Service Learning

Developing student leadership through service learning

By September 17, 2019 September 19th, 2019 No Comments

It has become increasingly clear that there are many skills which need to be taught in classrooms  today, and some of the most important learning does not involve books, facts, or tests alone. Leadership is often brought up as a skill that needs to be learned and mastered, yet is never taught. What exactly does learning how to be a leader impart to a student?

This essential question is explored throughout this article as we look at various ways of how effective student leadership can be integrated into learning. 

Leadership skills include important life skills such as decision making, communication, collaboration, strategic thinking, and risk taking. Students need the knowledge and capabilities that go far beyond the school environment and into the student’s future “real world”. 

Personalising learning is an essential part of all student learning. We need to be providing opportunities for students to develop agency through voice and choice. For students to develop key skills for the future such as leadership, they need multiple opportunities to know why and how to be a good leader. They develop with opportunities to practice, with ongoing support, and feedback. 

Students need to know and be able to demonstrate skills and dispositions. We need to involve students in creating their own self assessments of these skills and dispositions, here is an example:

“Developing our skills and dispositions helps us in all we do in and out of school. How we feel, interact, and demonstrate our understanding of these skills and dispositions will enable us to develop”.

student leadership

How to Develop Student Leadership

There are many ways to introduce student leadership into the school curriculum, depending on the age of the students, areas of interest or motivation and the resources available to the school.

Working with adults empowers students and can start as early as elementary / primary school. Proposal writing and presentation gives students an opportunity to request and advocate for things that they want to bring into existence, such as funding proposals socials, or sports events. This practice helps students and teachers to collaborate and reach mutual decisions and implement action plans.

Most schools around the world invite students to be part of STUCO- Student Council to develop leadership skills. This is such a small group of students, when, all students should be a leader or mentor. At various stages each year learners need opportunities to develop the necessary skills and dispositions needed to be a great leader. In and out of the classroom.

Giving students relevant responsibility at all levels throughout their school career builds confidence in their own ability to succeed. Starting with helping with school announcements and admin duties, helping new students and assisting at school events can turn into bigger responsibilities, such as organising an entire school event such as a Global Issues Conference,  sports tournaments, service activities/projects, or school socials. The team work necessary to execute these tasks provides invaluable leadership development and opportunities.

Leadership conferences provide beneficial opportunities to listen to and be empowered and inspired by successful alumni and local and global business leaders and change makers. The Association of International Schools (AISA) Global Issues Service Summit (GISS) is an example of an international conference completely student led with faculty support and guidance. Students organize keynote speakers, a service action day with service partners, service project workshops, sustainability teams, and operational support with bussing, catering, schedule, tech requirements, facilities, stationary, merchandise, and ambassadors. These are real roles and responsibilities that involve the development of key life skills that are transferable into the future.

For leaders it is necessary to expand their own capacity and the capacity of those around them, ongoing introspection and self reflection are essential to knowing where your at, and making a plan to get to where you want to be, as individuals and as a team. 

Leadership is having a vision for change, if that vision has a moral purpose others will likely follow. To build collective efficacy we need a shared vision for coherence. Surrounding leaders should be diversity, various perspectives, and being open minded to perspectives and ways of doing things. It takes relationships for this to happen by communicating and collaborating as a team, with specific goals and timelines, distributed roles, shared responsibilities, and a way of measuring impact. 

Michael Fullan’s book: Leading in a Culture of Change (2001) breaks effective leadership down into five components;

Pursue moral purpose

Understanding the change process

Develop relationships

Foster knowledge building

Strive for coherence

Our students have the energy, enthusiasm, and hopefulness to make a difference as leaders, there are many great young leaders out there. They just need the opportunities to do it, and the support of adults to make it happen.

The role of service learning in developing student leadership and mentorship

Taking leadership opportunities into local communities means that students, teachers and the local community members and organisations get the chance to come together and work toward common goals. This teaches students the empowering fact that their influence goes beyond their immediate surroundings and into the wider world.

The rationale for service learning is that students learn best by:

 Investigating the needs of the community· 

Planning and preparing for action

Serving by taking action in a variety of ways

Reflecting on the experience and learning

Demonstrating and communicating the service learning and sustainability

The benefits of service learning include:

  •         Developing skills such as communication, collaboration, leadership, problem solving, decision making, risk                taking, and critical thinking.
  •         Creativity and innovation to help solve global and local issues and energy to assist the community
  •         Working on developing respect and empathy for others
  •         A connection between academic theory and practical application in the real world
  •         Building mature relationships between the learner and community members
  •         An overall increase in community awareness of relevant social issues

Mentorship in leadership is important to be able to build capacity of leadership. Creating a Service Learning Council, Service Project leaders and mentees ensures that there is sustainability of service projects with partners. Leaders find out the needs of the partners, collaborate to set goals and measure impacts with teams and partners. Teachers or parents are facilitators while students have agency through their voice and choice of what service activity they want to be involved in, or lead. 

Creating Future Leaders and ‘Change Agents’ that will impact the world

With the right amount of knowledge, understanding and support, student leaders can achieve the most amazing results and impacts. Skills such as collaboration, communication, problem solving, flexibility, perseverance, all develop with multiple opportunities to try, adapt, try, and try again. Reflecting on the impacts in the community and collaborating with partners, students and faculty learn, this also develops metacognition.

A Change Agent is a person who advocates the adoption of a concept, action or innovation to produce positive change in their immediate or greater environment. The Change Agent might not have come up with the concept themselves, but actively adopts the concept and behaves in a way that will advocate that concept in a practical manner.

Students who have come through their education system understanding that they are not there purely to get a piece of paper – a high school qualification or college degree, but also to understand how they can be the change in the world that they would like to see are deeply empowered.

The many confidence and skill benefits of service learning are increased by an extremely powerful benefit for our children’s future, and our own. Service learning promotes high moral values and ethical building blocks on which to live a fulfilling and purposeful life.

There is a knock-on effect – each of the learners who emerges from their education a skilled and competent communicator with a confidence in their own abilities and a strong moral code will go on to influence many others in their lifetime, spreading the positive and powerful outcomes of service-based learning. 

Students do not have to wait until they have left school or college to understand the ‘real world’ and how many aspects of it play out in ‘real life’. The time is now! We need to take a critical look at how we are teaching these skills and start implementing. How does your school provide these opportunities? If not, then why not?

Tara Barton

Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

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