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Service learning belongs at the core of youth programs

By Nicole Pokorney

"Service learning" is a term that is overused, misunderstood and under-implemented. Too often, secondary and higher education compartmentalize service learning into standalone courses, reducing the benefits to the learner and the effectiveness of service learning pedagogy.

The National Service Learning Clearinghouse describes this mode of learning: "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."

In my research of engaging youth in service-learning, the benefits to youth are well known, as are the benefits for educators and community partners. The University of Minnesota Community Service-Learning Center enumerates the benefits to learners as these:
  • Increasing knowledge on class topic
  • Exploring values and beliefs
  • Having opportunities to act on values and beliefs
  • Developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • Growing an understanding of diverse cultures and communities
  • Learning more about social issues and their root causes

In both formal and nonformal teaching environments, service learning needs to be integrated into the curriculum and philosophy of education. Susan Siegel, in her chapter of an important book on this subject, Community Service Learning, wrote that "teachers who function as change agents are central to the process of school reform...[and] have a significant impact on the quality of student learning ... Unless a teacher deliberately includes specific purpose or learning outcome, student learning is limited to a 'hit or miss' basis".

Service learning needs to be that 'specific purpose or learning outcome' in all educational environments. The youth development field needs to come to a consensus on the view of service-learning as a form of pedagogy and not a stand-alone, mandated entity. We can lead the formation of pedagogy surrounding service learning. Instead of individualized teaching departments that segregate service-learning opportunities, we should create deeper, enriching environments within the contextual walls of a classroom or after-school program through curriculum integration and a renewed philosophy of education, while serving the community partners.

So how can we put the "service" into learning? Another organizational service-learning leader, the National Youth Leadership Council lists intentional components of service-learning that form the richness of the experience:
  • Meaningful service
  • Duration and intensity
  • Youth voice
  • Diversity
  • Link to curriculum
  • Reflection
  • Progress monitoring
  • Partnerships
  • Celebration
How do you view service-learning within your philosophy of education and teaching? In what ways have you incorporated service-learning into your curriculum? What benefits have youth experienced when you do?

-- Nicole Pokorney, Extension educator

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  1. Nicole,
    A poignant article given that Congress cut all funding for the Learn and Serve project from CNS this spring. The funding cut supported service learning in K12 education and is a blow to those working on providing those opportunities for youth. The cut also represents another blow to a broader learning agenda for our young people - one that goes beyond standardized tests. While I agree that service learning can and should be imbedded in our way of teaching, what is missed when we do that as individuals alone - is the awareness and recognition from the broader community about the importance of a wide array of learning methods. A call, really for broader methodologies that are experiential, community-based and contextualized for the learner. In addition to placing service learning in our methods of teaching as youth workers, I also hope that we begin new discussions about how this way of teaching and learning in community can be woven into public consciousness and policy so they become as normal as worksheets and tests.

  2. Nicole and Deborah,
    Thank you both for your thoughtful comments on this issue, which is kind of sticky for me. Do you think young people often see adults and the work of adults as being in service to others? Without pay? Intergenerational opportunities for service and learning about service, with youth and adults in equal numbers, feels more democratic and more powerfully related to community to me. What do you think? How might these opportunities be incorporated in youth and community programming for youth and adults together?

  3. Deborah,
    Oh by all means should service-learning be woven throughout the public, community and school systems! I just attended a conference for service-learning in higher education institutions and those educators that were trying to weave serrvice-learning into their classrooms without system support or philosophy were having a difficult time with funding, time allotment and managing the projects. With these cuts in federal funding, I believe it is even more of an argument for communities and school systems to adopt this methodology of learning.

  4. Great blog post Nicole...and a thought provoking topic. I often hesitate to say that service learning is the way to go and a place for us to focus. There are two reasons for my hesitation. One is: how do we ensure that the commitment to service learning is long term and not just a short term opportunity that partially benefits the youth and not the community or individuals they are doing the service with? (this is related to your main question I think...ensuring the intentionality of service learning)
    An article on the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning states this as a finding:
    "Community organization representatives raised many provocative issues related to communication and relationship building, training and management of service-learners, and cultural competency. But perhaps the most consistent theme that emerged was the frequent reference to challenges associated with shortterm service-learning." (p. 18).
    The finding relates to my second reason for hesitation and that's the question of impact: who is benefiting from the service learning and do we focus more on the benefits to the service-learners or the community or both? I would argue for the benefits of both, however, how do we ensure that we do so? How do we ensure that our service learning opportunities make a meaningful difference in the lives of those doing and receiving the service?
    Thanks again for a great post and topic. Happy Friday.

  5. Cece,
    You pose very interesting questions - ones that I would like to discuss with you further! I see a response to your comment in two ways - one research-based and then the real-life application. Research in Youth Engagement, Youth/Adult Patrnerships and Youth Voice will tell us that a democratic group of youth and adult working together toward a common goal is the best model for learning and teaching.
    The real-life version is that adults that volunteer tend to be seperate than the youth groups and parents volunteer when their children are at a certain age or in a certain activity. We see the adult volunteer drop out when children graduate or move on to another activity. Or, a youth group is led through volunteering with one adult or adults are too busy to volunteer at all. I believe that collective action throughout generations is the best way for developing social action and service-minded society.

  6. Josey,
    You are posing the same questions that I am contemplating. Being a short-term project or interjected sporadically does not create the passion of volunteerism or attitude of citizenship that our society needs. My original writing on this topic begin by stating that the term service-learning is to a point of being brushed off by educators. Service-Learning has been misused, mandated and set aside as individual departments. I am rallying for resurrecting the true essence of service-learning where experiential learning is back in the heart of education and ALL participants benefit from the pedogogical reformation.

  7. Hello Nicole -
    I really enjoyed reading your blog and the commentary. The points about intergenerational service opportunities are very compelling. I have had personal experience with the Central Minnesota Foster Grandparent Program whereby adults make a contribution to the community by working with children in schools, afterschool programs and so on. The act of service meshed with intergenerational relationships is a powerful way to build social capital in a community.

  8. Yes! The program you mentioned is a great model of what we are all describing! Thank you!


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