by Laurence Myers
K-12 Service Learning Coordinator
American School of Dubai
With a good number of years under my belt as a Service Learning Coordinator I am finding some "recurring themes" that become evident only after work has begun on infusing service learning (and sustainability education?) into the classroom. The biggest issues is what was informally called "white space" by Cathy Berger Kaye when she visited the International School of Kuala Lumpur a while back. This search for white space is similar in many schools where curriculum is developed (as it should be) and largely defined by common agreements (as it should be).
There is much anecdotal evidence in my experience experience to suggest that service learning is an excellent way of allowing student initiated learning (in a developmentally appropriate way). Likewise, the conversations that take place with the infusion of service learning revolve around topics of authenticity, allowing students to lead in their own learning, the plethora of opportunities for integrated learning and lots of real-life connections. In short, service learning has proven itself to be a great instructional methodology for combining curriculum with authentic learning experiences.
But there are a few hurdles that schools need to overcome for service learning to truly shine. One of the biggest challenges seems to be the creation of "space" in a curriculum to allow for authentic experiences to take shape. Truthfully it's simpler to have a unit packed with pre-determined activities and learning experiences that fill the entire timeframe of the class, especially for educators who have a difficult time relinquishing a bit of control in their classroom. But it might come as no surprise that, in the absence of "space", authenticity becomes more challenging to find and the inquiry that guides learning is thwarted to some degree, leading to questions such as the proverbial "why do I need to know this?".
In addition to the "space" in the planning of units, another often identified challenge is the school schedule itself. Some successful school programs have solved this by creating flexibility in the daily schedule but even when the schedule itself needs to be defined, the fact that service learning is the ultimate "integrator" means that units and lessons can be done concurrently, allowing for "smarter, not harder" planning and execution.
The third challenge to "space", in my experience, is that the fact that in schools where service learning is new, there is tendency for teachers to want more time to get their heads around what service learning is and how it can be planned and executed. Typically what this means is that teachers who want to pilot service learning in the classroom push it back a bit in the school year. I have found that when has happened, planning for "year two" almost always includes an earlier introduction of the service learning cycle in order to allow for authentic opportunities to take shape.
In my experience what has come of the post-service learning debriefs (following a pilot year) is that:
As with most other things, so too the infusion of service learning is a developmental process. The experience itself often serves as a change catalyst for the better and serves as a necessary component to cultural change within a school. For those who have utilized service learning - and made the necessary adjustments based on their personal experiences - have been able to work out the "space" variable so as to more authentically engage their students who, in turn, develop a real sense of purpose in their learning. All great stuff!
This blog is currently being updated by Laurence Myers, K-12 Service Learning Coordinator at the American School of Dubai. We are hoping the blog becomes a compilation of posts from a variety of people in the region and around the world. Want to add something? Send it along!