The Importance of Service Learning

The Importance of Service Learning

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When a woman approached Benjamin Franklin following the concluding session of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the fall of 1787 and asked what sort of government the delegates had come up with, Franklin famously replied: "A republic, madam, if you can keep it." The relevance of that notable statement transcended centuries and applied itself not only to national politics. The People’s participation in maintaining an agreeable government depends on a collective activism regarding both state and local civic affairs.

Arizonans must become more active in the multiple facets of public service. In a state that has experienced tremendous population growth over the past couple decades, these migrants have found themselves disconnected from their new communities. In addition, there is a demand to increase the rate of volunteering, as more communities struggle with the current recession and state budget cuts. There is also a need to boost voter participation; citizens of a diverse state such as Arizona should take advantage of available political forums to contribute their varied opinions and solutions – or else legislation passed won’t reflect the true wishes of the people.

One way to ensure a civically engaged population is to nurture and promote amongst youth and teenagers the value of participating in one’s community, with the hope that involvement will continue into adulthood. Most school districts in Arizona do not require students to volunteer as a graduation requirement. Those that do, necessitate a number of hours to be completed and logged individually; for example, Deer Valley Unified School District in Maricopa County requires eight hours of volunteering during a student’s senior year. Of course any opportunity for one to help society should be applauded – however, this particular process negates cooperative long-term attachment to a beneficial project and does not incorporate knowledge learned in class, or apply meaning in a real-life context. The implementation of Service-learning programs into public school curriculum would uphold useful skills associated with community involvement and citizenship, as well as address problems in real settings rather than do repetitious tasks in seclusion.

Service-learning is defined as a “course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995).

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The term was defined by educators Robert Sigmon and William Ramsey who wanted to describe the combination of conscious educational growth with the accomplishment of certain tasks that met genuine human needs. The phrase “service-learning” was first officially implemented in 1966 to describe a project that linked eastern Tennessee College students with a tributary development organization in the area.

A recent example of a successful service learning project within the public education system can be seen at a Michigan high school. The Broadcast Media Club at L'Anse Creuse High School was created during the 2007-2008 school year to help students learn the art of broadcasting. The club is open to students in 9-12 grades and all participants are given a unique opportunity to participate in community service. The club broadcasts nearly 60 events throughout the year thanks to LCHS' closed-circuit network and also records its programs on DVD. Most of those programs are sports highlights, happenings throughout the district, staff interviews, and community service events.

A venture can be as simple as an English class partnering with a local elementary school, as high school students read with and become mentors to kindergarteners over the duration of a year, like at Denfeld High School in Minnesota. It can go far beyond the classroom walls, like with Florida’s Learn & Serve project at Dunnellon Middle School in which students engaged in environmental protection and improvement activities – conducting ongoing water quality monitoring in the rivers, removing exotic vegetation in the state park, and giving presentations to other students about their experiences.

Other examples include high schools creating a community entrance meant to be inviting for passersby on the highway while working with Idaho’s Transportation Department, restoring an old historic trolley as woodworking teenagers repair and recreate parts, media classes interview people who lived in and are working on the trolley, and computer classes recreate a 3-dimensional electronic image of the trolley. Unlike the general activities associated with community service – volunteering at food banks or nursing homes – there is no one example that epitomizes exactly what a service learning project can be. It is that elastic innovation which allows specific community needs to be met while corresponding with classroom curriculum.

A number of studies have been conducted showing promising results of the academic impact of service-learning. The impact of Service-Learning on Transitions to Adulthood was a nationally representative survey that examined the ways in which service-learning involvement affected youths’ development of attributes associated with adulthood. According to the results, “compared to their peers, young adults who participated in K-12 service-learning were more likely to discuss politics or community issues and vote in an election year, more politically and socially connected to their communities, both as leaders and role models, and more active members of society.” (Martin, Neal, Kielsmeier, & Crossley, 2006).

Over the past decades the merits of this educational application have been noted, especially within K-12 public school education. It is not beyond the purview of state governments to mandate or encourage districts by incentive to implement service-learning in public school curriculum. Currently, seven states include service-learning in the state's education standards, while three more encourage the use of service-learning as a mechanism for increasing student achievement and engagement. The most notable legislation a state has passed on the topic occurred in 1992, when the Maryland State Board of Education adopted a mandatory service requirement for all seniors graduating in 1997. Each of the school districts in Maryland has since implemented such requirements differently in order to fit the variant needs of their local communities.

The promotion of service-learning in Arizona’s school districts will foster a sense of community in citizens, thus chiseling away apathy and resulting in a collective willingness to partake in all aspects of civil service. The incorporation of critical thinking in and out of the classroom creates an innovative and cohesive generation better prepared to further Arizona’s place as a competitive and prosperous state.

Works cited:

Bringle, R.G., & Hatcher, J.A. (1995). A service-learning curriculum for faculty. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2, 112-122. Contributor: Bob Bringle
Martin, S., Neal, M., Kielsmeier, J., & Crossley, A. (2006). The impact of service-learning on transitions to adulthood. In J. Kielsmeier, M. Neal, and A. Crossley (Eds.), Growing to Greatness 2006: The State of Service-Learning Project. Saint Paul, MN: National Youth Leadership Council.
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