Inter-exchanges: international youth exchanges as educational project
When we talk about learning mobility, most people think immediately of long-term experiences carried out in formal contexts, as the well know “Erasmus Program”, intended for University students. However, short-term experiences, carried out in non-formal contexts, as international youth exchanges, can provide a valuable contribution to personal growth, to social development and, indirectly, also to the occupational life of young people who participate in them.If we look at youth exchanges as educational tools based on a well-defined methodology and with clear learning objectives, they can be considered complementary to formal education. In their deepest and richest meaning, youth exchanges allow to develop different competences and to cultivate an intercultural, social and relational mind.”
Through the drafting of a questionnaire and its administration to 74 young people, I tried to show the influence that the adhesion to youth exchanges can have on the participants and the benefits that can result for the whole society.
In my opinion, any activity falling under the category of “international youth event” cannot be apart from three elements which are also the essence of the success of the international youth exchanges: the use of the non-formal education methods, the support to intercultural learning, and the promotion of participation and active citizenship. Each element finds support in the others and it is a support for the others.
Non-formal education is the methodology preferred, or we should say the exclusive one, in the conduction of a youth exchange. This methodology is the precondition to approach and to make real the following two topics. I asked to the young people involved in the research to give their personal definition of “non-formal education”, to underline its positive aspects, and to focus on what, in their opinion, increases the value of this methodology. Some words recur frequently in the different definitions and I tried to group them according to thematic areas. The majority of the young people interviewed, refer to “non-formal” not only for activities developed and learned out of school buildings, school timetables and programs, but above all it is the adoption of a different approach, alternative to what we have been used since our first step into a classroom. They also underline a distance between the topics faced with the different methodologies: thanks to non-formal education we explore what usually is not considered a priority in school programs. Originality, to be different or unusual, the break with the traditional learning patterns are the points that seem to better characterize the non-formal education according to the young people interviewed.
The absence of books and the use of activities that require a different involvement than a simple listening are directly connected to an additional essential point of non-formal learning: the experience. This can be stated in two aspects. From one hand it can be perfectly summarized with the expression “learning by doing” and it lead to the idea of learning through practical activities, thanks to direct experiences that help to internalize in a more effective way problems and solutions. We learn on the field, identifying ourselves directly with the different situations and not only basing on the theory. On the other hand, it is connected to an exchange of information and to learn from the experiences of others and their share, because anybody can learn something from others.
Non-formal learning seems be possible in an interactive environment that supports dialogue and exchange of knowledge. A lot of people underline the absence of a teacher that imposes his/her knowledge on a group of learners. This figure is clouded by the new centrality recognised to learners because, as anyone has something to learn from people around them, anyone can teach something. In this way also the figure of the traditional teacher in banned in favour of a peer education lead by facilitators but where the knowledge is built by the whole group step by step. This also allows more flexibility and adaptability to the different learners’ needs during the activities.
Without any doubt another important element between the most appreciated is the possibility to express opinions, to be involved, listened and taken into consideration from other participants, but also from facilitators. Indeed the cancellation of barriers between participants is really well-accepted. Almost with a veil of astonishment, a lot of young people have declared that they have learned and they have acquired new knowledge without the perception that they were engaged in an instructive activity, almost as if it happened indirectly. Non-formal education is therefore appreciated because it presents some concrete results, it is stimulating, and it enriches participants thanks to a methodology that do not bores because it is based on new, different, and often fun approaches.
The activities focused on intercultural learning allow to move away from ethnocentrism. At the same time, they support mutual understanding thanks to the realization of the meeting of young people coming from different backgrounds and thanks to the incentive of mutual dialogue. Only through these two tools is possible to establish a relationship and to exchange ideas in order to agree on a common opinion born from the awareness of the relativity of our points of view.
All young people seem to be strongly aware of the intercultural aspect present into the youth exchanges. The results of the three main questions of the questionnaire show how, for the majority of the people interviewed, the objectives of youth exchanges are to allow the meeting of people coming from different countries, to discover new cultures, and to acquire a more open mind and behaviour. Between the motivations that push young people to embark on such experiences, the will to travel and to meet new people have a central position. Finally, stand out among the benefits, the acquisition of information about other cultures and the improvement of intercultural competences.
The participants do not seem fully conscious of the role that youth exchanges can play in increasing their opportunity to affect political agenda or in encouraging their active role in society. Therefore when it comes to include in the objectives of youth exchanges the will to involve young people in decision-making processes, many of the interviewed do not agree or are undecided. Also the possibility or the wish to contribute to the exchange project sharing opinions and knowledge are not between the main motivations that push young people to participate in them. Nevertheless youth exchanges, as projects created by young people in favour of other young people and shaped on the base of participants contributions, allow the youths involved to experience directly what participating in a project means . What young people are able to realize when they design and they realize a youth exchange show that they are responsible, engaged, and able to rally if they are provided with needed places and tools.
In the light of what I said it is clear why youth exchanges can be an answer to the current social changes. They represent opportunities to make a fertile ground for the intercultural and the civic learning outside of the enlarged social space of which we are all part by now.