Five Stages of Service Learning

Global issues often play out locally. Service learning is a way students can engage in real-world issues while building the knowledge, skills, and experiences that will serve them throughout their lives. I’ve asked Cathryn Berger Kaye, author of The Complete Guide to Service Learning: Proven, Practical Ways to Engage Students in Civic Responsibility, Academic Curriculum, & Social Action, to share her expertise in developing a service learning program.

By Cathryn Berger Kaye

What motivates our work as educators? While raising test scores and achieving accountability may be critical to our everyday tasks, most of us entered education to make a difference in the lives of children, families, and communities: to provide children with optimum learning experiences transferable to their lives outside of school that guide them to adulthood with a solid sense of personal efficacy, and the ability to make choices and decisions healthy for themselves and our society.

Students benefit from service learning, a real-world application of their academic learning while they are still in school. This research-based approach allows them a laboratory to practice, review, reassess, and reflect, all with the guidance and support of knowledgeable teachers. They see the viability and purpose of their study. This process adds rigor to academics, builds interdisciplinary understandings, and deepens learning.

The five stages of service learning provide an exceptional and somewhat familiar template. We follow these stages in the development of many learning experiences, albeit primarily for learning. When we add the critical and valued element of service, we elevate the learning with purposeful application.

The Five Stages of Service Learning


Five stages of service learning

If you imagine that the skills and knowledge you aim to impart in your students as the ingredients, then the five stagesare the recipe.

The five stages constitute a process that is key to students’ effectiveness and critical to the learning of transferable skills and content. Even though each stage is referenced separately, keep in mind that they are linked together and often experienced simultaneously. Visualize how overlays are used in an anatomy book to reveal what is occurring in the human body system by system. Each stage of service learning is like one of these overlays, revealing one part of a dynamic interdependent whole.

Investigation: Includes both the inventory of student interest, skills, and talents, and the social analysis of the issue being addressed. This analysis requires gathering information about the identified need through action research including use of varied approaches: media, interviews of experts, survey of varied populations, and direct observation/personal experiences.

Preparation: Includes the continued acquisition of knowledge that addresses any questions that arise from the investigation; academic content; identification of groups already working towards solutions; organization of a plan with clarification of roles, responsibilities and timelines; and ongoing development of any skills needed to carry the plan successfully to fruition.

Action: Includes the implementation of the plan that usually takes the form of direct service, indirect service, advocacy, or research. Action is always planned with mutual agreement and respect with partners so this builds understanding and perspective of issues and how other people live.

Reflection: Reflection is the connector between each stage of service and also summative. Through reflection students consider their thoughts and feelings (cognition and affect) regarding any overarching essential question or inquiry that is a driving force of the total experience. Reflection informs how the process develops, increases self-awareness, assists in developing future plans, and employs varied multiple intelligences.

Demonstration: Student demonstration captures or contains the totality of the experience including what has been learned, the process of learning, and the service or contribution accomplished. Beginning with investigation, students document all parts of the process, resulting in a complete and comprehensive ability to tell the story of what took place during each stage that includes key informative reflection. Students draw upon their skills and talents in the manner of demonstration, often integrating technology.

At what grade levels can service learning be effective? From kindergarten through grade twelve. We have tremendous evidence of service learning being highly valued by teachers and students in public, independent, and international schools. Students have increased their empathy and understanding of history by interviewing veterans and providing memoirs now treasured by the families of these men and women who have served. Studies of botany have expanded to experimentation in gardening to provide produce in “food deserts” for a welcoming community. Young children have taught yoga to Russian immigrants moving beyond language differences to shared experiences. Imagine transforming a traditional canned food collection, often organized as a competition between classes, into an exploration of poverty and hunger in the community leading to a partnership with a food bank to hold a collection in April when the need is greatest. And what if a computer class revamped the food bank’s website to include how other schools can connect a food drive to academic content? The possibilities are present, simply waiting to be shaped by willing teachers and students eager to have a meaningful voice in how they learn and participate in their community.

Can we integrate service learning in our schools today? Absolutely. Service learning is already deemed a valuable educational approach in schools across the globe. With service learning, student ideas become a reality and the excitement genuine. Contributions made are significant with students and their community as beneficiaries of the process. By discovering and applying their interests and talents along with academic content, skills and knowledge, students bring ideas to life. Service establishes a purpose for learning. Students and the exceptional educators who engage them prove to be valued contributors for our collective well-being, now and in the future.

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