Understanding the Proven Practice of Service Learning through Informed Action

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

Our colleagues in math teach mathematical formulas and principles to students and students practice by doing math. Our peers in science have students do science through labs that apply the scientific method to understand phenomena. No language arts classroom would be effective without students (doing) reading, writing, speaking and listening. Yet, in many civics classrooms, students engage in curriculum focused on essential questions related to justice, equity, power, and other rich concepts and then…take a multiple choice Constitution Test?

Just as passing the Rules of the Road exam does not sufficiently demonstrate a person is ready to operate a motor vehicle; the ability to pass a 200 question Constitution Test does not illustrate adequate preparation for civic life. The Illinois Social Science standards and new civics course requirements prompt new thinking about how students do civics.

Both the high school and middle school civics requirements facilitate mastery of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions by “doing” civics through the proven practices of civic education. Through weekly webinars, IllinoisCivics.org explored the use of current and societal issue discussions and simulations of democratic processes to prepare students with the knowledge, skills and aptitudes of civic life. This week, IllinoisCivics.org tackled the use of service learning through informed action.

As Dr. Shawn Healy, Director of the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation shared in the webinar, there is a great opportunity for educators to use service learning to build the social capital and sense of political efficacy that many students lack. According to the 2012 Illinois Civic Health Index, Illinois millennials are among the least likely to report voting regularly in local elections, work with or exchange favors with their neighbors, or work within their communities to solve problems (see right).



Research shows that high-quality service learning can build community connections and social capital that allow students to “do civics” in an authentic context with real world impact that benefits themselves and others. According to the 2011 Guardians of Democracy report:
  • Research shows that service learning, when done well, has a positive civic impact on students’ civic knowledge, skills, dispositions, and engagement.
  • Middle and high schools students in Illinois who participated in service learning programs showed statistically significant gains in their academic engagement, academic competence, aspirations to pursue postsecondary education, acquisition of twenty-first century skills, social-emotional learning skills such as conflict management and self-control, civic dispositions, and support for their schools. They also gained work experience and specific skills in reading, writing, math, and science.
  • Elementary school students in Michigan participating in service learning reported greater levels of behavioral, affective, and cognitive engagement in school than their nonparticipating peers, showing statistically significant differences in the effort they expended, paying attention, completing homework on time, and sharing what they learned with others. Participating students also demonstrated significantly higher test scores on the state assessment than their nonparticipating peers in the areas of writing, social studies overall, and three social studies strands: historical perspective, geographic perspective, and inquiry/ decision-making.
IllinoisCivics.org joined with our partners at CIRCLE to survey middle school educators in the state about their needs and concerns regarding the new civic mandates. The usefulness of using service learning through informed action to facilitate student growth in civic competencies, but also in social emotional learning competencies such as social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills, is evident. 

…Service learning…with emphasis on the word "informed”…more effectively teaches about democratic institutions than direct instruction alone, addresses at least some current and/or controversial issues and has a bigger real impact than simulations. However, this is a priority, not an exclusion of other methodologies.

Students use what they learn to make a direct, positive impact on a real-world problem. This skill would be beneficial to students learning to engage with their communities.

I would definitely invest in service learning (informed action) because this is experience that students will benefit from and be able to apply to other areas of their lives and academic careers.


Despite the impact of service learning on student learning and efficacy, our middle school survey with CIRCLE indicates that most Illinois educators lack formal professional development opportunities in this proven practice (image above). IllinoisCivics.org is committed to bridging this gap in Illinois by supporting teachers in preparing ALL students for civic life.

Our IllinoisCivics.org website has:
  • An Election 2020 Toolkit with materials for service learning as well as the other proven practices of civic education this election year.
  • A Curriculum Design Toolkit with resources to help you identify assets in your curriculum and resources to meet any needs for civics course implementation, including simulations of democratic processes.
  • Lesson plans aligned with the Illinois Social Science standards and proven practices of civic education. Each lesson has a suggested service learning opportunity.
  • A recent blog post that describes opportunities for service learning in a remote learning environment titled, “What Kind of Citizen During a Pandemic and Beyond?
If you missed the webinar, you can access the recording and get connected to research supporting the use of service learning as well as considerations to keep in mind when using this pedagogy.

At the end of each webinar, Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches share their top strategies and resources for implementation. This week, the coaches shared tools they would encourage teachers to start with to support the use of service learning through informed action.
  • Candi Fikis from West Chicago shared how she supports students in advocating for policy changes through writing letters to their elected officials. Fikis cautions, “Do make sure that the topic they are writing about is something they know enough about to explain in a letter. Writing the actual formal letter/email can be difficult, so give students a template or example to guide them. Many politicians have websites for constituents to send emails through and students might need help with that.”
  • Jason Artman from Mendota has found Mikva Challenge to be a great organization to partner with for service learning. “Through their programs such as Project Soapbox and Issues to Action, Mikva Challenge has many lessons and activities teachers can adapt to their own classrooms and needs.” For this election season, Mikva Challenge has made five of their Elections to Action lessons free to teachers through the Teaching for Democracy Alliance.
  • Logan Ridenour’s students at Carlinville High School researched and advocated for policy change around Daylight Savings Time, successfully testifying and passing legislation through the Illinois Senate. Logan found the resources from the Constitutional Rights Foundation Civic Action Project helpful. “The Civic Action Project by the Constitutional Rights Foundation provides a great resource to be used to plan a project based service learning project. It has examples that students can view and planners that will help students follow a process to create their project”
  • Alia Bluemlein from Crystal Lake created a Frequently Asked Questions resource for teachers addressing some common wonderings around service learning and other elements of the course requirement.
It is not too late to register for the remaining webinars. Each session will take place on Wednesday morning from 9:30-10:30 a.m. Educators can join live to interact with hosts and ask questions or watch a recording of each session. Each webinar is free and participants can elect to earn two PD credits per webinar for completing a post-webinar application activity.

What are you doing to implement the middle and high school civics requirements? Please comment below. Together we can prepare ALL students for college, career, and civic life.

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