Why Aren’t We Doing Service-learning (or Doing it Enough) in Our Classrooms?


Fall 2016 Bloomington Day Care

Service-learning as a teaching strategy is supported by research and theorists (e.g., Dewey, 1938; Jacoby, 2015). Service Learning is a pedagogy that combines classroom instruction, engaged student learning, meaningful service in the community, and personal reflection. Two terms associated with service-learning are reflection and reciprocity. As a pedagogy, service-learning is seen as a form of experiential education that relies heavily on reflection to ensure that learning occurs. This stance explains why service-learning is different from community service. Reciprocal component, on the other hand, is seen as co-learning because the students and the community learn from, and alongside, each other. This symbiotic relationship is a trademark of the service-learning experience which is specifically designed to yield both academic and civic outcomes.

Service-learning as an instructional strategy has been integrated in many teacher education programs across the country for nearly two decades now. Further, community-based service-learning is deemed to be useful in helping preservice teachers become aware of the social issues the community faces, needs of the community, their students’ educational needs, and eventually help them develop instructional activities relevant to their concerns. The early childhood preservice teachers who were enrolled in my TCH 111: Teaching a Diverse Student Population: 0-8 had engaged in various community-based service-learning projects as service-learning was embedded in the course since 2013 till December last year while TCH 111 was offered. Although not all preservice teachers understood the importance or appreciated the opportunity at the time, many indicated that it was beneficial for their professional growth. Based on these 200 preservice teachers’ experiences and reflections, I have learned that service-learning should focus on inclusive, critical, and social use; it is about building community and resolving issues associated with inequality. This realization is supported by seeing service-learning “as a philosophy of human growth and purpose, a social vision, an approach to community, and a way of knowing” (Kendall, 1990, p. 23). Certainly, my goal was to have my students, the future teachers, to do service-learning with their students and to be a part of their community in the future. Over the years, I had learned as much as my students had during those seven semesters in various aspects. To say the least, I learned to tailor instruction to better meet my students’ needs and their understanding of service-learning, and I also learned to communicate more effectively with agencies that had different expectations and diverse needs in our community.

Utilizing service-learning as a teaching strategy in P-12 classes has become popular in recent years across the country. In fact, through service-learning, children can actually actively collaborate to solve real world problems while fostering social skills and character development. As young children work together to address problems in the community, they can practice civic responsibility, respect, and caring for others. Service-learning can be embedded in early childhood best practices such as curriculum integration, cooperative learning, and hands-on experience easily. There are numerous examples of service-learning in P-12 education. For example, the kindergarteners in Hudson Public Schools, Massachusetts have being involved in several efforts: a handicapped awareness program that extends into a new initiative which raises funds for the March of Dimes; a recycling program tied to a environmental studies science unit; and a holiday toy drive linked to a social studies unit on community. What is amazing in this district is that not only kindergarteners are engaged in service-learning projects. Like their kindergarten, each grade also develop its own initiatives. For example, a group of their first graders have an ongoing relationship with senior citizens at our local Senior Center that helps teach students basic literacy skills. In addition, their fifth graders work with classrooms of multiple-handicapped children to develop an awareness of and respect for diversity and are reading buddies for some of their first grade classes. Many older children like middle and high school aged students are doing service-learning across the country as well.

To recognize our youth’s involvement in the community and help change history’s course, National Youth Leadership Council has been organizing the National Service Learning Conference since 1988 to recognize youth, teachers, policy makers, community based organization, and researchers at their annual conference. One of my previous students, Lori Pluchrat (a current Chicago Public Schools teacher), was selected to present her group’s service-learning project at YWCA and the impact on the families they served. A year later, I was at the same conference to present what I learned from Lori’s cohort as an instructor. I was impressed to see the number of youths and classroom teachers who were doing service-learning and the types of projects they were engaged in not only in our country but from abroad as well. Most importantly, they were all enthusiastically sharing their experiences and wanting to learn from one another. Who says one has to wait until he/she is an adult to change the world?

There are plentiful benefits of service-learning experiences in P-12 classes or teacher education programs. For future teachers, service-learning provides them with the opportunity to better understand the real-world experiences of individuals of all walks of life in their immediate communities, especially in the culturally diverse and low-income community. Take my students for example, service-learning had an impact on their dispositions toward teaching in diverse settings and made them become aware of the social issues. My fellow graduate school buddy, Susanne Adinolfi, who has been doing service-learning with her preschoolers in Florida for years, has shared with me what she observed over the years. First, service-learning provides a means by which her children are able to collaboratively engage in hands-on activities that directly addressed early learning standards and curricular goals. Furthermore, preschoolers appear to benefit most from direct service experiences and projects (I will explain the four types of service-learning later) that afford them the opportunity to frequently interact with more competent others. She believes her children offer more insightful observations and reflections when participating in these types of projects. What surprises me the most is that although preschool aged children are often characterized as egocentric and not yet able to take the perspective of others, Susanne’s preschoolers are quite capable of demonstrating pro-social skills such as sharing and helping.

