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service learning institute

a DEFINITION of SERVICE-LEARNING, with an Introduction

Why Service-Learning?
subscribeWe join veteran educators across the U.S., and around the world, in the belief that service-learning promotes connected, purposeful and positive school experiences for students. These experiences contribute directly to the development of young people as caring, informed, and active citizens who have a strong sense of self efficacy. Service-learning is above all about "experience," the experiences in life that promote understanding, empathy, and compassion so much needed in today's world. See our definition of service-learning below.

"The lesson for progressive education is that it requires in an urgent degree,
a degree more pressing than was incumbent upon former innovators, a philosophy
of education based upon a philosophy of experience."
—John Dewey

Community Service and Service-Learning: What's the Difference?

For all of service-learning’s expanded use and success, some remain confused about what service-learning actually is and/or what it looks like when practiced well. Definitions in use across the U.S. and internationally are generally similar; however, service-learning is still often confused with community service.

Here is a basic comparison of service-learning and community service:

SERVICE-LEARNING is an educational strategy that combines academic and social education goals to meet real community needs; it requires the application of knowledge, skills, and systematic reflection about the experience.

COMMUNITY SERVICE: A voluntary act that benefits others. It may or may not include reflection. Learning takes place of course but usually in a less formalized and intentional manner.

CWI's Unique Approach to Service-Learning
We see service-learning as a crucial part of a larger effort to connect and engage students. Our approach is to first consider place as the context, service-learning as the strategy, and sustainable communities as the goal. To achieve this we begin our work with educators by considering what sustainable communities look like, and how to connect students to a sense of place—their place—in ways that will inform their choices of service and social action. Student voice and creating real reciprocity (genuine two-way street relationships) are absolutely inherent to high quality service-learning. We understand student voice as a "continuum," an ongoing process, where while it is essential that students do participate on some level in making informed choices, teachers also face limits of time, comfort, and experience. Our goal in our work with educators and schools is to set a process in motion that is grounded in a shared belief that student voice hugely deepens student engagement in learning, and in the world around them. This process takes time and practice that are well worth the effort.

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Teaching Implications for Place Based Education Service-Learning

• Direct application of content learning and skills, in meaningful service to the community.

• Intellectual inquiry, risk-taking, with opportunities for powerful collaboration.

• Developing personal values of respect, integrity, compassion and social justice.

• Using the local community and the world as the classroom.

• Active contribution to a democratic society, social justice, and the global community.

• A reminder of the reason you became an educator.

The process of inquiry and discovery involved in place based education leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of community itself., in all its forms. This in turn leads to uncovering the interconnectedness of people, cultures, place, the natural world, and our own role in that. We use a process that we call "community ethnography" to facilitate students exploring and understanding the place they call home. We begin from a premise that every place is unique and special with a story to tell.

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The Power of Service-Learning
Service-learning possesses a transformative power for students, schools and communities. Through thoughtful engagement in service-learning, we as educators create the opportunity to practice the kind of behavior we want to encourage in our students by emphasizing the importance of caring for others and responding to community needs. By participating in an endeavor that benefits others, students enlarge their view of the world and of themselves while learning new skills, practicing personal and social skills, and applying content knowledge in an experiential context.

“The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”
Paulo Freire

Connecting Service-Learning to the Curriculum
To support educators in developing high quality service-learning curriculum, projects, and programs, Community Works Institute (CWI) published Connecting Service-Learning to the Curriculum. It is now in use by K-16 and community educators across the U.S. and internationally. learn more


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Practitioners of service-learning have long noted increased investment, enthusiasm and efficacy on the part of students when they are participating in service-learning projects. Authentic tasks that make practical use of content and skills can help to address the persistent student question, “Why do I need to know this?” Tasks that carry authenticity, purpose, and urgency appear to generate in students a much higher level of interest and attention to accuracy. Significantly, educators employing service-learning strategies often observe improved performance from students who ordinarily struggle with more traditional or didactic approaches to teaching.

What’s In A Name
Service-learning shares many goals of—and is sometimes confused with—other notable educational approaches, including place-based curriculum and experiential learning. The essential difference between these other approaches and service-learning is the intentional element of service to the community. Many practitioners agree that the “magic” of student investment witnessed through service-learning projects is unique in their teaching experience.

