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Service Learning

Service Learning vs Community service: Why all schools need a Service Learning program now!

By June 19, 2019March 25th, 2021No Comments

You may have heard of the term ‘Service Learning’ being bandied about in educational circles, and wondered what it is, exactly. Is it just a new term for community service in schools and colleges?

It is not the same as community service, although there can be some crossover in the outcomes. We need to understand the differences so we can move all community service ‘well intended’ programs into more meaningful service learning programs.


Community Service is characterized by:

  • Students giving or ‘volunteering’ of their time to provide aid to the community that improves the quality of life for those living in the community. Students get involved in helping their community..
  • Community service could include many activities such as helping the disabled or aged, teaching younger children, volunteering at an animal rescue, cleaning up litter at the beach or community nature spot, helping at a soup kitchen, and many more activities.
  • Community service assists the community, teaches scholars about giving to the less fortunate, and helps to teach learners about compassion, commitment and empathy.

Service Learning takes  Community Service to a far deeper level, and involves a specific need in the community with learning objectives and goal/s, and a practical, community-based activity to help teach the academic goal through application with the community. It also involves self-assessment, and reflection before, during and after the practical activity has been completed.

  • Service Learning is characterised by:

  • Action research through investigation of the needs of the partner or collaborative to understand the problem/issues. To be able to plan and prepare for the specific type of action needed, goals, timelines, roles and responsibilities, resources are needed to make an impact through action.
  • Experiential education in which learners are taught through practical application of learned concepts, combined with action  with the community in order to tackle and problem-solve specific community objectives.
  • Service learning includes academic preparation, activity assessments and intensive reflection before, during and after the activity or project has been completed, to define and deepen what has been learned.
  • So, beside the practical activity, learning also takes place in the pre-reflection, research, demonstration and communication presentation of and post-reflection of the practical activity or project within the community. Impacts are measured and celebrated through the service learning with partners or collaboratives.

The crossover between community service and service learning is that assistance is provided to the community, but service learning goes beyond the concept of ‘helping out’ or ‘volunteering’ by combining specific learning goals and outcomes into the community-based activity based on their verified needs, not what we ‘think’ they need. Learning is connected, transdisciplinary skills and dispositions are developed.

service learning vs community service

Community Service – Inquiry-Based Learning – Service Learning

Service learning involves moving on from community service into inquiry based learning, and then further into practical, real world application and a lifelong understanding of their ability to influence the world around them in positive ways.

Inquiry-based learning concepts combine particularly well within a service learning approach. This is a more open-ended approach to learning that is guided by student curiosity, research, problem-solving or questioning.

It makes sense that inquiry-based learning has been proven to nurture more passion, motivation and engagement. It makes learning more meaningful when students take ownership of their learning outcomes, whilst being empowering. Inquiry based learning moves the classroom of today forward by aiming to solve the problems of tomorrow, now.

The end goals of service learning include:

  • An enhanced learning opportunity within a specific school subject or transdisciplinary concepts.
  • Personal development, and the development of self-confidence through making a difference in the real world.
  • The development of social skills and civic engagement skills in the student and community through meaningful collaboration.
  • An increased understanding of academic theories and concepts through transfer tasks.
  • The combination of academic, classroom-based learning with real world application to dramatically broaden and deepen learning outcomes.

While the goals and outcomes mentioned above are an important aspect and the first step in including service based learning into the education curriculum, there is a longer-term goal and another level of depth to service learning that aims to develop life-long attitudes, ‘ways of being’ to develop intrinsic motivation for serving others 

service learning vs community service

Service Learning Promotes ‘Agents of Change’

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.

For example, the concept of creating more sustainable ways of living and treating our earth’s natural resources may not be attributed to any one particular ‘Change Agent’ but a student who actively seeks to educate themselves and their communities around recycling and boycotting plastic bags and straws, while finding viable alternatives becomes a Change Agent themselves for environmentally sound practices and awareness,

Through a focus on service learning, students come to understand that they have a direct impact on the world around them, and that living a life of moral purpose and direction is fulfilling and desirable.

Service learning supports Mahatma Gandhi’s famous quote Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” 

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’.

Students will also understand that they cannot become an ‘Agent of Change’ alone. It is the combination of opportunities, dedication, commitment and shared goals between the student, the teacher, the school, the organisation they are working with in the ‘real world’, the community at large and even beyond that into society and government – that have to work together to promote positive change in the world. 

How is your learning organization living your Vision and Mission? How will learners be the change we wish to see in the world?

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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