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Service IS Learning

In his Commencement Address to the students at San Diego State College, (June 6, 1963, Public Papers of the Presidents: John F. Kennedy, 1963), President Kennedy exhorted them and us to a “higher purpose” so that the country could move ahead, no through an educated citizenry “whose qualities of mind and heart permit it to take part in the complicated” decisions involved in creating a democracy together.

Leaders are civil servants by dint of their commitment to the societies they serve. In schools, this translates to the pedagogy involving students engaging in community projects or Service Learning and provides opportunities for action and reflection leading not only to doing good for the community but self growth. ( 

Researchers find that "when teachers integrate service and social action into their academic program, students learn to communicate, to solve problems, to think critically, and to exercise higher-order skills" (Nathan & Kielsmeier, 1991, p. 741 ). Other studies indicated that students involved in political or social action service projects gained in problem-solving abilities, open-mindedness and critical thinking capabilities (Conrad & Hedin, 1989). (This compilation comes from Elizabeth Anne Skelton, 1994).

Teachers have interests and passions. Even before Emily Ray of Dunecrest School in Dubai had children, she got her students interested in civic engagement. Since her son Sam was born with Angelman Syndrome, Emily’s IB CAS students and middle school French classes have engaged with people of determination at a series of meetings designed so that the children get to know one another through sport and art and make friends as well as crafts.

At it’s best service learning is impactful and is able to be assessed through curricular standards. The content of what is learned can be guided by student interests and influenced by community needs. While clean up projects, for example may address a city’s desire for waste removal, by aligning content objectives with the trash gathering, students could gain insights into infrastructure and a sense of pride and purpose. The University of Kentucky’s programs work in part because they are ongoing mutual helping actions between the students and the community.

Many curriculum models (PYP, IB and the US C3 Social Studies Framework) acknowledge that doing service IS learning. Students guide their own learning when they identify issues and problems within the greater society and work toward awareness, research and innovative solutions. Imagine how excited 10 graders are learning trigonometry by designing a structure to provide shadows and shade to a school garden. The learning students remember most comes from overcoming challenges- doing something real and good!

Mahatma Ghandi’s life was dedicated to service. His admonishment to “be the change you want to see in the world” applies to us as citizens and as educators. We grow our school when the community and our students create reciprocal impact.

Gottlieb, Karla and Robinson, Gail. (Ed.). (2002). A Practical Guide for Integrating Civic Responsibility in the Curriculum. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges.

Reflecting on Service-Learning in Higher Education: Contemporary Issues and ...

edited by M. Gail Hickey

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