Published Online: April 2, 1997

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"Service is the rent each of us pays for living."
—Marian Wright Edelman

What service learning adds to our academic future.

The last 15 or 20 years of the 20th century in America have seen a modest growth of interest in "service learning," along with an intense and almost rabid enthusiasm for additional "academic learning." A Nation at Risk, published in 1983, has become the bible of academic learning, and its shrill rhetoric pervades every corner of almost every schoolhouse. This call to worshipers sets forth the virtues of the major academic disciplines as the lessons to be mastered--lessons seen primarily as weapons to beat other nations in economic competition. This highly individualistic, competitive emphasis on learning is verified by standardized tests to sort out its students.

Definitions of "service learning" vary widely, but none of them draw on A Nation at Risk. An author writing in the newly released volume on this subject published as the 96th Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education provides this useful starting point: "The term 'service learning' can be loosely defined as an educational activity, program, or curriculum that seeks to promote student learning through experiences associated with volunteerism or community service." This somewhat wordy statement might be summarized into: Service learning emerges from helping others and reflecting on how you and they benefited from doing so. A still briefer statement might go back to the Bible: "Love thy neighbor" and learn from doing it.

Whatever you choose as the banner to carry for service learning, it will be quite different from most academic learning; it is worth thinking about those differences. They require the learner to be engaged directly with other people--both those providing services and those being served. These engagements constitute a significant learning process because they bring new experiences. Here are some examples: 1) Working together in a group to plan and carry out service activities; 2) Adjusting these activities to fit the tastes and needs of people who are often very different from the learner--different in age, cultural background, and viewpoints about daily living; 3) Opportunity for reflection on the meaning of these activities in the lives of both the server and the served; 4) The chance to develop effective habits of performance in joint endeavors and to assume growing responsibilities in such relationships; 5) Emphasis on helping others in ways that develop "habits of the heart" which cannot be measured with standardized tests.

This list could go on and on, but these examples will suffice to back up the assertion that service learning is a significant element in the educational process at all levels--school, college, and beyond. It has more to do with becoming a mature adult than any academic exercise; and it is at least the equal of academic effort in building an understanding of others, the capacity to be an effective citizen, and the promise of leading a balanced life in an increasingly complex world.

Many classrooms neglect in-depth discussion, student responsibility for the learning of others, and efforts to relate what is studied to their own lives.

If these potential outcomes of service learning have any validity, and there is some research evidence that they do, then the next century will have to change the balance between service learning and academic learning that has characterized American schools in recent years. Service learning will have to become an integral part of the school curriculum rather than the extracurricular activity it too often is. The chapter by Morris Haynes and James P. Comer in Service Learning, the Society's new yearbook, carries a succinct and powerful message to this effect:

Service to others, particularly those who are in need and less fortunate, and service to the larger community through unselfish acts of caring and kindness are defining characteristics of a great and compassionate nation. But because of the increasing pluralism in our society and uncertainty about the future, and skepticism surrounding services to the poor and the most needy members of society, there sometimes seems to be a retreat by many from the virtues of altruism and compassion, which have helped to make this nation great. Many educators recognize that service learning in schools must be an important and integrated component of students' educational experience in schools, in preparation for life and service to the larger community.

Service to others, particularly those who are in need and less fortunate, and service to the larger community through unselfish acts of caring and kindness are defining characteristics of a great and compassionate nation. But because of the increasing pluralism in our society and uncertainty about the future, and skepticism surrounding services to the poor and the most needy members of society, there sometimes seems to be a retreat by many from the virtues of altruism and compassion, which have helped to make this nation great. Many educators recognize that service learning in schools must be an important and integrated component of students' educational experience in schools, in preparation for life and service to the larger community.

If this argument appears to be saying that typical academic learning is narrow, individualistic, and excessively competitive, while service learning stresses working cooperatively with others in a morally meaningful way, there is some truth in that interpretation, at least to the extent that traditional modes of teaching still dominate most academic classrooms. These classrooms in both schools and universities are dominated by a passive learning process. Teachers and professors stand before a class and tell the students what they should know or they assign reading to convey it. Then, to demonstrate their learning, the students are asked to parrot back what they have been told or what they have read to evaluate their learning. Many classrooms neglect in-depth discussion, student responsibility for the learning of others, and efforts to relate what is studied to their own lives and the world in which they live.

The development of a healthy element of service learning in a school or college will help open the doors to change.

Successful service learning avoids this dry and unimaginative process. It is based on active learning, which is characterized by very different behaviors on the part of both teachers and students. Both are engaged in planning what is to be done and how; both carry it out together, often outside the classroom in the world of reality--families, communities, groups with particular needs, institutions with inadequate resources and dependent on volunteer assistance; and both get participants together to evaluate what has been accomplished and to suggest changes that will produce better service.

The sad fact of this comparison of academic study and service learning is that it does not have to exist. Academic learning can adopt the strategies of active learning on which service learning is based. A well-known Chinese proverb explains this possibility. When asked to explain her feelings about her classroom experiences, a young student said: I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I act and I understand.

This rubric holds the potential of a revolution in academic learning. A few schools and colleges in America are moving in the direction it implies. Some professional schools are quite successful with it because they have at hand the realities of a profession to stimulate experience. The change is, however, very difficult for both students and teachers because the ruts they are in as they maintain passive learning are familiar and comfortable. The development of a healthy element of service learning in a school or college will help open the doors to change--particularly if the service activities are followed up by well-planned reflection on their meaning.

The many authors who contributed to Service Learning light up the varied facets of this type of learning--its background, its sources of initiative from the Peace Corps to the nursery school, its internal struggles for time and support in traditional institutions, its need for more research on its outcomes and effectiveness. For the reasons I have outlined in this brief essay, it seems to me a valuable element in the American effort to improve its education activities.


Harold Howe II retired from the faculty of Harvard University's graduate school of education in 1995. A former history teacher, principal, and superintendent, he was the U.S. commissioner of education in the Johnson administration and served for 10 years as vice president of the Ford Foundation. This essay is adapted from the foreword to Service Learning, published this month by the University of Chicago Press. Reprinted with permission.

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Web Resources
  • Student Outcomes From Participation in Community Service. Martha Naomi Alt and Elliot A. Medrich, for the U.S. Department of Education. An in-depth 1993 report of a study of teenage students participating in voluntary community service activities.
  • Learning Through Service: Enriching the Classroom Experience. Mary E. Brandell, Elizabeth Hitch, Thomas Kromer, and Jerold C. Misner. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin. This article defines service learning and suggests the benefits to both participants and community. Contains several project ideas.
  • Charity Begins at School. In this 1995 article, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Gregg Vanourek complain that "mandatory voluntarism runs the risk of degrading the virtue of service itself, while politicizing the school curriculum and recruiting impressionable youths for causes dear to the hearts of graying activists."
  • The Community Is Their Textbook. Do service requirements really destroy the virtues they are supposed to encourage? Or are they, as their proponents claim, an innovative way to instill values and citizenship in a generation of Americans said to be thin in both? What kinds of programs actually achieve valuable results? The author of this Summer 1995 article in The American Prospect went to Maryland to find the answers.
  • Community Service Learning by Doing. In this 1989 policy statement, the Council of Chief State School Officers endorses service learning.

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