Saturday, June 2, 2012

The potential for service learning

Three articles on civics education and citizenship were published in the April edition of Educational Leadership Magazine, and all three articles cited the most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in which only 24 percent of high school seniors performed at or above a proficient level in their knowledge of citizenship. These articles cite an increased focus on math and reading in schools—to the detriment of the social sciences that were once a primary rationale for the development of a public school system—as the culprit for deteriorating performance in civics. 

So, how can we enhance our student’s understanding of civics and citizenship, preserve our democratic way of life through our educational institutions, serve students more effectively within the confines of a high-stakes testing environment, and address the achievement gaps that exist among various student groups?

One recent study (reference below) published in the Journal of Experiential Education found that community service and service learning were linked to reduced gaps between high and low SES students in many indicators of academic success including achievement motivation, school engagement, bonding to school, homework, and reading for pleasure. Low SES students with service integrated into learning had higher or equal levels in measures of the above indicators of academic success when compared to high-SES students without integrated service experiences. Furthermore, low-SES students with service had higher grades and better attendance than low-SES students without service experiences.

Service learning is a teaching strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities and is supported by a substantial research base that suggests its integration into curriculum and instruction, in a wide range of content areas, has great benefits for all students including those most often marginalized by narrow instructional approaches.

While the authors of this study admit to being unable to statistically show causation, they assert that their findings, in the context of the greater research base about experiential learning, support the notion that service learning is effective. They cite one longitudinal study that found that emerging volunteers (those who began in grades 7-9 rather than 6-8) had significantly higher grade point averages than those who had never volunteered or faded in their volunteering after eighth grade.

Furthermore, the authors recognized the wide range of research that links SES to educational outcomes including the correlations between stable family life, exposure to violence, and cognitive stimulation outside of school to student academic performance. However, they also cite research that indicates other factors can be just has influential including the components that comprise a “developmental attentiveness” approach to teaching and learning as a compliment to the standards-based approach. This research, they note, shows that participation in extracurricular activities, the use of cooperative, active student learning methods, a caring school climate, and community service can have an equally impactful influence as SES on student achievement.

  • Scales, P. C., Roehlkepartain, E. C., Neal, M., Kielsmeier, C., & Benson, P. L. (2006). Reducing Academic Achievement Gaps: The Role of Community Service and Service-Learning, 29(1), 38-60.

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