If there are so many benefits of doing service-learning at all grade levels, why aren’t we doing it (or doing it enough)? My friend, Susanne just shows us how competent children as young as four and five can do to better their class, school, neighborhood, and community. Children’s age is not really a limit. We can simply conclude that it is never too late to do something that is meaningful and educational like service-learning in our classrooms. I will start with the types of service-learning and end with steps for service-learning.

There are four main types of service-learning according to Catheryn Kaye (2010):

  1. Direct service (e.g., visiting a senior center, tutoring younger children, serving food at a soup kitchen)
  2. Indirect service (e.g., planting a community garden, collecting clothes for a homeless shelter, fundraising)
  3. Advocacy (e.g., letter writing campaigns, petitions, writing and disseminating a public service announcement about healthy eating)
  4. Research (e.g., develop surveys, testing water or soil quality, conduct interviews).

Kaye is an award-winning author and internationally renowned service-learning expert. Her book, The Complete Guide to Service Learning is the go-to resource. If you are new to service-learning, you will find this book to be useful. Another book to keep is Vickie Lake and Ithel Jones’s (2012) Service-learning in the Pre-K-3 Classroom. This fabulous book provides readers with lots of ideas, templates, and lesson plans based on their research with the early childhood children and teachers.

There are many reasons for getting involved in a service-learning project. Regardless of the reason, I am sure you know that it is the right thing to do. I like what Barbara Lewis states in her book, “The Kids Guide to Service Projects” about being that someone. “If you’re worried about the world you’re about to inherit, then it’s obvious to you that someone has to do something. You can be that someone, even if you are ‘just a kid’” (2009, p. 3).

Lewis suggests 10 steps to successful service projects in her book. They can easily be modified to fit your students’ needs:

  1. Research your project. Choose an issue that concerns you and come up with a project related to that issue.
  2. Form a team. You can have students do it alone (if they are older) or group children. Choose students who share the same interest. Lewis suggests that you can invite students of different ages or college students and seniors in your area to get involved as well.
  3. Find a sponsor. This can ensure you get more resources needed. This can be a community member, the principal, or a community organization that is willing to support the project. In my case, I was able to get a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning grant as well as community engagement grants at ISU to support the projects (e.g., supplies, books, and travels).
  4. Make a plan. Define your goal (what do you want to achieve). Decide when, where, and how often the group wants to meet.
  5. Consider the recipient. Have students get to know the people they plan to work with/serve. Have students find out their needs first. In my case, my students had to do needs assessment first before they come up with a project.
  6. Decide where you will perform your service. Depending on the types of service-learning, transportation needs to be taken into consideration. I grouped students to ensure each group had at least a vehicle to get to the location or the site was on the bus route.
  7. Get any permissions you need to proceed. Depending on the project, you might need to get permission from the principal/program director, youth leader, parents, teachers, etc.
  8. Advertise. Let other people know about your students’ projects. You can make a flyer or send out a press release.
  9. Fundraise. If your students’ project will cost anything beyond pocket money, you will want to fundraise.
  10. When your project has ended, evaluate it. You need to have your students reflect on their experiences. Have students talk it over with the people they served. It is important for students showcase their projects and what they learned.

If service-learning is a requirement in your school (more and more schools, both public and private, are making service-learning a requirement), that is great. If not, you can be the first one to start something new and exciting (just be practical to ensure the projects are manageable). You can always contact me if you need more information on resources or simply how to start a project.  To end, I would like to quote Lewis’ words, “Instead, let yourself approach it with enthusiasm and dedication. Throw yourself into it.  Get excited…even passionate” (2009, p. 6). I hope you are doing it for yourself (or your students are doing it) because you/they care and because you/they want to make a difference!


Dewey, J. (1938) Experience and education. NY: Macmillan.

Jacob, B. (2015). Service-learning essentials: Questions, answers, and lessons learned. San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kaye, C. (2010). The complete guide to service-learning: Proven, practical ways to engage

students in civic responsibility, academic curriculum, & social action. Minneapolis,

MN: Free Spirit.

Kendall, J. (1990). Combining service and learning: An introduction. In J. C. Kendall (Ed.),

Combining service and learning: A resource book for community and public

service, Vol. 1. Raleigh, NC: National Society for Experiential Education.

Lake, V., & Jones, I. (2012). Service learning in the Pre-K-3 classroom. Minneapolis, MN:

Free Spirit.

Lewis, B. (2009). The kids’ guide to service projects. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.


This post was brought to you by Miranda Lin. She is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at Illinois State University. She has worked with children in various settings and countries. Her research interests include anti-bias curriculum, teacher education, service learning, and home school partnership. Check out her past posts here and here!


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