Not long ago, I visited an outstanding high school where students spend their days engaged in academically rigorous project-based learning. Almost in passing, the principal mentioned that students also fulfill a community-service requirement before graduation. When I asked what kinds of service projects students undertake, I was surprised by his answer: “I don’t really know. We just track hours.”
What a missed opportunity. Well-designed service-learning experiences offer students a range of benefits. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, youth stand to gain from service in three broad areas: academic engagement and achievement, civic attitudes and behavior, and social and personal skills.
We can’t expect the same benefits, however, if students perform menial tasks under the banner of service. And that’s an all-too-common situation. Although 68 percent of U.S. schools say they offer community service, only about 24 percent engage students in authentic service learning, according to the National Youth Leadership Council.
What’s the difference? In a nutshell, high-quality experiences put an equal emphasis on service and learning. The Corporation for National and Community Services defines service learning as 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. Jim Kielsmeier, a longtime service-learning leader and founder of NYLC, offers this shorthand definition: “It's learning by doing, with a giving dimension.”
Service projects that deliver lasting benefits share certain characteristics. They connect to the curriculum, engage students in the design of projects, involve structured reflection, and engage students in extended learning experiences. (Download a free copy of the K12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice.)
Sound familiar? Consider the essential elements of project-based learning, which place similar importance on significant content, youth voice and choice, reflection, and in-depth inquiry. That’s why the sweet spot for service learning is the PBL classroom.
Consider just a few examples:
High school students experienced a need-to-know about the subject of modern-day slavery after reading a novel called Sold, which describes the lost childhood of a girl who was trafficked. Using their literacy and technology skills for an authentic purpose, they created a social-media campaign to raise awareness of the topic of modern slavery.
In Louisiana, seventh-graders started restoring a local watershed because they wanted to take their learning outdoors. Eventually, their stewardship efforts convinced the city to create a new park, complete with outdoor classroom, where students now teach others how to preserve and protect their wetlands.
Advanced math students offer their analytical skills to community-based organizations that need help analyzing outcome data, designing surveys, or making information more accessible by turning raw data into visualizations. Students not only have a chance to apply abstract math concepts to real-world problems, but enjoy being treated as experts by adults.
For a physical education project, students designed and led a series of community health events that motivated adults in their neighborhood to get moving and eat healthier.
It can take a shift in thinking to make projects like these a regular part of the curriculum. Every subject area can be a springboard to valuable service-learning projects, if teachers are ready to take learning into the community (or into the wider world, in the case of service projects that address global issues). Similarly, community organizations that are accustomed to having students volunteer to “get their hours” may have to reset their expectations about what students can contribute through more meaningful, inquiry-based projects.
Service-learning projects that engage students as problem-solvers can unlock a world of benefits, for students and communities alike.
To learn more about how to incorporate PBL best practices into service-learning experiences, join the free BIE webinar on March 7.
Please tell us about your experiences with effective service-learning projects by posting in our Edmodo Community.