Tag Archives: competency based learning

Wrap-up: Peace Corps and service

This is a part of a series of wrap-up posts about my Peace Corps service. In the previous post I discussed my personal commitment to ethical service, and introduced the Peace Corps for the unfamiliar. You can find the first post, and links to the rest of the series, here.


U.S. Volunteer Agency

As a companion to this section, here is a head-on-the-nail critique of some pitfalls of the Peace Corps as a development agency. It’s about six years old, but the issues persist.

The U.S. Peace Corps is authorized by Congress and funded through taxes; it is a United States government agency. This means that — while it prides itself on being apolitical at the individual level — it is established and organized through diplomatic exchanges between government employees.

Before a country hosts any Peace Corps Volunteers, its government must agree with the U.S. government to establish a new Peace Corps post. Individual sector programs (e.g. TEFL, health, agriculture) are determined upon by the country director, following advisement by a Project Advisory Council made up of PCV representatives and community counterparts, in partnership with sector representatives from the host government. Basically: the program must satisfy the expressed needs of the host country via their government, its needs and opportunities as perceived by PCVs, and the stated mission of Peace Corps.

If this can be done successfully, the post will receive funds to pay the local-level salaries of its volunteers, as well as a complete set of permanent staff — including administrative, financial, and technical program-related units; management; on-call doctors; a safety and security team; and support units such as drivers — and employees hired seasonally for language and technical training. While the resulting number is tiny in terms of the overall U.S. budget[1], it is significantly larger than what most volunteer organizations can muster.

Note that the U.S. government, as founder and funder, is hardly a disinterested party. Rather — insofar as any government is designed to protect, organize, and promote the welfare of its citizens and to manage relations with other governments — it[2] is acutely self-interested. It sends citizens overseas, rather than keep them home to benefit the U.S. economy, and provides aid to another country at its own cost. And it swears up and down that its interest is strictly humanitarian, so it cannot derive direct political benefits from the effort — although it hopes to gain indirect benefits from the positive image a volunteer program can create. It looks for instead to garner citizens better suited for its work force, materially in terms of training and work experience, intangibly in terms of the patience, flexibility, communicative ability, and widened worldview that come with adapting to a foreign environment.

A good portion of my generation falls into employment limbo after graduating from college: our Bachelors aren’t helpful, either because they’re not of a practical persuasion or because potential employers are searching for candidates with a Masters and work experience, but lower-qualification employers assume (rightly) that we’ll skip out at the first better offer. Where better for us to go than abroad in an explicitly temporary program, in which qualification requirements are defined by our government and we can earn the experience necessary to be gainfully employed when we return home?

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a useful system and I’ve benefited from it. But the benefit comes at risk of undermining the program’s development value and creating an uneven balance between its roles as volunteer aid and means of cultural exchange [3]. One of the more common concerns voiced during my pre-service training? “I’ve never taught before.” In what way does someone who has no teacher training or experience, whose degree is entirely unrelated to education, qualify as a “professional” in the education sector? Three months of training is all well and good, but does it really match PCVs to the level of their host country counterparts? Sometimes it seems PCVs’ most significant contributions are ingenuity and a differing cultural lens — which, while valuable, do not a professional make, and carry uncomfortable suggestions about host country nationals’ own ingenuity and cultural integrity.

However, I can’t speak conclusively on the subject from personal experience. Another advantage of the Peace Corps is its fluidity: its members and staff transition constantly, and its programs and methods are under frequent redesign. There’s something to be said for those feedback mechanisms. I’m told that the majority of this year’s PC/Mongolia trainees have an education degree, TEFL or state teacher certification, or classroom experience. I don’t know if it’s because of the revamp of the application process — which has been shortened somewhat and made more concrete, to the benefit of those with less temporal flexibility than a fresh college graduate — or because of complaints voiced by training staff and self-identified underqualified PCVs, but it suggests to me that the Peace Corps can be made aware of and limit (if not entirely rectify) its vulnerabilities.


