Moral action is the central practice of character education. Students need to “know” and “do” good in their everyday activities, and in the world around them. By grappling with real-life challenges and reflecting on those experiences, students develop a practical understanding of their values, and acquire the moral sense of giving of oneself. Students learn that they can make a difference in their lives, and the lives of others, by choosing to “do good.”
By recognizing opportunities for moral action, schools show that they are thoughtful and intentional in their efforts to help students learn from these experiences. Moral action is how learning happens, both ethical and intellectual.
What is Service Learning?
Service learning is a systemic approach that helps students make connections between core values, academic content, and real life issues. It engages students in researching, planning, action, reflection, and learning. This process gives students a voice by actively involving them in all stages of the project.
Service learning experiences are marked by continuity, depth, and meaningfulness, which has been embedded into the curriculum and culture of the school, and institutionalized as a core instructional strategy. Service learning is a continuing process, with each active learning experience linked to others, and includes actions that have moral significance as well as relevant academic content.
Service (doing good)/
Service (doing good)/
A way to share or
demonstrate knowledge gained
Planning/connection to curriculum and/or integration of academic content
Too often, opportunities for moral action are available only to those students who already succeed in schools—academic achievers, “good” students, and student leaders (such as student council/student government).
Yet, opportunities for moral action may be most critical for those who have not succeeded in traditional classrooms, as they provide an alternative route to learning. If we believe that students learn best by doing, then perhaps the best way to help students labeled “at-risk” for problem behaviors may be to put them in the role of problem solvers and active contributors.
Rougher Alternative Academy
Rougher Alternative Academy in Muskogee, Oklahoma is known by many in the community as the last opportunity some at-risk students will have for pursuing graduation. To engage students who may appear to be lacking motivation, service learning has become a major component of their culture. From nursing homes, animal shelters, ropes courses, and Ozark trips, RAA students are engaged in impacting their school community and beyond.
Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.
Coach Wooden’s famous quote is more commonly paraphrased as “Character is what you do when no one is looking.” What people believe to be good and right—the essence of their character—is embodied and given life through actions of all sorts, from the everyday to the life changing.
Birmingham Covington School-BCS
As a part of a science unit about water, 5/6 students at Birmingham Covington School in Michigan partnered with a village in Chilupula, Zambia, to help solve their drinking water issues. After conferencing with the head tribesman, students learned how two-wheeled tractors could help the village build a sustainable economy through agriculture. They raised the funds for two tractors, solar lanterns, and laptops for the village by creating sustainable fundraisers and bringing together the entire school community through informative presentations created by the students. This service learning project became a school-wide project and now this school has made a ten year commitment to partner with this village. The students and staff receive annual reports on the impact the tractors have had on harvests and quality of life in the community.
This partnership has rippled into so many people’s lives and changed everyone who has been a part of it. BCS teachers have also embedded other service learning projects into their curriculum. At 5/6, this school has a Science Literacy class where students are challenged to solve real world authentic problems and projects include saving the bees, making BCS a healthier place to be and educating local businesses to be more sustainable. At 3/4, teachers are implementing interdisciplinary service learning projects such hydroponic gardening and raising salmon in the classroom. Each year, students grow a variety of plants which they share throughout the community with random acts of kindness when they harvest. They also raise salmon from egg to smolt, releasing them in the spring of each year in a local river in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). These repeated, authentic experiences are embedded into the curriculum to help students build the skills required for empathy and moral action.
St. Mark in St. Paul, Minnesota is committed to serving and providing opportunities for moral action while connecting to real world learning. Their servant leader philosophy translates both to service learning projects in the school—older to younger student learning activities—and service out into the community with their outreach to community seniors to capture historical narratives and complete service work. The school’s “100 Years of Caring” project is currently seeking to capture stories from alumni and neighbors regarding the impact of St. Mark’s students on the community throughout their history.
South Milwaukee High School
At South Milwaukee High School in Wisconsin, all 10th grade students are required to take a Communications class as a part of their English course. As a part of this class, students create an Academic & Civic Engagement-ACE project. It is a term-long, service learning project where students investigate, plan, and implement an idea to make a difference in the community. Students have been challenged to find ways to use their time to determine the needs of the community and take action in a kind, generous, and responsible way. This is a learning experience which requires students to see a need and fill a need while completing the Communications standards required for these 10th grade students.
Bayless School District in St. Louis, Missouri has an expectation of service and this has led to a strong connection with the Affton Food Pantry. Anna Belveal, who has worked at the Pantry for two years, says she can always tell a Bayless kid by their helpfulness. The school is able to provide leftover milk for the Pantry, and the district has a “Souper Bowl” fundraiser. Students in grades 6-12 create ceramic bowls for the event. Student athletes competed against Nottingham, a school entirely comprised of special needs students. Both teams benefited from the friendly competition.
The Power of Discussion
- What is moral action?
- Are we providing opportunities for all students to develop and practice the skills and behavior habits that make up the action side of character?
Questions for Staff to Ponder
How do we define moral action? Are we intentional in our efforts to identify opportunities for our students, and ourselves, to take moral action, both in and out of school?
Are we providing opportunities for all our students to take moral action?
How might we do this in our school? What would we expect to happen? What challenges might we have to overcome to implement this approach?
Are we on the right track?
Do we provide opportunities for moral action? Do we provide opportunities for all students to participate?
Moral action is the central practice of character education. Students need to “know” and “do” good in their everyday activities, and in the world around them. By grappling with real-life challenges and reflecting on those experiences, students develop a practical understanding of their values, and acquire the moral sense of giving of oneself. Students learn that they can make a difference in their lives and the lives of others by choosing to “do” good. By recognizing opportunities for moral action, schools show that they are thoughtful and intentional in their efforts to help students learn from these experiences. Moral action is how learning, both ethical and intellectual happens.
What are we doing in our school that is considered community service?
What are we doing in our school that is considered service learning?
How do we know the difference between the two?
Research that Supports Principle 5
A meta-analysis of 62 studies involving 11,837 students indicated that, compared to controls, students participating in SL programs demonstrated significant gains in five outcome areas: attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic engagement, social skills, and academic performance…. Furthermore, as predicted, there was empirical support for the position that following certain recommended practices—such as linking to curriculum, voice, community involvement, and reflection—was associated with better outcomes.
Celio, C. I., Durlak, J., & Dymnicki, A. (2011). A Meta-analysis of the Impact of Service-Learning on Students. Journal of Experiential Education, 34(2), 164-181. Retrieved December 26, 2017, source
The available evidence suggests that service-learning and community service are associated with development. There is solid evidence that service-learning influences moral development, civic attitudes, and civic participation, and the sense of self and identity. Research also suggests that service-learning may be associated with decreases in risk behavior and increases in positive behavior.
Hart, S., Matsuba, K., & Atkins, R. (2008). The moral and civic effects of learning to serve. In Handbook of Moral and Character Education (pp. 484-499). New York, NY: Routledge.