Learning theories in practice/Service learning

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Purpose[edit | edit source]

Across the nation, schools are being challenged to create learning environments that produce critical thinkers. Twenty-first century students can no longer succeed with the memorization and regurgitation of information. The changing face of our world requires us to produce students who are capable of meeting the “demands—civic responsibility demands, digital demands, cognitive demands, global demands—of the twenty-first century” (Beers, 2007). Service learning is a teaching strategy that naturally lends itself to constructivist learning.

The purpose of this chapter is to introduce the basic concepts of service learning, discuss the need for service learning specifically in alternative school settings, explore the constructivist nature of service learning, and provide concrete examples of how service learning can look. By providing this information, I hope to provide an additional teaching strategy to educators seeking authentic learning experiences for their students.

Definition of Service Learning[edit | edit source]

Service learning provides “complex teaching and learning environments that are designed to enhance learning through the process of connecting academic course content with service opportunities in the community” (Cress, 2005, p. 1). Service learning is more than a community service program. Service learning incorporates key components of classroom curriculum and gives students a hands-on method of achieving state standard expectations. Learning environments are authentic and student determined, and the teacher serves as a guide on the journey.

There are eight key components to a successful service-learning program. They include: Academic Connections; Authentic Needs Assessment; Community Collaboration; Evaluation; Meaningful Service and Civic Engagement; Recognition and Demonstration; Reflection; and Youth and Student Voice. The following website gives more information about the eight key elements of service learning and training tools for Indiana’s Learn and Serve program: http://doe.state.in.us/opd/srvlrn/key_elements.html

There are many benefits of service learning. Students succeed because they learn to make connections with academic learning and social environments. Communities benefit because citizens learn how to serve and give back. Cathryn Berger Kaye (2004) states, “The beauty of service learning is that something real and concrete is occurring. Learning takes on a new dimension. When students are engaged intellectually and emotionally with a topic, they can light up with a revelation or make a connection between two previously separate ideas” (p. 2).

Eight Key Elements[edit | edit source]

There are eight key elements to a successful service-learning program:

  • Academic Connections
  • Youth and Student Voice
  • Authentic Needs Assessment
  • Community Collaboration
  • Evaluation
  • Meaningful Service
  • Recognition and Demonstration
  • Reflection

(Eight Key Elements of Service Learning, 2008)

Eight Key Elements Defined[edit | edit source]

  • Academic Connections - The classroom component is essential for the learning portion of service learning. Academic standards are reached through authentic projects with real purpose.
  • Youth and Student Voice - Students select project and participate in all aspects of project implementation. “Students experience significant age appropriate challenges involving tasks that require thinking, initiative and problem solving as they demonstrate responsibility and decision-making in an environment safe enough to allow them to make mistakes and to succeed” (Eight Elements of Service Learning, 2008).
  • Authentic Needs Assessment - Students perform needs assessments that may include: examining the media, surveys, observations or mapping of local area, or census information.
  • Community Collaboration - Students help establish community partnerships to ensure lasting service-learning results.
  • Evaluation - Students and adult participants should continually evaluate the process and impact of service projects.
  • Meaningful Service - Students include community partners in response to authentic community needs.
  • Recognition and Demonstration - Students need opportunities to demonstrate the new knowledge and experiences they have encountered. This phase should happen throughout the service learning experience.
  • Reflection - Students need reflection to help understand the learning that is occurring before, during, and after service activities.

(Eight Key Elements of Service Learning, 2008)

The Need for Service Learning in Alternative Schools[edit | edit source]

Alternative schools vary from traditional schools in a variety of ways. The alternative setting in which I work serves at-risk high school students who find it difficult to complete the requirements for a diploma in a traditional setting. We accept students based on one of five reasons derived from the Indiana Department of Education requirements: academic failure, intent to withdraw, student is a parent or an expectant parent, employment, or disruptive behavior (Alternative Education Programs, 2008). Based on the structure and needs of this specific alternative setting, I will focus on the need for service learning to promote a constructivist setting in this environment.

Most of the students attending this alternative high school have struggled to make it in a traditional setting. Whatever the conflict at their previous schools, the one area where there is significant academic and social growth is in our service-learning program. Participation is entirely a student’s choice, and it is because of this choice, students feel ownership in the activities they complete.