Peace Corps and Cultural Exchange

Whatever my reservations on the technical side of things, I would be hard-pressed to name a better medium of cultural exchange than the Peace Corps[4]. Fully half of our training program was oriented toward understanding the language and cultural norms of our host country, and from the beginning the expectation was set that volunteers adapt, with their community’s assistance, to life as locals live it.

The Peace Corps’ initial language and cultural training is fully immersive and structured toward rapid, practical acquisition. Trainees live with a host family, eat with them, and are taught the chores and customs they’ll need at site. Four hours a day they go to language class, which takes place almost entirely in the host language and is focused on practical tasks: introductions and small talk; shopping for food and clothes; asking for and giving directions; and so on. Trainees are taken out into the community to practice these tasks, and non-English-speaking community members are brought into class for real life conversation. Having experienced this framework, I doubt I’ll be satisfied learning a language in a more standard classroom setting; I learn more effectively through self-created tasks and immersion.

Following this training, I felt well-prepared to dive into local life. My counterpart teachers, briefed by the Peace Corps and previous experience, met me prepared to open their homes to me and show me their everyday lives. I, meanwhile, had been warned about[5] major cultural differences — both work and personal — and knew that the expectation was for me to engage with these differences, not distance myself as a foreigner. This has allowed me to build close friendships throughout my community, with people I’ll miss very much, and experience their home life and traditions.


The fundamental question remains, then: Should you join the Peace Corps?

As far as principles of service go: the Peace Corps does not, in its present incarnation, do harm to the communities it engages with. If its effectiveness and ethical clarity is hampered by diplomatic interests, it is also staffed by people aware of the intricacies of development service who do the best they can at their jobs. PCVs are taught the basics of ethical volunteer service and each country post does its honest best to prepare them for their work.

Is it the most effective, valuable volunteer work you could do? Probably not. As an organization it is hampered by its own hugeness and versatility; volunteers end up in sites that have no use for them, or that are actively disinterested in their stated work. Volunteers are accepted based on demand from the host government and Peace Corps post, which means that some are underqualified or would be of better fit in a different sector. The organization itself takes a generalist “grassroots” approach, putting the burden on the volunteer to determine what most needs to be done at their site. This slows down the actual work, as volunteers spend six months to a year just getting their bearings and finding projects.

But all of this is not to say the experience is without value — although I continue to question whether it is as valuable to the host country as it is to individual volunteers. Many volunteers carry out successful projects (whether a teaching stint, a summer camp, a fulfilled grant, or something more concrete) and all of them return home with cross-cultural and professional experience for their resume. It’s good training for development work, if not the most effective development work itself, and opens doors for future aid workers and teachers to do more good in the future.

Keeping in mind all of the above, and assuming you’ve laid to rest any practical or ethical qualms raised therein, I would ask you three questions.

What do you hope to achieve? If nothing else, the Peace Corps is good at implanting one reality of development work: You aren’t going to change the world in two years. Your community will not undergo a complete overhaul during your service. Your most cherished projects may be entirely unappealing to the counterparts you find, or unsuitable to your community. What, then, are you willing to settle for? What is the minimum you will be content with? And what beyond that is most important to you?

What motivates you? Peace Corps service is not easy. At some point you will — maybe rightfully — question whether it’s a valuable use of your time and skills (or, conversely, whether you are valuable to your community). You’d better know ahead of time why you’re doing it, whether that’s concrete — loan forgiveness, practical experience, the lump sum at the end of the job — or less tangible — altruism, learning about a new culture, building relationships across the world. And you’d better be sure that your motivators continue to match up to, and make worthwhile, the work you’re doing.

What are your dealbreakers? I’ve missed a wedding, a birth, two college graduations, and a whole bunch of birthday and holiday celebrations. I’ve struggled with a sense of ineffectiveness at work. I’ve had mental and physical health issues. Some people have lost family members and been unable to get permission (or finances) to attend the funeral[6]. Others have gone home due to health problems, untenable work situations, or safety issues at their site. You have a right to draw the line and leave the Peace Corps without shame when the costs mount, but it’s good to know ahead of time where that line lies.

