Parsing Proven Civic Learning Practices, Part III: Service Learning

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed opportunities working in and with high schools throughout Illinois, and I can say with complete confidence that community service is abundant. From school wide food drives to extracurricular fundraisers to serving in local soup kitchens, our state’s students are deeply embedded in their surrounding communities, and the benefits are certainly reciprocal.

However, true service learning is relatively rare, and the new high school civics course requires it. This has caused a great deal of anxiety among teachers, schools, and districts, and it’s my hope that this post and the one that follows from Mary Ellen on Wednesday begin to quell these fears.

The benefits of service learning are widely documented (see pages 134-146), and my own research shows that school-based volunteerism builds students’ civic knowledge and skills to the same degree as individual or family-inspired volunteerism.



The biggest challenge in converting community service or volunteerism into service learning is connecting it to the classroom. The National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) defines service learning as “…an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs.”

NYLC publishes standards for quality practice in service learning, and a few warrant discussion here. It begins with a “link to the curriculum,” where “service learning is used as an instructional strategy to meet learning goals and/ or content standards.”

Reflection is also critical and should occur in service learning’s multiple stages (see below). Students should have a voice in planning, implementing, and evaluating their service learning experience, and partnerships are pivotal. They should be “collaborative, mutually beneficial, and address community needs.” Finally, service projects should be long and intense enough to meet these needs.

Service learning takes place in five stages:
  1. Students identify a need in the community and analyze the underlying problem.
  2. They prepare and plan for their project, often in a group setting with specialized roles and responsibilities.
  3. Students take action in a “safe environment to learn, to make mistakes, and to succeed.”
  4. Students reflect on their experience through role plays, discussion, and/ or journaling, placing it in a broader context and receiving feedback from teachers, partners, and recipients.
  5. Students publically demonstrate what they have learned through reports, articles, presentations, and/ or performances.
This brief service learning primer will make more sense with the resources highlighted in Mary Ellen’s post later this week. Moreover, teachers throughout Illinois are encouraged to sign up for our 2016 summer workshops where service learning and the other practices prescribed by the new civics course requirement will be staples.

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