Brain Compatible Learning Experiences
Recent research about the brain has shown educators how important it is to create a safe, supportive atmosphere in our schools and programs. It also reinforces what many educators have experienced themselves––that students learn best when given opportunities to construct their own meaning through authentic experience. By encouraging thoughtful action to help others, service-learning can offer an ideal community-building method within classrooms and schools, while addressing the students’ need to apply or expand on what they have learned through experience in the world outside of school.

“Students who engaged in high quality service-learning programs showed an increase in the degree to which they felt aware of community needs, believed that they could make a difference and were committed to service now and later in life.”
—Melchior, Berkas, Brandeis University 1999

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Toward the Larger Goal of Sustainable Communities

Service-learning provides an ideal way to work toward the larger goal of Sustainability. The three primary goals of the Sustainability movement are environmental integrity, economic prosperity, and social equity. Education for Sustainability (EFS) is a process that helps to bring these three goals closer to reality. It promotes an understanding of the interconnectedness of the environment, economy, and society. A more in depth discussion can be found here.

To connect students to a larger sense of purpose we see sustainability as the goal—place as the context—service-learning as the strategy. In other words, we are helping our students learn to be citizens working for sustainability—for communities that do well economically, environmentally and socially now and in the future. so often in service-learning activities stems from students’ sense of purpose and accomplishment in meeting a real community need.

Brief History of Service-Learning
service learningService-learning owes much to the thinking of John Dewey and an earlier generation of educator-reformers who sought to ground education in the community. A renewal of efforts to combine learning and service began in the 1970s with the work of Dan Conrad and others. At the Wingspread Conference in 1989, the National Society for Internships and Experiential Education (now the National Society for Experiential Education, or NSEE) convened a small advisory group to compose the ten “Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning.” These were later revised and updated in the Standards of Quality for School-based Service Learning published in 1993 by the Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform. They became widely known as the “ASLER Standards.”

The Corporation for National Service, established in the early 1990s, guided and funded a national effort to expand the use of service-learning K-16. This effort also helped evolve a uniform understanding of service-learning. In the mid 1990s, the National Service-Learning Cooperative, aided by the National Youth Leadership Council, took on the job of updating the ASLER standards. The latter work, led by Pam Toole of the Compass Institute, was done by groups of educators drawn from across the country and became the Essential Elements of Service Learning. This earlier work informed the Best Practices for Service-Learning, designed by participating K-16 educators, through a three year study group sponsored by Community Works Institute (CWI).

The Best Practices for Service-Learning
For more than two decades, The Best Practices for Service-Learning have been a highly effective and evolving tool, used in formal CWI trainings and professional development workshops and professional learning study groups to advance the use of service-learning in classrooms, schools and programs. Since 1995, educators attending CWI's acclaimed Summer Institutes have used the Best Practices for Service-Learning as both a planning and reflective evaluation tool. Teachers have also used the best practices with adult advisory teams and older students, in co-planning and evaluating service-learning projects and activities.

The Best Practices for Service-Learning are designed for novice and experienced practitioners alike. They suggest both starting points and areas of reexamination––a focus for dialogue among educators. CWI has evolved two distinct sets of Best Practices, one at the instructional level, and one for use at the site or school level.

Site Level Best Practices for Service-Learning
The Site Level Best Practices are specifically designed to help school and program leaders envision and create a supportive environment for high-quality service-learning. These practices suggest guidelines for making service-learning central to a school or program’s mission, supporting it with funding and policy decisions, and providing training and professional development opportunities for teachers. Educators who have successfully incorporated service-learning into their practice can still find themselves struggling if school or organizational policy does not support their efforts. These educator leaders can bring the Site Level Best Practices to the attention of their principal or superintendent to gain support for their work.

We Can Support Your Efforts at the Local School Level
CWI supports local educators, from schools and communities across the U.S. to international schools and organizations. Our work with K-16 schools and organizations includes extended site based PD, workshops and retreats—from Boston to Oregon, and from Europe to Asia. Learn how we can support your goals with a customized professional development event. CWI workshops and trainings are highly interactive and create a shared sense of purpose and direction for school faculty.
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