Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_130



Service-learning (SL) is widely defined as a form of experiential education that integrates meaningful community service into the curriculum. SL contains two main elements: engagement within the community (service) and reflection on that engagement (learning). According to Bringle and Hatcher, these elements should be balanced by expecting students to “participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs” and “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” (1995, p. 112). SL is well established in K-16 schools (primary, secondary, and higher education) in North America, Western Australia, and New Zealand.

Definitions of service-learning can be divided in two main groups. The first group of definitions describes SL as a form of education, and the second group of definitions defines SL as an educational philosophy. Definitions of SL as a form of education share three key elements that differentiate SL from other forms of experiential education. These elements are structured extensive reflection, application of learning in real-life settings, and relevant service. Student reflection encourages integration of theory and practice. Application of learning in real-life contexts should complement objectives of students’ future careers. Therefore, service needs to be relevant, meaningful, and tightly integrated into the curriculum. Participants in SL should demonstrate a balance of abstract and concrete knowledge, the development of social intelligence, and civic responsibility.

Service-learning as a philosophy is characterized by “human growth and purpose, a social vision, an approach to community, and a way of knowing” (Kendall 1990, p. 23 as cited in Jacoby 2014, p. 5). Based on the assumption that engagement in community service may cause changes in social reality, SL belongs to the tradition of radical/critical pedagogy. SL is related to the Freirean concept of educational praxis, since it links concrete experiences to abstract theoretical concepts and broadens the perception of power and change. Using the concept of history, SL encompasses the broad context of addressed social issues, various responses to those issues, and efforts to address them. SL is based on dialogue, which is prerequisite for the formation of partnerships between teachers, students, and communities.

SL is usually placed under the same umbrella with student volunteerism. However, volunteerism is focused on the service being provided and its benefits for the community, while SL puts equivalent focus on students and the community. The active civic participation in SL distinguishes it from various forms of active learning (e.g., field studies, internships, or problem-based learning). According to Eyler and Giles, “the thing that separates service-learning from other field-based and experiential forms of learning is the service, the giving to others, and students seem aware of this particular value” (1999, p. 37). Unlike various forms of field-based education, which are usually more beneficial to providers (students) than to the community, SL defines both students and community members as direct and equal beneficiaries of service.

Four Stages of Service-Learning

SL projects typically consist of four interlocked stages: investigation and preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration (Kaye 2004). During investigation and preparation, students identify a community need or issue that needs to be addressed and analyze key resources they can offer (skills, interests, and talents). Investigation is performed through different approaches: interviews, surveys, books, the Internet, and personal observations, and it requires teamwork. At the end of this stage, students document the nature and extent of the identified community need. Investigation and preparation consists of acquisition of relevant knowledge and skills and their alignment to curricular goals. Here, teachers define relevant learning outcomes and cross-reference them with student interests, identified community needs, and related academic content. Students are often placed in smaller groups. Roles, responsibilities, and prerequisite skills of each group member are clarified, and project timelines are developed. In collaboration with the community, students identify and analyze different viewpoints toward the same problem. In this way, they learn about the “historical, sociological, cultural, economic, and political contexts that underlie the needs or issues” (Jacoby 2014, p. 3). In the tradition of critical education, SL pedagogy might sometimes be linked to a progressive political agenda. Experiential learning is paired with critical analysis and reflection, leading students to place their service inside a social context through academic readings.

During action, students implement the planned project, engage in meaningful and personally relevant service, and apply the newly acquired knowledge and skills. Action may take a form of direct or indirect service, research, or advocacy and should represent a collaborative and safe environment to learn, grow, and make mistakes. Reflection takes place before, during, and after the service and links all stages of SL. Reflection should foster empathy for others. It integrates experience and aims to situate emotional, cognitive, and social features of experience into a larger context. Multiple challenging reflection activities (such as reflection journals, group in-class or online discussions, directed writings, portfolios, role-play, etc.) are vehicles for assessment of individual student performance and SL projects at large. Through critical reflection, students perceive influence of their service on the community and themselves. Using another concept attributed to Freire, students simultaneously learn how to read the word and the world (Freire 1972).

