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Lesson 6.12

Service Learning:
Learning to Help Others

Can you help someone while learning?

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Service learning is a bit of education jargon worth knowing. It describes education experiences that relate to community service that benefits others, even while connecting with their school experience and learning objectives in an intentional way.

Service learning usually involves taking students outside the school, but whereas field trips are usually about seeing or experiencing something for the student’s benefit, service learning is usually designed to engage the student in an activity that both involves learning and benefits someone other than the student.

A small, simple example of community service is common: many kindergarten classes make a trip to a nearby assisted-living home to sing songs and share smiles. To convert this kind of service experience into a service learning opportunity, a teacher may choose a song that relates to what the children are learning, or ask students to collect data for a survey project.

There are three types of service learning.

  1. Direct - students interact face-to-face with the recipients of the service, for example, by volunteering at a food pantry.
  2. Indirect - students create resources for the recipients of service but don’t interact with them, for example, by leading a canned food drive for a food pantry in their neighborhood.
  3. Advocacy - students bring awareness to an issue (perhaps even at a policy level), for example, by launching a campaign to get a new food pantry built in their neighborhood by raising awareness of hunger.

Scouting programs often include a public service component, and the badges that students earn in these programs usually include specific learning goals. Service learning can also create real reasons for teamwork, offering students leadership opportunities and chances to learn about planning and working with others.

Service learning
is a way
of helping others
for a grade.

The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools highlights service learning as one of six proven approaches to civic learning in the report Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. The report suggests some guidelines for high-impact service learning:

  • Consciously pursue civic outcomes, rather than seek only to improve academic performance or to promote higher self-esteem
  • Allow students to engage in meaningful work on serious public issues; give students a role in choosing and designing their projects
  • Provide students with opportunities to reflect on the service work
  • Allow students—especially older ones—to pursue political responses to problems consistent with laws that require public schools to be nonpartisan
  • See service learning as part of a broader philosophy toward education, not just a program that is adopted for a finite period in a particular course

Above all, it’s critically important to engage in service learning in a respectful and informed way. Researching the population you will be serving ahead of time is vital to understanding their needs and how you can make an impact on them. Completing meaningful reflection should be the final stage of service learning, where students reflect on what they learned and how they have changed.

The National Service Learning Clearninghouse has compiled a wealth of resources related to service learning.

Updated July 2017, March 2019, August 2021


True or false: Service learning can be part of a field trip experience.

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Selisa Loeza October 25, 2021 at 10:01 pm
I look forward to seeing how the rollout of the State Seal of Civic Engagement impacts service learning.
user avatar
Stacey W April 27, 2015 at 11:03 pm
Students in our school district are required to complete 40 community service hours in order to graduate. I love this idea since it shows students that they can use their time and energies to help others. Although I'm sure many students do just enough to fulfill the minimum requirement, there are students who go above and beyond and do hundreds, if not more community service hours. These go-getters truly make an impact in our community.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 1:11 pm
Stacey has described well the students who do it just to get it over with, and the students who do much more. I would add that for some students, each time they sample an opportunity they come closer to figuring out what might be a career path or a volunteer avocation (so to speak). It makes them better and more well-rounded adults. Regardless of motive, service hours do usually accomplish good for the community or individuals on the receiving end. Some people are born to volunteer and some can discover it. Some will never do it willingly -- but get used to the concept, since some employers require some 'good works'!
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