Service-learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.
Defining Service-Learning | What is Service-Learning? | What are the Characteristics of Service-Learning? | Resources Cited | Additional Print Resources | Online Resources
In the past several years, service-learning has spread rapidly throughout communities, K-12 institutions, and colleges and universities. In a recent survey of its member institutions, Campus Compact gathered information on trends in community involvement and service across a good cross-section of the nation’s colleges and universities (Compact, 2001). During the 1999-2000 academic year, among the 349 campuses that responded to the survey.
712,000 students had participated in some form of service
12.2 percent of faculty were offering service-learning courses
6,272 service-learning courses were taught
9 percent required service-learning courses for graduation
The recently issued report, entitled “Learning in Deed” from the National Commission on Service-Learning (Fiske, 2001) quoted National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that in the 2000-2001 academic year, more than 13 million school students were involved in service and service-learning. NCES also found that between 1984 and 1997, the number of K-12 students involved in service-learning programs rose from 900,000 to over 12.6 million while the proportion of high school students participating in service-learning grew from 2 percent to 25 percent during the same time period.
Of course, in interpreting all these statistics about the growth of service-learning we must remember that not everyone uses the same definitions of service-learning. Service-learning is still evolving and has not yet settled into a shared vocabulary, a set of common ideas and theories and a generally accepted approach to validation. This has encouraged a great deal of experimentation, discovery and local adaptation, but it is also impossible to have one definition for all service-learning programs.
What is Service-Learning?
Even though there are many different interpretations of service-learning as well as different objectives and contexts, we can say that there is a core concept upon which all seem to agree:
Service-learning combines service objectives with learning objectives with the intent that the activity change both the recipient and the provider of the service. This is accomplished by combining service tasks with structured opportunities that link the task to self-reflection, self-discovery, and the acquisition and comprehension of values, skills, and knowledge content.
For example, if school students collect trash out of an urban streambed, they are providing a service to the community as volunteers; a service that is highly valued and important. When school students collect trash from an urban streambed, then analyze what they found and possible sources so they can share the results with residents of the neighborhood along with suggestions for reducing pollution, they are engaging in service-learning. In the service-learning example, the students are providing an important service to the community AND, at the same time, learning about water quality and laboratory analysis, developing an understanding of pollution issues, learning to interpret science issues to the public, and practicing communications skills by speaking to residents. They may also reflect on their personal and career interests in science, the environment, public policy or other related areas. Thus, we see that service-learning combines SERVICE with LEARNING in intentional ways. There are many other illustrations of how the combination is transforming to both community and students.
This is not to say that volunteer activities without a learning component are less important than service-learning, but that the two approaches are fundamentally different activities with different objectives. Both are valued components of a national effort to increase citizen involvement in community service, and at every age.
The National Commission on Service-Learning in its recently issued report entitled “Learning in Deed: The Power of Service-Learning for American Schools,” offers a definition of service-learning that incorporated the most essential features common to service-learning across the country. According to the Commission, service-learning is different from volunteerism in that it is “a teaching and learning approach that integrates community service with academic study to enrich learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. ”
In 1990, the Corporation for National and Community Service conception of service-learning said that it:
Promotes learning through active participation in service experiences
Provides structured time for students to reflect by thinking, discussing and/or writing about their service experience
Provides an opportunity for students to use skills and knowledge in real-life situations
Extends learning beyond the classroom and into the community
Fosters a sense of caring for others (as adapted from the National and Community Service Act of 1990)
Because of its connection to content acquisition and student development, service-learning is often linked to school and college courses, and inspires these educational organizations to build strong partnerships with community-based organizations. Service-learning can also be organized and offered by community organizations with learning objectives or structured reflection activities for their participants. Whatever the setting, the core element of service-learning is always the intent that both providers and recipients find the experience beneficial, even transforming.
What are the Characteristics of Service-Learning?
According to the National Commission on Service learning, service-learning:
Links to academic content and standards
Involves young people in helping to determine and meet real, defined community needs
Is reciprocal in nature, benefiting both the community and the service providers by combining a service experience with a learning experience
Can be used in any subject area so long as it is appropriate to learning goal
Works at all ages, even among young children
Service-learning is not:
An episodic volunteer program
An add-on to an existing school or college curriculum
Logging a set number of community service hours in order to graduate
Compensatory service assigned as a form of punishment by the courts or by school administrators
Only for high school or college students
One-sided: benefiting only students or only the community
The distinctive element of service-learning is that it enhances the community through the service provided, but it also has powerful learning consequences for the students or others participating in providing a service. Service-learning is growing so rapidly because we can see it is having a powerful impact on young people and their development. According to Eyler & Giles, 1999,
service-learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems and, at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves.
In the process, students link personal and social development with academic and cognitive development. Eyler and Giles (1999) summarize their observations by saying that in the service-learning model, “experience enhances understanding; understanding leads to more effective action.”
In general, authentic service-learning experiences have some common characteristics (taken mostly from Eyler and Giles 1999).
They are positive, meaningful and real to the participants.
They involve cooperative rather than competitive experiences and thus promote skills associated with teamwork and community involvement and citizenship.
They address complex problems in complex settings rather than simplified problems in isolation.
They offer opportunities to engage in problem-solving by requiring participants to gain knowledge of the specific context of their service-learning activity and community challenges, rather than only to draw upon generalized or abstract knowledge such as might come from a textbook. As a result, service-learning offers powerful opportunities to acquire the habits of critical thinking; i.e. the ability to identify the most important questions or issues within a real-world situation.
They promote deeper learning because the results are immediate and uncontrived. There are no “right answers” in the back of the book.
As a consequence of this immediacy of experience, service-learning is more likely to be personally meaningful to participants and to generate emotional consequences, to challenge values as well as ideas, and hence to support social, emotional and cognitive learning and development.
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