In demonstration, students summarize their SL experience. They document the entire project to be able to draw on all stages of their service-learning experience and use project results for improvement. Practical activities during demonstration include public presentations, blogs, portfolios, videos, and other ways of communicating developed competencies and achieved outcomes within the community.

Benefits and Criticism of Service-Learning

SL has five major stakeholders: students, teachers, universities/schools, community partners, and local community members (individuals, groups, or organizations). Understanding among stakeholders is established through SL partnerships. Students, working as a team, are engaged in real-life SL projects that complement their theoretical learning and stimulate deep thinking about themselves and their relationships to the society. Educational aspects of SL are evaluated based on the connection between learning and service, and practical aspects of SL are evaluated in relation to the community. In lieu with the tradition of critical pedagogy, students engaged in SL are treated as equal stakeholders with a strong voice in preparation, implementation, and evaluation of projects. Service-learning research brings consistent evidence of students’ improvement in problem solving, communication skills, teamwork, intercultural competency, leadership, and career decision-making (Carrington and Selva 2010; Harris et al. 2010; Kenworthy-U’ren 2008; Milne et al. 2008, Prentice and Robinson 2010, as cited in Smith and Shaw 2012, p. 1). Students also report richer and longer-lasting relationships between them and teachers (Pribbenow 2005, as cited in Workman and Berry 2010).

In their review of relevant literature, Workman and Berry (2011) indicate that teachers actively learn from and about their students. SL enables them to position their schools and universities as service-branded and to establish various networks. Teachers report the following benefits of SL: taking on new roles, enhanced teaching through active mentorship, building richer connections with students, fostering stronger student engagement, and increased relevance of teaching and learning. Community partners begin to perceive teachers as pragmatic, engaged experts, and teachers become more aware of their own impact on the local community. Community partners (such as NGOs or local authorities) and their clients from the local community provide learning opportunities for students, benefiting in return from the valuable human capital. “Satisfied community partners sometimes offer students paid internships and final professional career placements upon graduation,” while “universities sharing the SL mission become leaders for cross-institutional teaching and research opportunities” (Workman and Berry 2011, p. 137). SL projects enhance reputation of educational institutions, since community partners provide information to other community organizations about their experiences. They also provide universities and schools with the framework for the development of long-term community partnerships and strategic planning.

SL is commonly critiqued based on its longitudinal impacts on all stakeholders, particularly students and the community. In SL, student performance and learning is based on reflection, which is very hard to assess (Clayton et al. 2013). Furthermore, most SL is course based, so limited time frames and numbers of engaged participants may twist its focus toward students and their learning achievements. In such cases, teaching and learning might be conducted at the cost of the community or even preserve unjust social structures (Roschelle et al. 2000 as cited in Mitchell 2008). SL is also critiqued on theoretical grounds. Critics point at the lack of an articulated conceptual framework, where SL is at the same time interpreted as a pedagogical strategy that enhances student learning, a field of education, a philosophical approach, a vehicle for raising student empathy, self-awareness and social intelligence, and a radical social movement. They seek for

a more comprehensive approach to the assessment of service learning institutionalization that can provide researchers and practitioners with the kinds of data and evidence needed to more fully understand the most effective strategies, structures, and policies for facilitating the institutionalization of service learning. (Clayton et al. 2013)

Some critics are also concerned that SL might reinforce stereotypes and aggravate power asymmetries between cultural and social groups (Stewart and Webster 2010).

In response to practical critiques, SL community has identified a plurality of perspectives and value-based frameworks that unify service-learning. A range of quality standards and core principles for service-learning have been offered, most notably the four Rs: respect, reciprocity, relevance, and reflection (Butin 2003 as cited in Smith and Shaw 2012, p. 2). Mutual respect among all stakeholders is prerequisite for supporting diversity, promotion of tolerance, and acceptance of others. Respect needs to be demonstrated to views, circumstances, and ways of life of service recipients. Reciprocity indicates a value exchange process which benefits all stakeholders. Students enhance their learning; teachers engage with the community; and educational institutions improve quality of their work, while the community benefits from direct outcomes of SL projects. Relevance is achieved through integration of service and curriculum. Finally, intentional reflection about the service-learning experience enables students to examine their beliefs and make their learning meaningful.

