Six Myths About Service Learning (Web only)
By Scott Richardson and Michael Josephson
Service learning is the Rodney Dangerfield of education. Students say that it's an "annoying
requirement." Parents say, "My kid will learn more in the classroom than in the community." Teachers
say, "It won't improve test scores." Principals say, "It's a feel-good mandate that kids aren't capable of
We respectfully disagree.
Service learning, when done well, can enrich and invigorate young people's lives in and out of school;
improve academic scores and school climate; strengthen leadership, civic engagement, and workplace
skills; and promote and enhance character development through ethical decision making.
As French poet Thomas Merton said, "The least of the work of learning is done in the classroom." Of
course academic standards are important. But so are horizon-broadening opportunities. The question
becomes: What do you want your education legacy to be, better test scores or more students who
believe that you changed their lives?
You don't have to choose. Your heritage can be both because service learning can boost achievement.
But first you must dispel these six myths about service learning.
1. It doesn't work
As with any instructional methodology, it's true that service learning must be done well to have positive
effects. High-quality programs have been shown to be remarkably effective (Billig, 2002). To guide
schools on how to institute top-notch programs, the National Youth Leadership Council outlined
several research-based standards that define quality practice:
• Meaningful service: The service is significant to participants and beneficiaries, the issues matter
to the students, and the community and the people served experience tangible benefits
• Curriculum link: Projects have concrete learning objectives and address specific academic
• Reflection time: Students consider how the issues they address illuminate their relationship to
• Diversity exposure: Projects promote acceptance among groups, challenge stereotypes, and
demonstrate the value of diversity
• Youth voice: Students have leading roles in choosing the challenges to address and the solutions
• Effective partnership: Strong partnership helps schools and communities sustain projects despite
personnel turnover and other common challenges
• Progress monitoring: Students, teachers, and partners collect and analyze evidence about the
project's quality and adjust and improve as needed
• Duration and intensity: Students are given sufficient time to investigate their community, plan
their project, carry it out, reflect on it, demonstrate what they did before an audience, and
celebrate their accomplishments.
The Council concluded by declaring that students involved in quality projects increase their motivation
to learn, their connection to their school and community, their desire to address community problems,
and their capacity to make healthy choices (Billig, Root, & Jesse, 2005).
Service learning close-up: John Forenti, a faculty member of the Josephson Institute of Ethics's
Character Counts! character-education program and former Tulare County, CA, teacher of the year,
offers an example of how effective service learning can be.
The Sierra Corps is a group of students from La Sierra Charter High School in Visalia, CA. One of
their service-learning projects was to prevent coyotes from decimating the Pronghorn antelope
population in the Carrizo Plain by altering the existing fencing so the antelope could escape. Using
their tremendous physical condition (students in the Corps run five miles daily), the group used relay
runners to leap-frog down the fence line as they fixed the barbed wire. Officials from the Bureau of
Land Management were astounded when the students modified 10 miles of fencing in just three weeks.
Forenti says that the students came to realize that their community exists not just where houses, malls,
schools, or restaurants are located; their community is the entire planet. They learned that their
neighbors aren't just the people they know; all living creatures are their neighbors. Most of all, they
learned that by working together, they could accomplish tasks they could never accomplish alone.
"The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to
serve." --Albert Schweitzer
2. It won't appeal to students, and they won't get anything out of it
Service learning enables students to use their classroom knowledge and skills to tackle community
issues that they care deeply about, which can boost academic achievement, promote civic engagement,
and prepare them for the workplace. What better way to meet your various school mandates to develop
young people into smart, curious, caring, sociable, ethical, productive, globally-aware, community-
Service learning close-up: How teachers respond to service learning depends partly on their
assumptions about how students learn. Take "Carol," a teacher whom University of Minnesota
researcher James Toole followed for three years. When a new principal came to Carol's school and
instituted service learning, she initially resisted. "I'm a settler, not a pioneer," she declared. But as other
teachers began to involve their students in cross-age tutoring and the school's test scores inched up
from last to first in their five-school district, Carol slowly came around.
She started by sending her low-performing sixth graders to read to preschoolers each week. Their
attitudinal changes astonished her. Inspired, she became a convert, ultimately transforming her
classroom. Today, she laughs that she's become "not only a new teacher, but a new person," finding
greater purpose and new success in her profession.
"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others." --Indira Gandhi
3. It won't improve academic scores or school climate
Untrue. Adolescents and teens have a reputation for being selfish, and service learning can be an
effective antidote because it empowers them to create an atmosphere of respect, service, worthiness,
values, community, and a sense of collective responsibility.
As a result, school connectivity and climate improve, students learn better, and they more clearly see
the relevance to school subjects. ("Oh, so that's what science is for.") In addition, when self-absorption
decreases, bullying and hazing dwindle and tolerance and compassion proliferate, enabling principals
to spend less time on disciplinary matters.
