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Implementing a National Service–Learning Program

By Keith Wilson - posted Wednesday, 31 August 2011

State and Federal education departments in Australia are beginning to acknowledge the efficacy of service–learning as a valid, powerful pedagogy, but progress towards levels of establishment found in the United States is slow and duplicitous. What’s needed is a collaborative commitment from national authorities, similar to the SEANet organisation, to oversee the implementation of a national service–learning program. This ensures that pitfalls and reinvention are minimised.

The Australian Government spends millions of dollars promoting values education although the reasons for such initiatives are not fully explained. The general idea appears to be that if we teach the young values then our society will be set on firm foundations. Unfortunately teaching values is as boring for both teachers and students as teaching health education, which it is closely related. Students spot an agenda as quickly and they simply turn off as it occurs to them that this class is designed to make them good. It is not that our problem is we do not know the difference between good and evil; we learn that in kindergarten. The popular narratives of lifestyle and material progress now form our characters and redemption is achieved through affirming our values. Ernest Hemingway regarded such token gestures, over 50 years ago, as mistaking motion for action. One way to put values into action is through service–learning.

Service–learning is an instructional approach that engages students while increasing academic achievement by providing rigor and relevance in the curriculum. It promotes cognitive, social–emotional, and experiential engagement in meaningful learning. Because young people are given an opportunity to make a difference through the knowledge and skills they are learning in school, service–learning gives them more motivation to learn, understanding of how to put their learning to good use, develops an ethic of efficacy, and gives them a sense of democracy in action. In quality service–learning experiences, teachers guide students through a learning process that facilitates high academic performance and empowers them to enact genuine social change in their communities. Service–learning can transform our schools through systemic change by delivering a 21st century education resulting in a narrowing of the achievement gap and increased student engagement.


Service–learning is a method that:

  • Ensures students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organised service experiences that meet actual community needs and are coordinated in collaboration with the school and community;
  • Develops critical 21st century skills thereby preparing students to be competitive in a global economy such as critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, creativity and innovation, information literacy, and global awareness;
  • Integrates intentionally into students’ academic curriculum and provides structured time for a student to think, talk, or write about their participation throughout the service experience;
  • Increases student engagement in and ownership of the learning process;
  • Is supported by regular assessment to inform progress monitoring, provide evidence for data–based decision–making and drive continuous improvement;
  • Allows teachers to focus on curriculum delivery rather than classroom management;
  • Strengthens the respect between students and teachers;
  • Contextualises the new national curriculum; and 
  • Puts values into action.

Teachers who use service–learning are significantly more likely to use high quality teaching strategies like cooperative learning, participate in projects integrating technology and requiring data collection, use primary resources, and make meaningful connections to the community.A variety of studies have shown evidence of a range of achievement–related benefits from service–learning, including improved attendance, higher assessment averages, enhanced preparation for the workforce, enhanced awareness and understanding of social issues, greater motivation for learning, and heightened engagement in pro–social behaviors.

Service–learning can significantly reduce the achievement gap between affluent and low–income students. Schools in high poverty areas are less likely to employ service–learning as a teaching strategy, yet research has shown this is a particularly effective pedagogy for use in such schools. Low–income students who participated in service opportunities and had lengthier participation in service–learning had better school attendance and grades than low–income students who did not participate.

Established Service–Learning Best Practice in the United States

In 1998 the W.K. Kellogg Foundation launched Learning In Deed, a national initiative to engage more young people in service to others as part of their academic life. The concept at the heart of the initiative was service–learning. The Foundation continues to support service–learning because it believes it engages youth in a powerful way that can help ensure a brighter future for the nation. Working with teachers, administrators, community leaders, parents, students, policymakers and national leaders, the Foundation commits substantial resources to this effort. The Foundation believes that quality service–learning, by engaging youth in their schools and communities, can boost students' academic achievement, foster a lifetime commitment to civic participation, improve personal development skills and prepare students for a more productive and meaningful working life.


Maryland was the first state in the United States to require high school students to engage in service-learning activities as a condition of graduation. The program is overseen by the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). Each of the 24 school districts in Maryland implements the service-learning graduation requirement differently because they tailor the specifics of their program to their local community. Despite these variances, all 24 Maryland school systems infuse service-learning into existing courses as all or part of their plan.

By adding experiential, community-based service activities to existing curricula, teachers enhance their students' learning. In most cases, students complete all three service-learning elements -preparation, action, and reflection - as part of their regular school day although students may carry out one or more elements as part of a class and perform the remaining piece(s) on their own after school or on weekends. Some students conduct independent service-learning projects where they are given guidelines stating how much service is expected and which organisations are appropriate sites for service.

Based on the evidence collected through service–learning and broader educational research, it can reasonably be concluded that high quality service–learning is an effective component of high quality instruction which will lead to increased academic achievement. It is also well–documented that ongoing high quality professional development and collaboration is an important element in changing instructional practices. Inclusion of service–learning preparation and training of high quality teachers and administrators, as an essential component of professional development, holds tremendous promise for increasing the effectiveness of instruction in raising students’ academic achievement.

Specific recommendations for advancing service–learning practice:

  • Develop a cascade model of professional development in service–learning that provides ongoing skill development, including development of exemplar models, mentoring, implementation that fosters continuous improvement, and serving as a mentor for other educators;
  • Allocate or prioritise funding that specifically addresses support for ongoing professional development and teacher mentoring in high quality service–learning practice;
  • Develop leadership institutes and support systems that assist school and district leaders in simultaneously adopting the five critical components for institutionalisation of service–learning: vision and leadership; curriculum and assessment; community–school partnerships; professional development; and continuous improvement;
  • Allocate or prioritise funding for districts to institutionalise service–learning throughout the educational experience, incorporating the instructional practice into the expectation for all teachers as well as the assessment process in documenting student progress;
  • Foster the advancement of service–learning in teacher preparation programs through funding priorities and high quality teacher requirements;
  • Place more emphasis on departmental support and public policy, to advance service–learning as part of education reform and teacher quality initiatives;
  • Develop and implement service–learning programs that contextualise the national curriculum.

A well–rounded education is one that intertwines individual achievement outcomes with educating for the common good. Public education demands that we strive to create responsible, competent citizens who understand that creating a better world is the responsibility of each and every citizen. Service–learning experiences provide an opportunity for integrated teaching and learning across academic disciplines, effectively using technology to access and use information, and fostering a collaborative learning environment among students, teachers, principals, other school staff, parents, and the wider community. 

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About the Author

Keith Wilson is the Director of Learn and Serve Australia, an advocate organisation bringing the service-learning message to Australians. He has a masters degree from the University of Sydney and works with special needs students. Keith has presented papers and workshops on service–learning at several conferences and runs regular webinars.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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