What is Service-Learning



What is Service-Learning?

Service-learning is an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic and civic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs. 

Service-learning is a type of experiential and project-based learning that drives students’ academic interests and passions toward addressing real community needs. The process is a learner-centered cycle of inquiry, compelling young people to answer questions such as:

·         What are the true needs in my community?

·         What are the root causes of these needs?

·         How, where, and from whom can I learn more?

·         How can I contribute to a solution?

For example:

Picking up trash on a river bank is service.

Studying water samples under a microscope is learning.

When science students collect and analyze water samples, document their results, and present findings to a local pollution control agency – that is service-learning.

Why Service-Learning?

With so much concern about how to go back to school safely during the pandemic, service-learning taps into the time-honored tradition of learning at home, outdoors, and in the community — with the support of a variety of adults.

As Stanford education professor and California State Board of Education president Linda Darling-Hammond noted in a July article in EducationDive, schools that are successful are "connecting lessons to real world applications, allowing students to explore the world around them.”

Momentum is growing with a realization of the impact of youth-led service as an effective vehicle for learning and citizenship. In addition to a host of proven academic, social, and career outcomes:

“A Republic (Still) at Risk- and Civics is Part of the Solution” published in 2017 acknowledges service-learning as one of six proven practices for restoring faith and participation in our democracy. (The list further includes student voice in schools, and student-led voluntary associations).
In 2019, a group of foundations convened a project study our nation’s capacity to create citizens who arewell-informed, productively engaged in working for the common good, and,hopeful about our democracy. “[W]e need to fundamentally rethink and enrich the ways we prepare young people to be successful citizens in a democracy… to imagine a lifetime of civic learning and practice.” Service-learning fits squarely within the civic learning eco-system, supporting the shift of focus from merely direct Civics education in one high school class to civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions beyond classrooms in K-12 schools, and beyond schools to community organizations and post-secondary institutions.
In “Inspired to Serve” issued last month (May 2020), the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service—a bi-partisan commission completing two and a half years of extensive research—concluded with a compelling call to revitalize civic education and expand service-learning over the next 10 years. They recognize these as key factors to ensure young people are fully prepared to participate in civic life and understand the importance of service.

Service-learning is a proven strategy to engage students in their education when they understand that their service is authentic, has substance over time, and can be understood in the context of academic or civic content.


Who is Responsible for a Successful Service-Learning Experience?

Service-learning puts students at the center of their learning, leading their own inquiry processes. Because the genesis of the idea and related research related is the student’s, service-learning is not traditional “home-schooling” or project-based learning. The student leads the experience, problem-solving with peers and accessing the expertise of adults as needed. The experience leads to community action and sharing, in which the student applies critical thinking, communication, and team-building skills.


When Can Service-Learning Happen?

Since service-learning is often done outside of school, it is highly flexible. In these times of hybrid models, online learning, and busy working families, service-learning is especially well-suited to helping bridge the gulf between online, in-school and afterschool learning.


What makes it work?

Successful service-learning is a multifaceted teaching and learning process. Though each service-learning project is uniquely tailored to meet specific learning goals and community needs, several elements are critical for success. These elements are the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice. Go deeper with the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice.
Access our Virtual Briefcases - links to resources, documents, videos, and webinars on how to enhance your service-learning practice.

What does it look like in K-12?

Service-learning is a flexible approach, easily adapted to different age levels, community needs, and curricular goals. Projects can engage entire schools over an academic year, or involve a small group for a short period of time.

Elementary School

Middle School

High School

Fifth-graders tutored younger students in reading over the course of a school year. The project improved language skills for both younger and older students and helped the tutors develop their organizational and leadership skills.

A middle school science class studying pollution and disease worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to learn about the dangers of radon and how to test for it in homes. To educate the community on hazards, testing, and cleanup, students created an infomercial to share with local schools and community groups.

Tackling discrimination against HIV-positive people, tenth-graders wrote skits that drew parallels between the treatment of people living with AIDS and racial discrimination. They built sets, made costumes and programs, and performed their work for the community. Proceeds supported a local AIDS hospice.

Successful service-learning projects are tied to specific learning objectives, and many of the best are tied to numerous areas of study. For example, when seventh- and eighth-graders studied the historical significance of a local river, they developed projects to build nature trails, tested water samples, documented contamination of the local habitat, and restored historical sites. Their teachers connected those activities to studies in earth science, mathematics, language arts, physical education, music, visual arts, and social studies. These connections not only deepened the impact projects had on learning, but also provided the young people with a broader understanding of how different subjects are interrelated. Through a student-centered inquiry model known as IPARD — an acronym for Investigation, Planning and Preparation, Action, Reflection, and Demonstration — this process is broken down into a step-by-step framework.