Magazine article Techniques

The Power of Service Learning

Magazine article Techniques

The Power of Service Learning

Article excerpt

Service learning not only has the power to enrich communities, it also has the power to enrich learning.

When students use classroom skills to build a wheelchair ramp, or teach their peers CPR, or grow vegetables for a food bank, or create children's books for preschoolers, or research and share local history, or educate the community about healthy living, or build and maintain nature trails, they are engaged in service learning (and are called "service learners"). Service learning resides at the crossroads of youth development and community improvement. Because it focuses equally on student growth and community problem solving, service learning steers real-world education toward projects that promote the public good.

The best service-learning projects use, enrich and enliven the material taught in school. Teachers of nearly all subjects and grade levels use service learning to provide an ironclad answer to the age-old question, "Why do we have to learn this?"

As a teaching strategy, service learning motivates students by taking them beyond the classroom to address community problems that they care about. Service learning is particularly useful for career and technical education teachers, who are already using real-world experience to enliven coursework. Like CTE, service learning puts coursework into context, mixes rigor with relevance, and builds concrete skills. The major difference is that service-learning projects must result in some tangible community benefit while building student skills. It is school competencies applied to community problems.

What Service-learning Is Not

Internships and job shadowing are examples of CTE that would not normally count as service learning unless students advanced the public good while learning about a career. For example, if a plant engineer's main goal were to reduce a factory's impact on the environment, and a student intern contributed to this effort, the intern would be a service learner.

Community service is often mistaken for service learning as well, but community service meets only half of the definition of service learning (i.e., having students address a community need). Canned food drives, park cleanups and fundraisers are excellent service project ideas, but they are service learning only when they make use of and clarify core course content.

A recent study by the Horatio Alger Association points out that high schoolers have a strong desire to put knowledge to work in the community. Ninetyfive percent of surveyed teens want high schools to provide "opportunities for more real-world learning, through internships, service-learning projects, and other opportunities to make classroom learning more relevant to what students might want to do after they graduate."

What It Can Do

Student enthusiasm for service learning is matched by research on how it affects students. Highlights from the research on service learning and career awareness include:

* Students who participate in service learning report gaining career skills, communication skills and positive increases in career exploration knowledge (Berkas, 1997; Billig, et. al., 1999).

* Students who engage in high-quality service-learning programs develop positive work orientation attitudes and skills (Weiler, LaGoy, Crane, and Rovner, 1998).

* Teachers believe that participation in service learning increases career awareness (Melchior, 1999; Billig and Conrad, 1997). …

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