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Service or Service-learning

Published August 1, 2012

Although the term "service-learning" has been part of our lexicon for decades now, many of us have different notions about what it is. We know what "service" is, and we know what "learning" is, so it shouldn't be so difficult to parse what service-learning is, right? Our tendency, however, is to focus on the service part of service-learning, and not pay much attention to the learning.

Many schools now require students to fulfill a community service requirement for graduation. Some high schools even offer "service-learning" as an elective course. These are both somewhat effective ways to engage students in volunteerism and facilitate their social and ethical development. Studies have shown that students who engage in community service have a more positive attitude towards their communities, schools, themselves, and the future than students who do not. But, when service is tied to the curriculum in a meaningful way, the impact is much bigger. In addition to the social and psychological effects, academic performance improves, truancy falls, and youth become more civic-minded. True service-learning is not a service project or class a student takes; it is a teaching and learning methodology that combines academic study, community service, reflection, youth voice, civic participation, community partners' involvement, and assessment.

The National Youth Leadership Council offers a succinct example of the difference between service and service-learning:

  • Planting flowers at a local park is service.
  • Studying erosion is learning.
  • Researching native grasses and working with master gardeners to control erosion at a local park is service-learning.

The key elements that characterize high-quality service-learning include youth voice, partnerships, meaningful service, link to curriculum, and diversity. Youth should be at the center of the service-learning experience with a strong voice in planning, implementing, and, importantly, evaluating their experiences. Relationships the learners form with community partners are collaborative, mutually beneficial, and address community needs. Service activities are engaging, meaningful, and personally relevant to the youth. For teachers, it is essential that service-learning be a strategy to meet state learning goals and content standards. Finally, service-learning promotes understanding of diversity and mutual respect among all participants, including youths and adults, community and school. Successful service-learning experiences are often longer in duration and more intense than typical volunteer work, and incorporate regular reflection and assessment to allow learners to continually improve.

As more schools implement community service requirements and learner-centered education models, they are reaching out to partner with community-based organizations. Likewise, many community-based organizations want to partner with a school or a district or otherwise engage local youth. So, a basic understanding of service-learning and how it differs from community service or typical volunteer work can help your collaboration with teachers and school administrators, and enrich the service experience you facilitate for the youth.