The importance of service learning in education

By Jo Binns, ISB's strategic learning coordinator

Modern schools are increasingly recognizing the value of students learning through charitable and community projects, so much so that some schools even have members of staff dedicated to this area.


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I've been in that position for two years at ISB, and I'm interested in how service learning is driving educators to rethink the answers to fundamental questions.

Questions such as how does a person learn empathy? How can we teach it to our students? How do we know if/when students have really developed the skill of being empathetic?

Service learning is touted as having many benefits for students, and one of the main reasons educators give for wanting to involve their students in service learning is the development of empathy.


Service learning in Bali


How can we help students become empathetic?

So how can we do it? I wish I could answer that question with certainty. However, I do know that, as teachers, we are used to creating learning experiences for our students with their learning in mind. Our students and their needs are always at the center of our work. I don't think this can be the case if we want to involve our students in service learning that is designed to develop empathy.

The community, the people, the issue, the environment, whatever is the focus for service, it must be at the center of the experience of service learning.

Students need to look outside themselves and see the needs of the other. Those needs, the needs of the beneficiaries of our service, should be at the very heart of this type of learning, rather than solely on the needs of our students.

If we design service learning by focusing only on what our students get out of it, can they really have the chance to experience the feelings of empathy that we are aiming for?

This is why we need to think of service as so much more than just the action of 'doing' the service.

We also need to ask ourselves some hard questions about who service is for. I like these questions from service educators Claire Bennett and Daniela Papi in a 2014 magazine article: "Is [the service] altruistic? Is it effective? And for whom?"

If it's effective only for our students, then maybe they aren't going to learn what we hope they will.

So perhaps it becomes not so much about service learning, but about learning to serve. The experience would then become not only the act of giving service, but also what we learn before, during, and after the service has happened. This might include areas such as need analysis and evaluation of the service given.

Incorporating these ideas not only empowers students with compassion but helps them develop a deeper understanding of the service they are giving and the issues surrounding the discovered need.

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