How Service Learning Leads to Deeper Learning5 min read

I once had a group of high school students with very little interest in giving the slightest effort in school. They were not ‘honors’ students and could care less about grades, academic accolades, or pressure from parents to succeed. This group rarely submitted assignments or contributed to class discussion.

But then I invited a guest speaker to my class who was formerly a refugee from Rwanda. She shared how she lost her entire family in the Rwandan genocide and was forced to live in a refugee camp for 17 years with no running water or electricity, until one day she was put on an airplane, without the slightest clue where it would land, ended up in Grand Rapids, Michigan—- in January.

And this woman had never heard of snow before. She thought there was volcano nearby and the white stuff falling from the sky must’ve been a strange, cold ash.

This woman didn’t know how to dress for cold weather; she didn’t know how to use simple household appliances. She was told by a social worker to get on a thing called a bus to go to a thing called a library, to use a thing called a computer to get a thing called a job. She said the first time she got on a city bus, she didn’t know how to signal she needed to get off, and so was stuck on the bus for 8 hours until the driver made her get off at the end of the route.

In January. During a snowstorm.

Much of her assimilation was an intense struggle, and my students were learning about this struggle for the first time. One student raised his hand and asked our guest speaker where she lives, and she shared where, and he realized that is only a mile from his home. When she left that morning, that student exclaimed, “This is stupid.”

I responded, “Wait, what is stupid?”

He said, “It’s stupid no one showed her how to use a bus. I ride the bus all the time and it’s easy.”

“Hmmm, that is stupid, isn’t it? Why don’t you help fix this problem?”

Beginning a Content-Rich Service Learning Project

For the next month, while my students learned about the Industrial Revolution and concepts like modernity, they created tools to help refugees better assimilate into our city. They made flash cards for how to use household appliances that were translated into Swahili. One group created a cookbook for simple dinner ideas. Another group made a how-to video for the city bus. At the end of the project, the students presented these tools to an actual group of social workers and refugees, who are now using them in their agency to this day.

A group of students who gave very little exertion in their academic careers up to this point were working like I’d never seen before. They were successfully collaborating to achieve a common goal. Students were learning how to present and publicly speak so that the professional panel would accept the products they created. They were solving problems and being forced to think outside of the box.

However, the students were also putting the same amount of energy into the expository essays I had them write for this project. This was still school, and there was still academic work to complete. But now the engagement created by this authentic work they were doing was carrying over into the more traditional schoolwork.

Service Learning Creates Deeper Learning

This project is an example of Service Learning. At its core, Service Learning is about making learning for your students authentic and rooted in a cause bigger than themselves. Students who may have not been interested in grades were interested in solving an authentic problem in their community. There was extrinsic motivation pushing them towards strong work. There was also the intrinsic motivation that came from serving others.

Research shows that when students are engaged in purposeful, authentic work, they experience measurable growth in social, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive development. Essentially, when their work has an authentic purpose, they learn to collaborate better, are better behaved, emotionally mature, and they learn content at a deeper level. This is why it is great when schools have Service Learning classes as electives or community service requirements for graduation. However, it also supports the case for incorporating service learning into all subject area classes. Not only are students developing in a more wholistic way, but they are also still gaining proficiency in their academic learning.

Add a Service Component to Schoolwork

Adding authenticity to schoolwork comes down to answering two questions:

  1. What is an authentic problem my students can have a role in solving?
  2. How can we incorporate content learning into the solving of that problem?

From there, much of the work is the same, except now it is being driven by an authentic purpose. For instance, while teaching third grade students about invasive species, they could organize a community event to remove a certain invasive species from a local park. Or during a short story ELA unit, instead of just writing for the gradebook, students could write stories to send to residents at a retirement home. Students could use math skills to collect donations for a certain cause.  

It’s about giving students the opportunity to serve while they are learning specific content and skills. Having a service component creates more inspired work. And the result of that work is deeper learning, but also students who know how to serve others.

If you want to learn more about Project Based Learning, check out this article I wrote.

Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.