Why Service-Learning?

By JOE BROOKS, CWI Education Director

Students in the MacArthur Park neighborhood of Los Angeles are engaged in service and community inquiry, aimed at studying and sharing the story of their community which is currently being encroached on by gentrification.

Veteran educators that I meet and work with across the U.S., and around the world, believe that service-learning when well done promotes connected, purposeful and positive school experiences for students. These experiences contribute directly to the development of young people as caring, informed, and active citizens who have a strong sense of self efficacy. Service-learning is above all about “experience,” the experiences in life that promote understanding, empathy, and compassion so much needed in our world today.

Students at San Francisco State University are using a critical independent media approach as a tool to serve the community, including telling the stories of the undocumented in their neighborhood.

Many independent and faith based schools that I work with, who have long traditions of “community service”, are now shifting toward service-learning, seeing the great benefit of academic integration with community based learning experiences. Many public schools also see service-learning as a deep and direct way to address crucial issues like low student engagement and attendance. Many schools are making the connection between building a real and deep ethic of reciprocal service experiences to improving school climate and addressing bullying with much more than a “boxed curriculum.” Schools and educators experienced with service-learning understand that this approach to providing real world experience and compelling purpose also builds the kind of learning communities that make many other educational goals possible, including understanding and addressing social justice issues in deeper and more meaningful ways.

“The lesson for progressive education is that it requires in an urgent degree, a degree more pressing than was incumbent upon former innovators, a philosophy of education based upon a philosophy of experience.” — John Dewey

Community Service and Service-Learning: What’s the Difference?

CWI teacher participants engaged in street based “collaborative ethnography” in Winooski, Vermont, at CWI’s Summer EAST Institute on Place Based Service-Learning. Winooski is an often struggling old factory town with a large refugee population, providing unique challenges with great possibilities for students to significantly contribute to the future of their community.

For all of service-learning’s expanded use and success, some remain confused about what service-learning actually is and/or what it looks like when practiced well. Definitions in use across the U.S. and internationally are generally similar; however, service-learning is still often confused with community service.

Here is a basic comparison of service-learning and community service:

SERVICE-LEARNING is an educational strategy that combines academic and social education goals to meet real community needs; it requires the application of knowledge, skills, and systematic reflection about the experience.

COMMUNITY SERVICE: A voluntary act that benefits others. It may or may not include reflection. Learning takes place of course but usually in a less formalized and intentional manner.

Engaging Students Through Service-Learning

Students at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs responded to both campus town-gown issues as well as community needs following a major fire. With faculty support they developed a student-driven experience fulfilled multiple goals and contributing to student learning. The initiation by the students also created movement to design a formalized UCCSserves program on the campus.

Service-learning is a crucial part of our larger effort to connect and engage students. Our approach at Community Works Institute (CWI) is to first consider place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, and sustainable communities as the goal. To achieve this we begin our work with educators by considering what sustainable communities look like, and how to connect students to a sense of place — their place — in ways that will inform their choices of service and social action.

Student voice and creating real reciprocity (genuine two-way street relationships) are absolutely inherent to high quality service-learning. We understand student voice as a “continuum,” an ongoing process, where while it is essential that students do participate on some level in making informed choices, teachers also face limits of time, comfort, and experience. Our goal in our work with educators and schools is to set a process in motion that is grounded in a shared belief that student voice hugely deepens student engagement in learning, and in the world around them. This process takes time and practice that are well worth the effort.

Teaching Implications for Place Based Education Service-Learning

  • Direct application of content learning and skills, in meaningful service to the community.
  • Intellectual inquiry, risk-taking, with opportunities for powerful collaboration.
  • Developing personal values of respect, integrity, compassion and social justice.
  • Using the local community and the world as the classroom.
  • Active contribution to a democratic society, social justice, and the global community.
  • A reminder of the reason you became an educator.

The process of inquiry and discovery involved in place based and sustainability education leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of community itself, in all its forms. This in turn leads to uncovering the interconnectedness of people, cultures, place, the natural world, and our own role in that. We also use a process that we call “collaborative ethnography” to facilitate students exploring and understanding the place they call home. We begin from a premise that every “place” is unique and special with a story of its own to tell.

learn more about how CWI professional development opportunities will help you connect service to academics at your school, and your students to their local community.

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About cwiblog

Community Works Institute (CWI) provides resources, professional development, and collaboration opportunities for educators. Our focus is on place based education, service learning, and sustainability.
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