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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Bring Service Learning to Your School

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
Unless we get them meaningfully involved with school and community participation in government and decision making, we have reasons to worry about the quality of our leadership and our democracy in the future.

A Clear Definition

For educators, a plain distinction needs to be made between community service and service learning. When youth engage in service learning, it involves more than arriving at a soup kitchen or a park and serving food or cleaning up. It begins with preparation and learning about the particular problem area or context the service experience will address and, ideally, is linked to academic subject matter being studied.

So, preparation for a soup kitchen visit can involve learning about homelessness, poverty, or nutrition. Cleaning up a park can be linked to geography, environmental conservation, or community recreation.

After preparation comes action. This step should respond to actual community needs, be age appropriate and well organized, achieve specific benefits for the setting, and build specific skills in those carrying out the service. It should also involve direct collaboration with the recipients of the service, and should be genuine and personally meaningful, generating emotional consequences that can build empathy and challenge preexisting ideas and values.

It is widely agreed that the next component -- reflection -- is the hallmark of high-quality service learning.

At a minimum, reflection is guided, can occur in a range of modalities, typically is shared, and involves recalling elements of the service experience. It should also relate those experiences to prior situations, beliefs, and learning, asking questions, and coming up with solutions to problems, as well as considering the meaning of involvement for one's current and future identity.

The reflection process also provides an opportunity for feedback and skill building and development necessary to be more effective at the tasks the service activities encompass.

Finally, service learning includes demonstration and celebration. Those engaged in service learning share their experience with others, including their academic and social and emotional learning.

The Benefits

When students prepare for sharing with others, their learning is also deepened. They might need to make a set of charts related to nutrition and present those to parent and community groups, or organize an assembly and create stations illustrating for fellow students all the various activities needed to preserve a park and why doing so is important.

Service learning is a remarkable and powerful pedagogy because it focuses on the specific needs of communities and it is concerned with individual wellness, building strengths, fostering collaboration, promoting social justice, empowering participation, enhancing a sense of community, and respecting diversity. It gives voice to the rarely heard and underserved. There is a strong research base documenting, that, when implemented rigorously, service learning can have quite an impact.

A recent report provided an excellent summary of findings consistently showing benefits in social and emotional competencies, civic commitment, academic outcomes, and career planning to those carrying out the service. Recipients also benefit more from service-learning experiences than from those experiences characterized as community service.

Further evidence comes from the work of Andrew Furco, who compared high school students who engaged in service learning with peers who either performed community service or participated in no service. The service-learning group scored higher on all academic measures -- based on a rubric of academic goals -- and engaged in ongoing reflective opportunities.

Getting Started

There are many resources to help those of you interested in service learning. You may want to begin by reading this article here at Edutopia.org. The National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement offers a repository for ongoing research in service learning and provides techniques for sustaining it. Other outstanding tools are available for engaging youth in service at the Web site of the Presidential Service Awards.

Here are a few ways to bring service learning to your students:

  • The Giraffe Heroes Project is an organization that, according to its Web site, is for "people who have the courage to stick their necks out for the common good."
  • The Skills for Action program is offered by Lions Quest, an initiative of the Lions Clubs International Foundation.
  • Students find Barbara Lewis's books especially engaging, such as The Kid's Guide to Social Action, The Kid's Guide to Service Projects, and What Do You Stand For?

There is an ever-growing array of well-developed resources out there. It's time to bring service learning systematically into your schools and into your pedagogy. Your students will benefit socially, emotionally, ethically, and academically.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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