I question aspects of my time and experiences in the Peace Corps, but I don’t regret my decision to join. I would encourage you to do your research and be certain where you stand before you apply, but I would not caution you against doing so.


[1] Last year $410 million out of almost $4 trillion.
[2] Note that I’m not speaking here of any particular individual or organ of the many bureaucracies that have put the Peace Corps into place: when I speak of ‘the government’, I’m talking about the aggregate of decisions made by a huge body of people who range from altruistic and highly informed to actively disinterested, whose opinions often clash, sometimes irreconcilably, and who are necessarily influenced by the people who vote for them, or pay them, or fire them.
[3] This is especially true for TEFL, which has acted as something of a catch-all for less-qualified applicants. I’ll get into this further in the next post.
[4] Insert mandatory line griping about the lack of Kazakh training for people going to Kazakh sites, which may or may not ever be rectified.
[5] And would have experienced firsthand, if I had been going to a Mongolian site or lived with a Kazakh host family.
[6] Peace Corps only grants emergency live in case of the loss or illness of immediate family — so grandparents, aunts, and uncles don’t count.

Community, karate, PST

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons…

–“Desiderata,” Max Ehrmann

Apologies if this post is a little scattered: I wrote it during spare moments during Staging (about which I intend to blog, eventually) and didn’t have time for a proper revision before I lost internet connection. I probably won’t post again for a couple of months, since internet access is limited during the initial training.

This week is an orientation in Ulaanbaatar (Улаанваатар), the capital city; next week we begin our training, which is located around a city a few hours away. My Pre-Service Training will last eleven weeks (counting orientation) and the majority of it will take place in a small rural community; I will be studying with a half-dozen or dozen other TEFL volunteers.

But before I get into what (little) I know about that training, I want to talk karate.

In October, I signed up for a self defense workshop at an isshinryu karate dojo near my house. It was something I owed myself, I figured, if I was going to make choices that put me in risky situations. I wasn’t looking forward to it; I’ve spent my brief adult life rehabilitating from childhood abhorrence of physical activity, and I still wasn’t comfortable working out in front of people.

Turns out it doesn’t much matter how comfortable you are when somebody grabs you from behind and says you’re not getting off the mat until you get free. Sometime in the middle of the session, when the endorphins had worn my anxiety away, I realized I was enjoying myself.

I can pin down the moment enjoyment changed to I want to do that. The head sensei was working with a woman from another dojo (I have no idea if she was a student or a blackbelt — they were wearing sweats for this class). He had her pinned on her back on the ground. She rolled over onto her stomach, and he got her in a headlock and said, “You’re dead. You were dead as soon as you rolled over.”

I waited for her to deny it, to take offense, to defend herself against the peremptory end to the demonstration. Instead, when he released her, she looked at him and asked, “How did you do that?”

I realized in that moment that this was a group that I could learn from: a community that valued learning and mutual respect over competition.

Six months is not long on a karateka’s timeline. It takes a couple of years to work up to the middle of the kyu (colored belt) ranks; longer than that to achieve a first-rank black belt. I told myself, when I started class, that this would be a low-commitment hobby, something I’d keep up with only as long as I enjoyed it and it didn’t increase my stress level.

I don’t do low-commitment very well.

The instructors knew that I was busy (at this point, I was working full-time, tutoring 3 evenings a week, writing every day, making intermittent Peace Corps preparations, and trying very hard to get adequate sleep and maintain some semblance of a healthy social life). They encouraged me to show up regularly, since it was the only way I could make consistent improvement, but didn’t criticize me or look askance when I missed a week or two. They welcomed me as part of the class and the community built around it, despite that I did not know a single person in the dojo when I walked in. They pushed me to learn as much as I could and perform to the best of my ability, and they made sure I left each class exhausted and armed with new techniques and strategies. I found myself looking forward to the classes I could attend as I looked forward to very few things in my day-to-day.

