Ghanaian boy coming to the southwest of England for six weeks and teaching in a primary school. This is in contrast to common instances where British youth without appropriate qualifications and with minimal experience find themselves in developing nations, playing prominent roles in the host village’s formal education system. Although this kind of altruism may be laudable, it may be worth considering that this practice is only made possible by the wide gulf between the resources of the visitor and the host community. These practices of going overseas to learn through volunteering are sometimes referred to as service learning.

A number of papers have described how service learning is a branch of experiential education that is gaining increasing prominence in the Western world (Jacoby 1996; Jakubowski 2003; Warren and Loeffler 2000). Jacoby defines service learning as “activities that address human and community needs with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development” (1996, p. 5). Typically, service-learning programs involve living and working in a host community on projects that have been deemed important by the members of that community (Jacoby 1996; Kendall 1990).

Meaningful service-learning programs demand thorough examination, so they are not merely exercises in being exposed to life in a developing nation, but rather engage participants in the daily life of those living in the host country (Levison 1990). Similarly, service-learning projects ought to ensure that those being served are in control of the services being provided, those being served become more empowered as a result of the project, and those who serve are also learners (Jacoby 1996; Kendall 1990). Dickson (1988, p. 26) recommends educational programs for young people where the experience is based on “the adventure culminating in service, and the service itself an adventure.”

In strict terms, service learning cannot occur without formal reflection (Jacoby 1996). Service without reflection would likely be regarded by many as volunteerism, as it is not connected to any structured set of learning objectives. We suggest that learning can happen without formal reflective activities (e.g., reviewing in a circle, journal writing). After all, people have learned through experience since the beginning of time. We also recognize that service learning experiences designed to be part of a larger educational program may need to have specific intended learning outcomes in order to justify their inclusion.

Another feature of service learning is reciprocity, where all parties “are learners and help determine what is to be learned. Both the server and those served teach, and both learn” (Kendall 1990, p. 22). Furthermore, it is imperative that the members of the host community identify the service tasks and then control the service provided (Jacoby 1996).

Expedition providers who are using service as part of their program can draw from the literature as a means of guiding their own practice. Crucially, expeditions involving volunteer work as a means of learning need to be thoroughly considered and not “added on” in some tokenistic manner. Well conceptualized and well-implemented projects have considerable potential for learning.

Allison, P. & Beames, S. (2010). Feature article: The changing geographies of overseas expeditions. International Journal of Wilderness, 16(3), 35-42.
Dickson, A. (1988). Return from the mountain. Horizons, 5(3), 20-26.
Jakubowski, L. M. (2003). Beyond book learning: Cultivating the pedagogy of experience through field trips. Journal of Experiential Education, 26(1), 24-33.
Kendall, J.C. (1990). Combining service and learning: An introduction. In J.C. Kendall and Associates (Eds.), Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service (Vol. 1, pp. 1-33). Raleigh: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.
Levison, L.M. (1990). Choose engagement over exposure. In J. C. Kendall & Associates (Eds.), Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public service (Vol. 1, pp. 68-75). Raleigh: National Society for Internships and Experiential Education.
Jacoby, B. (1996). Service learning in today's higher education. In B. Jacoby (Ed.), Service learning in higher education: Concepts and practices (pp. 3-25). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Simpson, K. (2004). ‘Doing development’: The gap year, volunteer-tourists and a popular practice of development. Journal of International Development, 16(5), 681-692.
Warren, K. & Loeffler, T.A. (2000). Setting a place at the table: Social justice research in outdoor experiential education. Journal of Experiential Education, 23(2), 85-90.