According to the definition by Learn and Serve America, Service Learning is an educational approach which “integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities”. In a typical Service Learning project, students identify problems that they are concerned about in their community, research the problems and potential solutions, create and implement a plan for addressing the problem, and reflect on their own learning and action throughout the process.
Service Learning emphasizes the equal importance of, and close connection between, ‘service’ and ‘learning’, which sets it aside from internships, volunteering, community service, and labor service. American scholar Sigmon classifies the various relationships between service and learning into the following four categories:
Service LEARNING: The primary goal is to learn; service impact is secondary.
SERVICE Learning: The primary goal is to serve; the impact on learning is secondary.
Service Learning: Service and learning goals are disconnected
SERVICE LEARNING: Service and learning are mutually reinforcing
If we think about some of the experiences that are most commonly available to students, internships are closest to the first category, “Service LEARNING”, in which the primary goal is for students to learn about a particular profession. Many volunteer and community service programs are similar to the second type, “SERVICE Learning”. The service that students engage in does not draw on academic learning that they may also be engaged in, and they are not asked to reflect on their experiences to gain new insights. We strive to implement and promote “Service Learning” which contributes meaningfully to student learning and to community development. We see learning and service goals as equally important and inherently interdependent components of our curriculum.
Case study: Investigation of smoking in a village (RCEF, 2009)
Guan Ai School was a rural primary school in Yongji County, Shanxi Province. The 6th graders learned about the hazards of smoking in their social studies class, and enthusiastically attempted to persuade their social studies teacher to quit smoking. They were unsuccessful but concerned about the problem and motivated to do more. Their teachers picked up on their interest in this problem, and organized a Service Learning project for 3rd to 6th graders.
First, the students conducted investigations to understand the smoking problem in surrounding villages. They designed interview protocols and each class interviewed people from a different village. Students in different grades used different methods for analyzing the quantitative data depending on their level in math. They wrote reports based on the qualitative and quantitative data they collected. The students were surprised to find that most smokers in the villages wanted to quit, and a very large percentage of them had attempted to quit before. Based on their findings, they decided to launch a public education campaign that would focus not only on the hazards of smoking, as many anti-smoking campaigns do, but also on the difficulties of quitting and effective methods for quitting.
Next, the students collected information and created materials for their campaign. They interviewed a local doctor and looked up resources online. All students participated in designing materials such as posters and calendars, and some students prepared presentations.
Finally, the students gave presentations at village meetings in the villages where they had conducted their investigations and distributed the informative materials they had created. Throughout the process, students reflected on what they were doing and learning, and made or revised their next steps based on these reflections.
During this project, students learned a great deal of knowledge surrounding the theme of smoking, both generally and specifically regarding their community, but also reinforced their learning of curricular knowledge such as math (in analysis and presentation of data), language arts (through reading information they collected and writing reports and speeches), health education and art (as they designed promotional materials). In addition, they gained skills in interacting with adults, public speaking, conducting research, planning a project and much more. Many students expressed that they felt more confident and brave after doing the project. Perhaps most importantly, they experienced a new role for themselves as integral members of the community who can make a difference.