"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
- Link to curriculum
- Progress monitoring