A Framework for Embracing Complexity in the Service Learning Debate

A Framework for Embracing Complexity in the Service Learning Debate
Submitted by Seth Leighton, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Envoys

Recent years have seen the movement of global education from the periphery to the core; developing the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to do collaborative work across geographic and cultural boundaries is not a ‘nice-to-have’, but rather essential to success in the 21st century.

This movement has, in turn, sparked the professionalization of all aspects of global programming. Operating both within and without the constraints of traditional academic contexts, a growing community of practice continues to create and codify those practices that constitute standards of excellence.

From the field leader to the classroom teacher, members of this vibrant community are bound together by our shared values of empathy, understanding, and respect, as well as our common desire to bring about the world that ought to be. 

One key shibboleth of members of this community is the tendency to speak in paragraphs, not sentences, when explaining what we do. We do not ‘discuss current events’, we connect the dots between news headlines and the changing dynamics of the global political economy, highlighting those historical patterns which echo in the present paying heed to the new possibilities created by the forces of globalization and technological change.  We do not “go on trips”, we lead students on focused explorations of topics of global significance, bringing in perspectives from multiple stakeholders and learning to better engage with the diverse and beautiful world.

Envoys Program

This tendency arises not only from the inherent complexity of the work, but also from a deep-seated aversion to overly-simplistic models of the world around us. As the ease of labelling and preponderance of filter bubbles increasingly threatens our ability to listen and learn from those holding different views, the rejection of simplification provides some hope for the future.

Paradoxically, the one domain of global education in which the community has moved towards simplification is the most inherently complex: service learning.

Developing the capacity and disposition to be of service to others is at the core of global education. The complexity comes into play when the inequalities between students are readily visible; often, those from absolute global wealth discrepancy and colonial legacy. Yet all too often we turn away from critical discussions of these inherent moral and cultural quandaries.  A few schools and organizations attempt to evade the fray by enacting blanket policies, resulting in the equally-limiting positions of universal requirements or universal bans for service projects. Others look to institute new terminology for their service programming, seeking to use clever wordplay to absolve the reputational damage done to the core spirit of volunteerism. 

The way forward, of course, lies not in covering up the ethical, educational, and environmental issues that exist in every service project. Instead, this community must engage in a realistic assessment of our choices around service projects, and be ready to stand accountable for those decisions.

To facilitate this process at Envoys, we developed the CEDE framework for project analysis. Instead of an idealized checklist that is impossible to realize in the world , the framework provides four key domains within which conversation can take place. Each domain comprises a set of questions that dig into the nuances of the particular service project. Ratings and justifications are utilized within the framework as avenues for planners and participants alike to critically evaluate the choices made and implicit and explicit assumptions held by the project.

The CEDE framework was developed to assist program planners to address the following questions:

  • What is our common language and rationale for explaining choices on service opportunities?
  • How do we frame conversations about the quality and nature of service opportunities?
  • How do we get better at engaging responsibly and ethically with communities?
  • How do our choices to engage in service opportunities reflect who we are as individuals?

CEDE comprises the following four domains, chosen as those most relevant concerns for

service learning projects falling under the umbrella of global education programming.


The extent to which the project upholds human dignity, fosters fellowship, and adheres to mutuality of relationships.


The potential to provide a transformative learning experience for all involved, including the learners undertaking the service project as well as other stakeholders engaged in the work.


The net outcome of the experience, examining the extent to which a positive and sustainable impact is made in comparison to the resources expended.


The impact of the project on the natural world, examining the relative benefits and costs on non-renewable resources and engagement with natural spaces.

The term “CEDE” was consciously chosen for this framework in order to frame the process as a release of the tensions, inhibitions, and shame that often comprises service learning. Engaging in the process requires acknowledgement and acceptance of the particular problems for a chosen project, including those elements that could lead to serious ethical issues. As making thoughtful choices lies at the heart of the CEDE process, all project stakeholders, including students and community partners, are engaged in authentic and frank discussions, thereby achieving certainty around the choices made.

The Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei wrote that “there is no such thing as a human being in the abstract”, speaking to the need for repeated and frank assessments of the impact of social, cultural, economic and political conditions on our conception of what it means to be human.

Similarly, we believe that utilizing the CEDE framework will help the global education community move past the equally-absurd abstractions of idealism and cynicism that exist around service. Instead, the exacting process of researching and debating the relative merits of a real project will create the calm and clear-eyed knowledge that lies on the other side of complexity.



Referenced resources:

Kaye, Catherine Berger. The Complete Guide to Service Learning: Proven, Practical Ways to Engage Students in Civic Responsibility, Academic Curriculum, & Social Action. Green Press Initiative. Link

Koltai, Steve R. Peace through Entrepreneurship: Investing in a Startup Culture for Security and Development. Brookings Institution Press.Link

Reimers, et al. Empowering Global Citizens: The World Course. Creative Commons, 2014. Link

Maren, Michael. The Road to Hell: Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and Charity. The Free Press, 1997. Link

Moyo, Dambisa. Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is A Better Way for Africa. Link

Steves, Rick. Travel as a Political Act. Nation Books, 2009. Link

Sumka et al, Working Side by Side: Creating Alternative Breaks as Catalysts for Global Learning, Student Leadership, and Social Change. Stylus, 2015. Link.


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Comments on "A Framework for Embracing Complexity in the Service Learning Debate"

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John Nordquist - Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Global Education Benchmark Group has developed a set of Global Education Endorsement Standards which serves a similar purpose to the AEE Accreditation Standards. Organizations with Global Education programs, particularly K-12 schools, will find these standards a helpful tool for developing and evaluating their program quality and risk management practices. More information can be found at GEBG.org.

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