After a few weeks, I was given a sign-off sheet of items to learn as I progressed through the belt ranks. The list consisted of demonstrable techniques and historical/contextual knowledge specific to isshinryu, with around five items to learn per belt rank. The dojo was pretty small — the adult classes averaged around 3:1 student:sensei — so the class structure was fluid; what we worked on depended on which sensei was leading and how the students ranked. I was the only adult with a white (and, later, yellow) belt. In the younger classes, siblings and friends who had started at the same time tended to test together, but beyond that we worked at our own pace. The tests were not on a schedule or a set order within the belt rank. Whenever you practiced an item in class at an acceptable level, a sensei would ask for an official demonstration before signing off. Sometimes they were very informal: a sensei would sign off one of the major items, glance through the list, and ask, “Do you know the dojo rules and procedures?”

My interest did not wane. I began to practice at home — was frustrated, in fact, that it wasn’t logistically possible to work more than twenty or thirty minutes of practice into my day. I earned my first (and thus far only) belt. A new class opened that I could actually fit in my schedule.

The instructors knew I was busy, but they didn’t know I was leaving.

I hadn’t mentioned it when I started attending: it wasn’t relevant, because I wasn’t even sure I would stick around. I continued to not mention it as the months passed. This was partly because, working a steady-as-clockwork day job in the middle of the coldest February on record, I just couldn’t envision going somewhere even colder to do challenging and unusual things. But it was also because I valued this community I had half-accidentally wandered into, this group whose values I had adopted, and I was more than a little bit afraid that announcing my departure would ostracize me before I absolutely had to leave.

But, well, I quit my job in April and ran out of excuses to put off the announcement. I told just a few people — the head sensei, another that I’d worked with very closely. Word trickled down from one member of the dojo to another.

They were unanimously supportive of me taking a calculated risk to grow personally and professionally, and congratulated me at least as often as they expressed regret that I was leaving. Several senseis assured me that they would support my continued practice in whatever limited way they could — and that it was perfectly reasonable for me to set karate aside and return to it later. For the past few months, I had been struggling to explain my motives and to justify the risk I was taking to people whose goals and values did not overlap so neatly with mine. I couldn’t even begin to articulate the relief I felt at having my motivation so immediately comprehended and supported, and it made me sadder than ever to leave.

While I’m happy to wax eloquent about the dojo for pages unending, I do actually have a point here. There were two major reasons (among many) that this brief period of study was so meaningful to me: I was accepted into a tight-knit and supportive community, and the class curriculum was structured in a way that allowed me to progress at my own pace through in-context, varied practice.

Pre-Service Training in Mongolia takes what’s called a community based, competency based approach. “Community based” means that, instead of sitting in a classroom learning theory and practicing drills, I will be developing my language and technical skills in context; I will have to go out into the community and interact with my hosts in order to complete my class assignments. That way, I receive a multitude of opportunities to bond with community members, and I develop a context that will allow me to make more effective use of my skills. “Competency based” means that, instead of being measured by my ability to restate information in a final exam, I will be evaluated on individual “competencies” (concrete, specific skills) whenever I am able to demonstrate my practical ability to make use of them.

A couple of weeks ago I was changing after karate class, mulling over the best way to explain the training process. I was geeking out a little bit over it, because I LOVE non-traditional teaching methodologies, but I couldn’t think of a way to describe it that would interest people who aren’t invested in education. I pulled on my street clothes and started to put my checkoff sheet at the bottom of the bag, where it lived — and I stopped and looked at the handful of lines my sensei had just signed. I thought: That’s a perfect example of a competency-based system, right there.

I rather doubt that, practically speaking, PST will have much in common with my karate classes. But they’ve got the same spirit behind them, and it’s one that’s already had a huge impact on my personal growth.