Service Learning is Different from Community Service

Maurice Elias’ short piece on service learning in Edutopia had been sitting as an open tab just staring at me for about a week now.  It’s common practice for me to dump all open tabs at the end of a day just as a means of starting fresh for the next day.  However, each day I would run through the tabs, dumping many of the grand ideas in hyperlink form culled from the network, and make decisions about what was worth my time, and this one would stick.  I just couldn’t dump it.

Today I decided to give it a real once over to see if it there was anything within it I could pull together for our Connections teachers.  Last year, as I have noted previously, the idea that we allowed them to push student thinking to action led them into projects that had real-world implications: refugees in Darfur, analysis of the market fluctuations and their affect on the global economy, carbon footprint, and many more.  What struck me most about the work the students chose to do was the desire they showed in wanting to do more than just read and write about the causes they studied; they wanted to contribute.

Elias points to a few studies that show the academic benefits of service learning, and hints at the fact there may not be definite academic measures (in  the form of the number of  A’s, B’s, and C’s received by students who participated in service learning projects being higher than those who did not), but there are other indicators that are reliable:

Further evidence comes from the work of Andrew Furco, who compared high school students who engaged in service learning with peers who either performed community service or participated in no service. The service-learning group scored higher on all academic measures — based on a rubric of academic goals — and engaged in ongoing reflective opportunities.

One line that struck me was that he calls out the dichotomy that exists between what people call community service and actual service learning:

a plain distinction needs to be made between community service and service learning. When youth engage in service learning, it involves more than arriving at a soup kitchen or a park and serving food or cleaning up. It begins with preparation and learning about the particular problem area or context the service experience will address and, ideally, is linked to academic subject matter being studied.

One piece that I noticed this year was that our students, although truly engaged in the work they were doing, remained disconnected from the people they were helping.  Often was raised, a check was written, and off both parties went in their separate ways.  Elias points to these elements that as teachers we must inherently design into these service learning projects:

  • direct collaboration with the recipients of the service
  • should be genuine and personally meaningful
  • generating emotional consequences that can build empathy and challenge preexisting ideas and values.

That last piece there is one that I’ve harped on before–the need for a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance infused in all that we do.  I’ve seen great teachers do this with students and the effect is profound.  Let’s build the relationships between students and community so that rather than just a service relationship, we foster one that is of mutual respect and obligation.  Too often our community service projects end the moment we are no longer physically bound to the cause, but if we can begin to create emotional ties to projects, that will go a long way towards creating the democracy we all want.

Please be sure to check out Maurice Elias’ article.  He has linked to some excellent documents surrounding the creation of service learning projects in schools.


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