What is Service Learning?

Simply put, service learning occurs in classrooms as students connect academics—skills and content—with authenticated community needs. Students grow a garden in science class that provides produce for a food bank or orphanage. While studying about World War II, students interview veterans of a past or current war to gain a deeper understanding of the particularities that affect men and women who serve, and use these stories to create a publication or performance to share what they learned with others. Students might take on an environmental issue, like the preponderance of single-use plastic water bottles that fill up dumpsters everywhere. They can use their persuasive writing abilities to develop a convincing marketing campaign for reusable water bottles and create PSAs to broadcast on local radio. And after interviewing the head of a local school with minimum resources, students have connected classroom studies to creating teaching resources that improve educational opportunities in their own backyard.

Service Learning always has:

  • Academic relevance, rigor, and application
  • Social analysis and high-level thinking
  • Youth initiative, voice and choice
  • Aspects of social and emotional integration
  • Inquiry
  • Purpose and process
  • Emphasis of intrinsic over extrinsic
  • Career ideas
  • Global connections
  • Literature integration
  • Reflection

Why Service Learning and Character Education?

Service learning enables youth to see Who am I?  in the context of their school, community, and most importantly, themselves. Service learning, when done well, also builds confidence and competencies. How? All too often in schools, youth are given tasks without the specific task-related skills to succeed. As much as we aim to have students understand the learning process, this is also an area where we call short, so students inquire, What am I supposed to do? with nearly every assignment. When engaged in a service learning process based on the Five Stages of Service Learning and with youth voice and choice as an integral component, students acquire the requisite transferable skills that help them succeed and build, from the inside out. And this becomes a core aspect of learning and of life—the sense of ability, or seeing the world around them, and knowing their place and possibilities as activate participants ensuring a thriving democracy.

The Five Stages of Service Learning

The process of service learning can best be understood through the Five Stages.

All service learning begins with Investigation: 1) investigation of resources within the student population, called a “Personal Inventory,” and 2) investigation of the community need. A personal investigation is of great value, with students interviewing each other to identify and consolidate an inventory of each person’s interests, skills, and talents. This list, often kept in a visible location in the classroom, is then referenced, employed, and developed while going through all service learning stages. (Note: this idea of interviewing reappears throughout the service learning process; consider how many skills are developed and reinforced through this experience.) Next, young people identify community needs of interest and begin their research to authenticate this need. Often called “social analysis,” students design a survey, conduct interviews, use varied media such as books and the Internet, and/or draw from personal experiences and observations. Students then document the extent and nature of the problem and establish a baseline for monitoring progress. This method can be adapted to all grade levels.

Preparation and planning covers a wide variety of activities, as teacher and students together set the stage for learning and social action. Academic standards are alive and well as teachers make certain their curricular intentions are met. The difference from other teaching approaches is students are typically more engaged by having a purpose, a need they authenticated during investigation. Integrating students’ interests, skills, and talents keep them motivated as they learn more about the topic interwoven with class content. As this occurs, teachers and students note what skills need to be acquired or improved to have greater efficacy. Students explore, research, and discuss topics by using books and the Internet, by interviewing experts, and by going into the community or bringing the community into the classroom. Through active learning and critical thinking, students understand the underlying problem and related subject matter. Analysis, creativity, and practicality lead to plans for action.

Action is the direct result of preparation. Students carry out their plan, apply what they have learned, and benefit the community. Perhaps they plant flowers to beautify school grounds, write original stories to read to younger children and donate to their classrooms, or reduce the usage of electricity at school to save money and mitigate carbon output—the possibilities are limitless. Always, this action has value, purpose, and meaning as students continue to acquire academic skills and knowledge. In fact, the action stage often exposes a piece of information or skill that is lacking, and students eagerly work to learn what is needed to be more effective in their community action and gain a clearer perspective on the concept of community. Over the course of the experience, students raise questions that can lead to a deeper understanding of the societal context of their efforts. Their action can be direct service, indirect service, advocacy, or research—but always it meets that recognized and authenticated need. By taking action, young people identify themselves as community members and stakeholders and apply what is inherently theirs—ideas, energy, talents, skills, knowledge, enthusiasm, and concern for others and their natural surroundings—as they contribute to the common good.

Reflection, a vital and ongoing process throughout all the stages, integrates learning and experience with personal growth and awareness. Using reflection, students consider how the experience, knowledge, and skills they are acquiring relate to their own lives and communities. The academic program is often so jam-packed that it’s easy to miss the meaning behind the details or within the experience. Reflection is a pause button that gives students time to explore the impact of what they are learning and its effect on their thoughts and future actions. By reflecting, students put cognitive, social, and emotional aspects of experience into the larger context of self, the community, and the world. This helps them assess their skills, develop empathy for others, and understand the impact of their actions on others and on themselves. They can also consider what they would change or improve about a particular activity. The modality needs to vary to achieve depth and can emphasize different multiple intelligences through writing, speaking, art, poetry, and movement, to name a few. After seeing how you lead reflection, you’ll find that students can devise their own strategies for reflection and can lead each other through the reflective process. 

Demonstration, or what I often call “The Big Wow!” allows students to make explicit what and how they have learned and what they have accomplished through their community involvement. They exhibit their expertise through public presentations—displays, performances, letters to the editor, photo displays, podcasts, class lessons—that draw on the investigation, preparation, action, and reflection stages of their experience. Presenting what they have learned allows students to teach others while also identifying and acknowledging to themselves what they have learned and how they learned it—a critical aspect of metacognitive development. Students take charge of their own learning as they synthesize and integrate the process through demonstration. Always the emphasis should remain on the intrinsic benefits of learning and the satisfaction of helping to meet community needs. Through demonstration, we also recognize student accomplishment in a public way and show students that school and community members understand, appreciate, and value their contributions. Keep in mind that demonstration begins at the beginning, as students document their entire service learning process so they have a comprehensive story to tell about their learning and their service.

As you venture into service learning, know that you are joining many colleagues who have been inspired by the essence of what we all entered into teaching for in the first place: To make a difference in the lives of children. Enjoy the journey!

Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A., has written many books on service learning including The Complete Guide to Service Learning, and developed a curriculum Strategies for Success with Literacy: A Learning Curriculum that Serves to advance high level literacy skills and social emotional development with service learning applications and effective teaching practices.

Portions of this article are adapted or excerpted from The Complete Guide to Service Learning, revised and updated second edition, by Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A. (Free Spirit Publishing, 2010, www.freespirit.com), with permission from Free Spirit Publishing.