Ripple Effect: Rethinking service

Author: Matthew Rush  • 

A boy stands on a riverbank with a rock in hand.  Knowing well the outcome before he hurls the baseball-sized object into the water, he still grows excited about the process: find a rock, pick it up, chunk it, and see the splash and subsequent ripples.

For many independent schools, community outreach has a similar appeal.  We want to help, we feel good about helping, and we like to see our goodwill spread within particular organizations or communities in need.  So in many ways, we are the boy – we find the project (find the rock), we organize (pick up the rock), we go do the good deeds (chunk it), and we often get to see initial impact (ripples).  And it all makes sense, right?

For one, the goals and the processes match the core values of our various institutions.  Of course, there are other lessons taught therein, be it the notion of giving back, taking care of others, or simply doing something humanitarian in general.  In fact, as is often the case, it is our students that are the ones thinking about and initiating various drives for clothing, food, or monetary donations – and it’s exciting to see them get excited about helping others.  All of these are noble causes to be sure, but few organizations are asking how best to instill the values intended.

Let’s go back to the riverbank and the boy for a minute.  This time, imagine a scenario where the boy possesses a supernatural strength, able to hurl the rock thousands of miles away into a similar sized pond.  Aside from the New York Yankees paying top dollar to sign the kid to a multi-million dollar contract, what are the possible outcomes?  Does the rock make the same ripples?  Does he know, based on previous experience, that the rock’s impact made a similar impact, even if he wasn’t there to see it?

For too many schools, outreach has become a short-lived, unobservable exercise in basic fundraising.  By no means am I suggesting that clothing drives in California to help Superstorm Sandy victims in the northeast are either unwelcome or unimportant.  Nor am I saying that raising money to give to a big agency like Red Cross doesn’t have an impact or positive ripple within the community they see fit to help.  But if we are truly invested in outreach and service, it all comes back to sound practice in teaching and learning.

You may have heard or seen the proverb:  Tell me, I’ll forget.  Show me, I’ll remember.  Involve me, I’ll understand.  There are people who may disagree with the statement, but on balance, we can probably agree that it has essential hallmarks of sound pedagogy.  “Tell me, I’ll forget” only involves hearing and listening, which are not the strongest senses in the brain and nervous systems.  “Show me, I’ll remember” is better, as seeing is one of the strongest senses in the central nervous system.  But “Involve me, I’ll understand” includes all of the senses possible… hearing, seeing, feeling, touching, smelling, taste, etc.  Involvement is also likely to mean, in most cases, experiential learning.  Most importantly with involvement,people are more likely to “really know” because now they can help others to learn as well.

In closing, I would simply ask two questions. How can students learn the impact of service if they are not involved in seeing the whole process? Why do organizations not use this thinking in planning community service and outreach more often?

My best,

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