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Travel is supposed to teach us things, but what, or how it does this, many in the travel and volunteer industry would struggle to tell you. There is one theory,‘experiential learning’ which holds that people learn best through a cycle of‘action and reflection’, that is, by doing something and then thinking about it. The action side of the cycle is actually the easy part, it is the thinking about it that is hard, and so often gets left out. To put this in the context of international volunteering, and to explain why the thinking part is the hard part, we need to turn to another theory known as the ‘contact hypothesis’. According to this theory, by coming into contact with people who are different from oneself, one will come to understand them better and be less prejudicial towards them.

  • Despite the popularity of this idea, research has repeatedly shown that such learning is very limited.
  • The most important factor in how we understand the people we meet on our travels and in our volunteer work is what we thought of them beforewe left home. Indeed our travels often confirm rather than change these opinions.

A major reason for this is our over reliance on the action part of our experience rather than the reflection part. This is because the contact hypothesis that we simply have to observe people’s lives rather than learn about them.This is like assuming that because you drive a car you know how it works.

So in the same way that it is possible to drive a car without knowing how it works, so it is possible to visit a country without ever really understanding it. Just as the internal combustion engine will only reveal itself when you open the bonnet and start asking questions, so social, political and historical realities will only become apparent when you start asking questions and looking beyond the surface for answers. When we travel without accessing the complexities of others’ lives, we travel without understanding those lives, and therefore without any hope of making sense of the choices others make, the ways they live their lives and why, not just how, their lives might be different to our own.

Learning about another country, culture and people is difficult. Reflection is not just a matter of sitting down with a beer or a cup of tea at the end of the day and thinking about your actions. You need to go through a process of questioningwhat you have seen and done from other perspectives, of relating your own observations and knowledge; things you have read in books, know about politics and have heard from other informed parties and so on. For example, if you were to travel to Mali, one of the poorest countries in Africa, would you expect to be able to see, without reading the papers, talking to activists, NGOs or cotton farmers, that cotton subsidies in North America are a major contributor to this poverty? Reflection here demands that one is able to relate daily observations and experiences to other knowledges, and therefore explain why you are experiencing and observing certain things. So that when you walk through the markets of Mali, a country famed for its cotton growing and weaving, you are able to reflect on, and perhaps understand, why you can only find cotton prints from China to take home as souvenirs.

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