Students who have experienced failure at school are often disillusioned by the idea of textbooks, teacher lectures, and homework. They cannot see the connections between school and life. It is through service learning that these students are able to connect the idea of learning to real world activities. Service learning has helped our students improve their attendance, attitudes, and self-efficacy. Daily students are questioning about the next activity or time when they can provide another service for their community. Their ideas are fascinating and inspiring—It is a constructivist teaching strategy that has helped engage students who are in danger of failing out of our school systems.

The Constructivist Nature of Service Learning[edit | edit source]

Constructivism is the philosophy that learning is built upon knowledge that preexists (Hoover, 1996). According to Hoover (1996), the two main ideas around constructed knowledge are that learners use what they know to create new understandings and that learning is active. This affects the notion of teaching because students need to be active participants in their learning environments. In service learning, students are actively participating in real-world activities as they determine how to solve problems and help their communities.

Hoover (1996) encourages teachers to ensure experiences are important to students and to encourage group interaction. In the social aspect, students are comparing their learning and new understandings to peers in their groups (Hoover, 1996). The link between this idea and service learning is key. In service learning activities, students determine authentic needs in their communities and determine how best to fit the needs that exist. Through this process, students are gathering and synthesizing information. They are debating with other students, calling community members, researching, and determining how their time can most effectively be used to help the need that exists.

Constructivism and the Eight Key Elements[edit | edit source]

Each of the eight keys of service learning are able to be placed into areas that match core beliefs of constructivism. Using information about Constructivism presented by Dr. Curtis Bonk, the following chart aligns major components of constructivism with the eight elements of service learning.

  • Learning Not Teaching - Academic Connections, Evaluation, Reflection
  • Learner Autonomy - Youth and Student voice, Authentic Needs Assessment, Meaningful Service
  • Learning is a Process - All Eight Elements
  • The Context in Which Learning takes Place - Academic Connections, Authentic Needs Assessment, Community Collaboration, Reflection
  • Invention and Trying out Ideas - Youth and Student Voice, Authentic Needs Assessment, Community Collaboration, Meaningful Service
  • Real World Situations - Meaningful Service, Community Collaboration
  • The Role of Experience in Learning - All Eight Elements

How Service Learning can Look[edit | edit source]

As many constructivist environments vary, the look and feel of service learning will vary depending on your educational and community setting. Needs in different communities vary, and service activities are based on these needs. Students’ interests vary, and service activities are based on these interests. Embracing an organized system and allowing it to evolve is the best way to start a successful service-learning program. Perhaps the most critical component is a staff that believes in allowing students to find ways to succeed beyond traditional book work, essays, and questions.

While it may be comforting to some, others may be intimidated by the open-ended structure of service learning. The key to implementing service learning is to understand that each situation is going to lead to different outcomes. If you are familiar with the key components of service learning and the idea that the teacher is a guide through the learning process, students will have the opportunity to excel in this process.

Reflection[edit | edit source]

The overall goal of this description is to demonstrate another way to actively engage students in the learning process. Service learning is a constructivist teaching strategy that has the potential to help students learn in a more meaningful way than textbook learning.

Resources[edit | edit source]

Alternative Education Programs (2008). Retrieved Nov. 14, 2008 from http://ideanet.doe.state.in.us/alted/altedlinkpg.html.

Beers, K., Probst, R. E., & Rief, L. (2007). Adolescent literacy: turning promise into practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Bonk, C. J. Cognitive constructivism, social constructivism, and learning communities. PowerPoint Presentation.

Cress, C. M., Colier, P.J., Reitenauer, V. L. (2005). Learning through service. Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA.

Eight Key Elements of Service Learning. (2008). http://doe.state.in.us/opd/srvlrn/what.html#key.

Hoover, W. A. (1996). The Practice implications of constructivism. SEDLetter Volume IX Number 3 August 1996. Accessed on 11/12/08 at http://www.sedl.org/pubs/sedletter/v09n03/practice.html.

Kaye, C. B. (2004). The complete guide to service learning: Proven, practical ways to engage students in civic responsibility, academic curriculum, & social action. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.

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