service-learning tips for elementary school teachers

I’m going to meet today with the faculty of an urban k-8 school that has adopted service-learning as a pervasive strategy. I’ve personally conducted service-learning with high school and college students and have helped study the effects of service-learning on adolescents. My experience with the early grades is much more limited. However, CIRCLE recently evaluated a Massachusetts 8th-grade program called “Green in the Middle,” which encourages environmental service projects; we found good effects on the students’ academic performance and motivations. Examples of their projects:

  • Kids studied the science of composting and began composting cafeteria waste in their school (see the curriculum with links to appropriate science standards);
  • Kids studied the effects of Styrofoam on their environment and made a PowerPoint for the school administration to advocate for using alternative materials in the cafeteria
  • Kids grew vegetables on the school grounds, made them into healthy cooked food, and gave the food to families.

I am also involved in a voluntary multi-state effort to revise social studies standards for grades k-12. Our job is not to write service-learning standards, but we are thinking about what kids should learn in the early grades about society, citizenship, and communities. Service-learning may be one way to attain some of those goals.

Here are some points that I am thinking of making:

Service-learning means collaborative work of public value combined with academic learning.

Service-learning should benefit a community, but the community need not be outside the school. It can be the classroom or the school itself.

Service-learning must involve actual work and must produce public goods–but “work” and “goods” can be defined broadly. Digging in a garden is one kind of work; critically analyzing a state law is another. If an individual student writes an analysis for the teacher’s eyes alone, that is not service-learning, but if students pool their knowledge and publish their analysis on a public website, that is service.

The concept of “service” is attractive and even compelling to many people, who think that we should serve others more than we do. It is intrinsic to the Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, among others. But it can also be problematic in several respects. It can imply that some people are privileged and have an obligation to serve other people. In almost any circumstance, that implies an inappropriate and inaccurate distinction between the people with assets and responsibilities and the others, who mainly have needs. That distinction would be particularly problematic in a school like the one I will visit this afternoon, which is genuinely diverse socioeconomically and where people are fairly conscious of disparities within the student body. We do not want students to conclude that some families need service and others ought to serve.

Another problem is that “service” can seem un-serious: not real academic work, and not like what adults are paid to do. For these reasons, I actually prefer the concept of public work to service-learning, but the phrase “service-learning” is well established and can support excellent teaching if properly understood.

There is evidence that service-learning is good pedagogy. It is motivating, because students tackle real problems. It is intellectually challenging. Students investigate ideas and information not to fulfill apparently arbitrary requirements from the teacher or the state, but in order to solve problems that seem important to them–which is how adults use their brains. It requires collaboration and discussion, which are essential skills for the 21st-century workplace. And it integrates ethical reflection with intellectual work.

But service-learning is not automatically or consistently effective. The quality and impact vary greatly. Sometimes the academic element is weak. Sometimes the students do not really serve their community. Very often, even in excellent programs, the students fail to solve social problems and may lose a sense of confidence and motivation. This is such a frequent problem that I think it is the great dilemma for our field. The more we encourage kids to tackle problems that feel important and authentic to them, the more we set them up to fail.

Sometimes, teachers try to maximize student voice. They gather the class and say (in effect), “Kids, we are going to do service-learning. It’s up to you to decide what issues to address, develop a plan, and execute it during this year (or during this month).” No wonder the students fail. That is not how adults do civic work. Adults citizens rarely start from scratch, and we don’t impose arbitrary deadlines on ourselves. Instead, we almost always enter ongoing projects and organizations. We may adjust the current course; we do not invent it.

By the way, the burden on teachers is also unreasonable if they must develop a new curriculum every year to match the students’ chosen service project.

I think students–most especially at the early grades–are best served by ongoing service-learning projects. They should be told (in effect), “We have a community garden at this school. It has been designed and built by students to serve environmental and social needs. It already works, but it needs your help and your ideas. You won’t solve social problems like hunger and global warming, but you will contribute.” Over time, if a school builds up a series of such projects, it can begin to offer students attractive choices while also making a real difference in the community.