Service Learning

Using Community Challenges for Learning

Find tips on how to collect real-world problems for your students and a framework to start and monitor their projects.

September 27, 2019
Frances Roberts / Alamy Stock Photo

“Why should I learn this?” “When am I ever going to use it?” “How is this information important for my life?” Students have asked these questions year after year in my classroom. They have longed to see how our content connects to the world. 

One day I received an email from the assistant superintendent saying that the proposed school budget was in danger of being rejected and he needed someone to advocate for student funding and security improvements. My eyes fell on the empty desks in front of me. What if I gave this local problem to my students? Using persuasive language to encourage others to adopt a budget falls squarely within my academic curriculum. By tackling this challenge, students might use content to impact the world around them. The students created a public service announcement and spoke at the county budget hearing. Months later, the budget passed, and for the first time in years, it was almost fully funded.  

The budget project was the beginning of the Community Problems Bank. Helping students address community challenges by using our content merges the best aspects of service learning, project-based learning, and growth mindset. Because every problem in life requires different tools to solve, the process is useful for all disciplines.

Collecting Possible Problems

First, I determine which real-world challenges are suitable for a bank. I collect problems for the bank by scanning the local news and reaching out to local government agencies, nonprofits, and other local businesses. 

I reach out in person and give the community organization background information on my class and time frames for our projects. I ask only one question: What problems do you see in the local community or in your specific organization? Some organizations immediately share problems, a few politely refuse, and a few ask to meet my students. Whether they add to the bank or not, every person has asked to be listed as a resource for students. 

Once there are a few dozen problems, I introduce students to the list. Students are free to give input or add problems they feel are missing. 

Organizing the Problems Bank

To begin creating a Community Problems Bank, I enter all of the problems into the first column of a spreadsheet. Putting newer problems at the top allows students to quickly see new additions. You can curate a list that fits your grade level and students. 

The next three columns are labeled “Standards/Initiatives,” “Explore,” and “Coaching/Resources to Help.” The Standards/Initiatives column is a space to add in the specific class content or school initiatives that will benefit the learner while solving the problem. In the Explore column, I add the names of students working on each project, as well as a link to their project planning sheet. As work progresses, students and I add important information, questions, resources, and failures in the Coaching/Resources to Help column. 

To pair problems with standards, determine which curricular knowledge or skills your students may need to tackle each challenge.

Using the List

You can use the problems bank to teach a concept to the entire class, or you might allow students to form groups and select their own standard-aligned problems to try to solve during or after a unit of study. 

No matter what method you choose, give students structure when they tackle big problems. A project planning sheet will guide students through the design thinking process to generate solutions. 

Once weekly, I hold three-to-four-minute project check-ins during which students share updates, and I give coaching, guidance, and feedback. Check-ins are a great time to do mini lessons and look for indications of content mastery or needs. 

My students also reflect weekly on their progress toward solving or “moving” the problem, as well as the associated standards. These reflections provide formative insight and allow me to create whole-group lesson plans as well as individual action plans to help students master content.

Taking on real-world problems comes with the risk of failure. There is no answer key to the problems in the bank, so students have to learn and be coached through failure. A group of students in my class wanted to address Alzheimer’s disease. The standard paired with the problem was developing interview skills. They talked to family members, researched the disease, and learned about effects from a local care home. They had mastered the standards associated with interviewing for my content, but they were unable to come up with a solution for the disease. 

I coached them and pushed them to look for a new solution. It took them a few days, but they decided to stop focusing on the disease and to find a way to help the families of people with Alzheimer’s. They recorded the memories of Alzheimer’s patients at a local facility and gave the recorded memories to the patients’ families. The students were upset because they hadn’t solved the big issue, but they didn’t let failure stop them from reframing the problem and finding a solution. Along the way, they learned perseverance, determination, and compassion for others. 

Over the years, my students have failed and succeeded in solving community problems. No matter whether they succeed or fail, each class walks away with a new respect for learning. “This class has taught me that the more we learn, the more prepared we are to tackle the problems around us,” a former student said. “We may not solve all the problems today, but one day with more knowledge and skills we might.” 

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Filed Under

  • Service Learning
  • Assessment
  • Community Partnerships
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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