In response to theoretical critiques, scholars have put forward a complex pedagogical and philosophical concept of SL based on multiple theoretical models (Jacoby 2014, p. 6). This concept draws from Dewey’s philosophy of experience, its links to reflective thinking, and the importance of interaction between students and the community. SL is also based on David Kolb’s learning cycle and the psychological importance of reflection. Emphasizing social responsibility, change, and social justice, recent literature situates SL with the tradition of critical pedagogy. This has emerged into a progressive pedagogical orientation called critical service-learning, which requires “students to not only participate in communities, but to transform them as engaged and active citizens” (Mitchell 2008).

Service-Learning and Digital Technologies

Until recently, SL was widely assumed incompatible with educational technologies: SL puts emphasis on community engagement and hands-on practice, while technology implies individual work with computers. However, technological development has slowly but surely brought SL closer to digital technologies. Service-e-learning (SeL) (also called technology-based service-learning, e-service-learning, and digital service-learning) is “an integrative pedagogy that engages learners through technology in civic inquiry, service, reflection, and action” (Dailey-Hebert et al. 2008, p. 1 as cited in Waldner et al. 2012). SeL links educational technology to a meaningful community service, utilizing technological devices to enhance civic engagement and filling the technological gaps within the community.

In the network society, environmental and social issues, online communities, and online service span across country borders. Working in teams, students in SeL use technologies such as teleconferencing, blogs, virtual classrooms, online videos, discussion boards, digital storytelling, etc. As a consequence, they are able to address needs and issues beyond their local contexts, develop cultural understanding, and engage in service-learning projects that expand from local to global. Dealing with complex issues of abroad communities, students develop understanding of needs and issues in their own communities, develop cultural sensitivity, overcome stereotypes and prejudices, and obtain a more nuanced understanding of cultural differences.

Waldner et al. (2012) list four types of SeL courses: Type I (instruction is fully online and service is on site), Type II (instruction is fully on site and service is fully online), Type III (instruction and service may be both on site and online), and Type IV (instruction and service are fully online). The identified types of courses bring various benefits (e.g., independence of time and space) and various limitations (e.g., technological challenges, communication barriers, and teacher workload). However, SL can be aligned with various other approaches beyond e-learning. Competing approaches to the relationships between SL and digital technologies, most notably those based on connectivism (such as networked learning), might transcend some limitations of SeL and bring fresh benefits. Based on community engagement, contemporary SL might also benefit from research on digital cultures and their complex relationships with education. As an evolving educational practice, contemporary SL needs to be continually thought of in relation to digital technologies.


SL aims to support the development of basic twenty-first century skills: critical and creative thinking, reflection, communication, collaboration, information literacy, and social skills. SL is closely linked to other field-based and experiential forms of learning, but its success is conditioned by active civic participation. The way in which SL is implemented varies greatly between educational institutions. Some institutions emphasize social responsibility, change, and social justice and advocate critical pedagogy. Others are more oriented toward the international communities and cross-cultural education: Furthermore, there is also a growing trend of serving online communities through online civic action. Yet, what unifies different forms of SL is a value-based framework with the core standards such as respect, reciprocity, relevance, and reflection. Research documents worldwide integration of SL into curriculum and its positive impacts on student ability to develop relevant and situated knowledge. In a rapidly changing educational landscape, educational institutions continuously seek to discover best SL practices, address changing student populations, and achieve institutional sustainability.

There are several trends that might impact the future of SL. Civic mission and integration of community engagement into curricula have become priorities of many educational institutions, and they continue to expand strategic investments in community partnerships. Educational institutions are faced with pressing requirements to evaluate the outcomes of SL in quantitative and quantitative ways and to focus on creation of interdependent community partnerships. With the globalization of education, SL has also become progressively internationalized. In order to support students with diverse backgrounds and abilities, in a variety of settings, educational institutions are faced with the challenge of integrating digital technologies and SL. Global sustainability, along with the huge potential of educational technology, is the continuous challenge that SL will need to address in the times to come.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Information and Communication Sciences, Faculty of Humanities and Social SciencesUniversity of ZagrebZagrebCroatia