The Challenges of Capacity Building in Service Learning

    Posted: February 14, 2017

    Capacity-building as a concept represents how instructors guide students through the process of developing their own perspectives and critical consciousness. It can take place within a variety of learning environments to contribute to holistic student development throughout an experiential educational program.

          Further reading:  Defining Critical Reflection

    In international service-learning specifically, the primary forms of capacity-building are intellectual, emotional, individual (or personal), and community (or collective). Facilitators can use class activities and exercises that focus on leadership development and teamwork to build these competencies, primarily via classroom dialogue. This presents certain challenges, which I will discuss more in depth below.

          Further Reading: Capacity Building and Empathy in Service Learning 



    1. Confronting student assumptions

    In order to build global competencies in students, facilitators help students with the complex process of confronting assumptions in their beliefs and values. Facilitators tend to do this via well-placed, guided questions. This is a complicated process for students, and is highly personal. The end goal is that students develop a tolerance for diversity and a respect for one another despite potentially opposing viewpoints.

    2. Normalizing diversity

    One way educators can normalize diversity is by presenting alternate viewpoints in a nonjudgmental manner, and then having the class work through them in a structured dialogue. This allows the group to engage itself (with the guidance of a knowledgeable instructor), and to work through the tensions that may arise. It also presents the opportunity for the group to draw parallels to the project work they are likewise engaging, and any challenges with their community-based work.

          Further reading: 3 Key Similarities Between Facilitation of Service Learning and Conflict Mediation

    3. Group contracting

    Another method facilitators use to enable students to accept ownership of the learning process is through group contracting, or by deciding upon a group’s terms of class engagement. As a strategy, this contributes to the overarching theme of collective capacity-building through cooperation, problem-solving, and understanding the processes involved with democratic action. It also represents a shared processing of the diversity of perspectives.

    4. Contextual relating

    One way of developing student perspective is by examining a person in the context of how they relate to the layers of community with which they are engaging. This can also be understood as analyzing one’s personhood within an experience. Facilitators strive to maintain an awareness of the contexts that emerge from the group, and to guide students in describing and evaluating their experiences in order to enhance their personal and community development. This contextual relating is quick-moving and requires heightened intuition, which can at times consist of letting the experience itself guide the lesson. This also means the role of the facilitator is constantly shifting, based on content and classroom dynamics.

          Further Reading: Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part II: Creating the Classroom Climate




    In congruence with methods of teaching experiential learning, facilitators of international service-learning seek to engage their students within a process of understanding the range of human diversity. Part of this understanding is enhanced by instructors providing structure to a subjective experience so that students may challenge their current perspectives.

    Within this space, facilitators seek to achieve broad goals through strategies that are built upon students’ ability to think critically and connect with one another in empathetic and respectful ways. In engaging this dialectic, facilitators aim to help students deconstruct and critique their thoughts, opinions, ways, or beliefs, so that they can more fully understand and own them.

          Further Reading: Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part III: Relational Learning 

    Because each person impacts the group as a whole, part of the art of facilitation comes from knowing how to influence group dynamics in order to shift the collective along with the individual’s potential for learning. Facilitation of this sort consists of an intuitive teaching of awareness concerning individual impact, and how students can assess and evaluate their own impact on others.

    As a result of this democratic model, students are re-positioned to interact with communities and classrooms in a more collaborative, and ultimately more competent, manner.

    Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.