International service and learning: a perspective of schema adjustment

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Chang, Wei-Wen
Huang, Yu-Fu.
Yuan, Yu-His

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Today, in the field of education, international service has been suggested as an active means to enhance participants’ learning in professional and personal aspects. While the globalization increases the interdependency among countries, many challenges, such as humanitarian care, disaster relief, medical assistance, or education system development, rely on collaboration by international talents from various areas. As such needs increase, more and more young people choose to participate in international voluntary service in the hope to contribute their time and knowledge for local community while obtaining cross-cultural experience for personal growth. In literature, empirical studies have found that participation in international service increases learners’ intercultural competence, language skills, appreciation of cultural difference and tolerance for ambiguity. It is often suggested that international service learning programs are potentially transformative in nature. However, while the previous studies reported the transformational outcomes from international service participation, they provided limited information regarding another critical question: Why transformational outcomes happen through international service experiences? Without a deeper examination of participants’ cognitive process, the transformative process for learning would remain as an un-opened mystery box. A closer examination of the cognitive and psychological processes is necessary to develop a thorough understanding regarding the learning. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to examine, from a cognitive perspective, what are factors that encourage participants to transform. To respond to such an inquiry, schema theory in the field of social psychology is utilized as a framework to examine participants’ international service experiences. To reach this purpose, this study utilized three methods to collect data, including observation, interview, and document review. The interview data was collected from 10 young international volunteers from Taiwan (age 24-35). The participants included 5 females and 5 males who all had gone abroad for their international assignments. The areas of their international assignments included Brazil, Belgium, England, Germany, Iceland, Panama, and Thailand. Their work content included adolescent education assistance, community service for people with disabilities, computer education, English education, school administration, and medical care assistance. In this study, all participants mentioned that, through international service experience, they learned and changed to some degree. They adjusted their schema in order to more appropriately respond to the work or life demands in the new environment. When they faced new experiences, several important factors in cognitive level have been identified that helped to enhance their transformation in a cross-cultural setting. The factors included: (a) sharp contrast in experiences, (b) things beyond the existing frame, (c) hidden self released and revealed, (d) a new mental map that relocates self in the world. These four components in cognitive process serve as catalysts that encourage individuals to extend and adjust their existing schema. While the schema moves, perspectives change, and therefore, the transformational learning occurs. Based on the findings, this study provides implications for educators and participants of international service learning.