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Getting to the heart of service learning

12 April 2012
by Brian Keeley

"Anyone can slap paint on a wall..."

In the second of two postings, regular Insights blogger Brian Keeley looks at the benefits and challenges of service learning.

If you follow education, you’ll know that somebody somewhere is always banging on about The Next Big Thing. It’s easy to become sceptical – I mean, how did any of us ever learn to read or write before the invention of the Smart Board?

That’s why I was a little worried when, in a previous posting, I noted that service learning – which combines academic learning with volunteering – is  “one of the fastest growing educational initiatives”. Might it be just another new fad? Probably not. For one thing, service learning isn’t really all that new – the idea’s been around since at least the early 20th century. And even though the last few years have seen a big upsurge of interest in it, that enthusiasm appears to be based on solid experience of its usefulness in education. As Andrew Furco noted in a recent OECD report, even though academic studies in this area are still relatively limited, there’s evidence to show that young people really do gain from service learning in terms of their educational, social and intellectual development.

At one level, applying knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world challenges can help students to appreciate that what they’re learning “has meaning and relevance to their lives outside school,” as Andrew notes. Studies show other benefits, too, including increased motivation for learning, fewer disciplinary problems, better attendance and lower drop-out rates.

But before getting too excited about all these great results, it’s important to note a few qualifiers. Firstly, simply launching a programme – any programme – is no guarantee of success. “As some scholars have suggested, it is the overall quality and meaningful character of the experience that matters most,” writes Andrew.

“Quality” covers a wide area, including the duration and intensity of programmes; the establishment of real partnerships with local communities; and the balance between the “service” side of activities and the “learning” side. If it’s to bring these two sides of the equation together, service learning needs to be more than just a synonym for “volunteering”. Instead, it needs to coherently integrate service with academic learning. For example, designing a school garden can draw on academic subjects like engineering and human and plant biology; delivering the garden’s produce to people in the community can involve civics, social studies and even economics.

Ensuring that programmes are meaningful to students is also a challenge. One person with plenty of experience in this area is Annabel Smith, who has worked in service learning around the world. She readily acknowledges that programmes can fail to connect with students: “If you don’t do this properly, you can make kids not want to engage,” she told me when I met her at Mara-a-Pula in Botswana, a school with a long record in service learning. “It’s better not to start if you’re not going to do it properly.”

She believes it’s essential that schools communicate that they’re serious about service learning to students. “Young people are very astute about what adults really attach value to,” she says. In response, schools need to apply long-term thinking to the design of programmes, and how students progress through them; otherwise, she says, “there’s a danger of ‘hit and run’”.

She’s critical of some of the approaches to record keeping in service learning: “Don’t count hours!” she warns. Instead, she says, schools could ask students to keep “experiential passports” that record not how much they’ve done but what they’ve done. Students, she believes, also need to be given space to reflect on what they’re learning. One reason for closely tying service to learning is that it allows discussion to go beyond simply bemoaning the plight of the poor and instead provides a “knowledge framework to hang feelings on”.

Indeed, Annabel sees discussion and reflection as being at the heart of service learning: “Anyone can slap paint on a wall, and there’s probably no shortage of workers who’d happily be paid to do just that,” she says. “What is valuable about these programmes is not the product, not the paint on the wall, but the conversation that emerges over that paint.”

Find out more

The Nature of Learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (OECD, 2010)

OECD work on education

OECD educationtoday blog

One Response leave one →
  1. April 14, 2012

    Reblogged this on Diana Brydon and commented:
    “I mean, how did any of us ever learn to read or write before the invention of the Smart Board?”

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