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Overview

Service learning contributes to welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments by providing opportunities for students and staff to work together on common causes that have a positive impact on others.

Service learning emphasizes critical thinking and personal reflection and encourages a strong sense of community, civic engagement and personal responsibility.

It also creates opportunities for:

  • strengthening academic knowledge and skills by applying them to real-life issues
  • building positive relationships
  • discovering new interests and abilities
  • setting and achieving goals
  • working together
  • leadership
  • learning the value of helping and caring for others
  • creating a sense of belonging
  • developing a positive sense of self

Service learning goes beyond service projects. It offers students opportunities to better understand the purpose and value of their efforts through the practical experience of serving in the community. It also offers opportunities for students to develop, practice and reflect on social competencies.

Foundational ideas

Service learning is based on the following foundational ideas:

  • students learn through authentic experiences that connect their learning to the real world
  • service learning benefits everyone involved

Well-designed service learning can have a positive impact on:

  • teacher satisfaction
  • school climate
  • academic achievement
  • student engagement

Teachers who use service-learning are also more likely to:

  • use teaching strategies as cooperative learning, participate in projects integrating technology and requiring data collection
  • make meaningful connections to the community

Evidence-based research

A variety of studies have shown evidence of a range of achievement-related benefits from service-learning, including:

  • improved attendance
  • higher grade point averages
  • enhanced readiness for the workforce
  • enhanced awareness and understanding of social issues
  • greater motivation for learning
  • increased positive behaviour

Key components

A number of key components are foundational to service learning activities. Activities:

  • are purposeful and meaningful and involve real work in the actual settings where the need occurs
  • are authentic and meet a need in the community or school
  • link to the curriculum and have clear goals and objectives for the project experience
  • involve home, school and community partnerships, each with clearly defined roles and expectations
  • include instruction, including structure, long-term learning opportunities and a variety of flexible opportunities for participation
  • involve shared leadership between students and teachers/adults

During service learning activities, students:

  • make choices about how to implement a project
  • learn to collaborate with others
  • learn how to test new roles
  • apply new skills and knowledge

During service learning activities, teachers/adults:

  • provide guidance
  • serve as facilitators of learning
  • role model

Examples

Service learning will look different at different schools, depending on the needs of the students, and the resources and priorities of the school community.

The following fictional stories are examples of what service learning might look like in practice.

Elementary

An elementary school begins the year by having each grade identify a service they will do all year to make the school more welcoming, caring, respectful and safe for all students. For example, during one school year, each grade made the following commitments:

  • Kindergarten students chose to look after the school’s lost and found box, including hanging found mittens on a clothesline, so students could easily find them
  • Grade 1 students combined their service with learning about the calendar. They charted the birthdays of all students in the school and made daily visits to other classrooms to sing “Happy Birthday” and deliver a birthday pencil
  • Grade 2 students offered to open the heavy school doors for others at recess and lunch and offering friendly greetings to students entering the school
  • Grade 3 students decided to partner with the local seniors' centre, where they co-created a history book highlighting the students' technology skills and the seniors' wisdom and experience
  • Grade 4 students adopted the library area and took turns re-shelving books, making displays and joining the Grade 1 class for shared reading time
  • Grade 5/6 students organized a playground leader group that taught younger children new cooperative games, looked after the bins of play equipment at recess and served as positive role models

Middle school

Each year, a rural middle school completes 3 school-wide service learning projects. A planning committee of student representatives and teacher advisors create ideas and begin the initial planning, involving as many students as possible.

They begin with a school-based project in the fall, a local community project for the winter and an international focus at the end of the year that raises awareness and funds for students in developing countries.

Reflections and celebrations for all 3 service learning projects were included in the school yearbook and are highlighted at school-wide assemblies throughout the year and in the community newspaper.

High school

A large urban high school has partnerships with local community groups, including:

  • a seniors facility located across the street
  • the elementary school 3 blocks away
  • the local Newcomer Centre

Each year, the school does at least 10 service learning projects with their partners, often building on work from the previous year. Several of the projects are organized as extra-curricular activities and at least 3 are an extension of specific Career and Technologies Studies (CTS) courses.

Resources

Documents

The Heart of the Matter – Character and Citizenship Education in Alberta Schools

External resources

Youth Engagement Toolkit