Three examples of service learning's effects: Dávila and Mora (2007) found that students engaged in it
significantly outperformed nonparticipating peers in reading and science. Kim and Billig (2003) found
that service-learning students felt more civic responsibility and connection to their community and
school than nonparticipating peers. And Laird and Black (2002) discovered that it reduced the
likelihood that students will drop out of school and smoke cigarettes.
Service learning close-up: In Ferndale, WA, science teacher Chuck Schelle's freshman students work
with the city and the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association to test the water quality at four
locations throughout the year. The students learn data collection and computerized mapping to
determine which waterways need protection and restoration, and they educate community members on
how their actions affect storm water runoff pollution.
"The pupil who is never required to do what he cannot do never does what he can do." --John Stuart
4. It's not for disadvantaged students because they have nothing to contribute
Sadly, this myth has some currency. Service opportunities aren't equally distributed among well-off and
poorer students. Just over two in five impoverished youth report being asked to join a service effort,
although nearly three in five of their better-off peers are asked to pitch in (CNCS, 2007).
Nevertheless, an unshakeable article of faith among service-learning advocates is that all young people
are capable of achieving extraordinary things.
Merely being asked to help can greatly affect a student's self-image. ("They must think I have
something to offer.") The benefits are tangible as well: more opportunities to network, develop concrete
skills, and understand workplace culture. Many service-learning teachers report seeing academic
seriousness and leadership qualities emerge from students who had been struggling in traditional
Service learning close-up: Amanda Terpening of Cascade High School in Oregon leads a class called
Leadership Literacy in which students who are struggling with reading are assigned to tutor elementary
children in reading. The project has shown noticeable gains in both motivation to read and reading
skills among the teens and elementary kids.
The concept is win-win: the teens see a concrete reason to improve their reading skills (the elementary
students are counting on them), and the youngsters see the value in reading (otherwise, why would
teens do it?).
"The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited." --Plutarch
5. It won't benefit students after they graduate
On the contrary, service learning enhances and broadens students by positively affecting countless
aspects of their lives after they leave school: life skills, civic engagement, leadership, citizenship,
compassion, and workplace skills.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an advocacy organization composed of business leaders,
educators, and policymakers, gives students skills and knowledge to succeed in the workplace and in
life. The following chart demonstrates how their themes parallel those of service-learning teachers.
Service-Learning Step Service-Learning Skills Character Development 21st Century Skill
Investigation (of Acquiring and using Builds consciousness communication, media
community conditions information, of ethical dimensions literacy, information
and issues) communicating of life and decisions literacy, social and cross-
Acquiring and using
Increases ability to
information, Flexibility, critical
work cooperatively and
Planning collaborating, thinking, initiative,
communicating, leadership, responsibility
Empowers courage to
Promoting interests, act on one's decisions,
thinking, problem solving,
Action collaborating, builds sense of
Acquiring and using
and civic responsibility, Communication,
deepens community creativity, innovation
and collective ethical Communication,
decision making information literacy
Celebration and inspires
communicating creativity, innovation
Service learning close-up: Kay Augustine, a Character Counts! trainer, character-education consultant,
and former associate director of the Institute for Character Development at Drake University, asked
Allison Wunsch, an alumna of Iowa's Young Leaders of Character, how service learning helped her in
high school and later. Wunsch replied, "It gave me the confidence I needed to do well in school and
life. I learned how to work with others who were different than me and learned that I not only had a
responsibility to those around me but that youth can be actively engaged and positively affect the
community around them. Because I was confident in myself, I was able to make the decisions I knew
were right. They were not only better for me but for those around me."
"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." --Benjamin Franklin
6. It won't promote ethical decision making
Augustine has learned two things while working in service-learning settings. First, when schools give
students the opportunity to be purposefully engaged--and then get out of the way--young people far
exceed any expectations. Second, service learning gives students a reason to make good decisions
because they're engaged and feel valued.
Service learning close-up: "A high school girl came to our service-learning project after making some
poor decisions," Augustine told us. "She learned how her decisions affect others and helped teach other
youth about decision making. This young woman, at risk of dropping out of high school when she
started the project, not only graduated but got a junior college degree as well."
But the student Augustine remembers the most was involved with her on a multi-year service-learning
project. Starting out as a shy, withdrawn participant, the girl slowly blossomed as she grew in
confidence, passion, and leadership. One day she said something Augustine has never forgotten: "I
always knew I could be a leader. I just never had anything to lead."
Scott Richardson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the K-12 program coordinator for Learn and Serve
America K-12 at the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Michael Josephson (email@example.com) is founder and president of the Josephson Institute of Ethics
and Character Counts!.