Foundations of Service Learning

Foundations of Service Learning


Foundations of Service Learning

Foundations of Service Learning

Published: August, 2009

Published: August, 2009

Foundations of Service Learning

Published: August, 2009

Page 1 of 9


The mission of St. Thomas School is to develop responsible citizens of a global society. In partnership with parents, we inspire and motivate intellectually curious students. Our small, nurturing environment supports the acquisition of a broad academic foundation with an emphasis on critical thinking, leadership skills, and the development of strong character and spiritual awareness.

Curriculum with Coherence • Commitment to Character • Community of Learners • Climate for Learning


At STS, students embark on an educational journey from the moment they enter school. At the heart of the program are our Guiding Principles. We believe that a child’s

educational journey must be balanced betweeen the academic and affective domains. Within the academic domain, core knowledge, skills and understandings are developed across seven primary disciplines. Within the affective domain our focus putting nine core virtues into action.

We believe that certain skills transcend specific disciplines and grade levels. Therefore, five core learning skills are integrated throughout the curriculum: communication, technology, thinking, research, and self-management. Academically, students are expected not only to acquire knowledge and skills, but to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate what they learn. In support of growth of character and spirit, students engage in experiences that call upon them to explore, reflect, choose, act, and lead.


What does a commitment to service look like within an elementary school? How can we make young students aware of needs within the greater community? How can we empower our students to feel like they can actually do something about the challenges of the world? In what productive ways can service learning relate to classroom learning? What does it imply for leadership skills and character development? How can we make this whole process meaningful and engaging to our children?

St. Thomas School has a long tradition of service to the community. Service-learning provides experiential opportunities for students to exercise their critical thinking and leadership skills. Through investigating, understanding, and bringing their service to the needs of their community, our students gain empathy, develop character, and broaden their spiritual dimension of their lives. Its ultimate goal is to create students with an ethic of life-long service to their communities, society, and the world.

In the last few years there has been a movement across the country recognizing that there are critical skills for the 21st century that encompass not merely traditional academic areas such as math and science, but leadership, character, ethics, and team work as well. Service-learning is a process and a way of thinking that needs to be explicitly modeled and taught, and St. Thomas School is uniquely positioned to do this. As technology brings the global community closer and closer together, and the challenges that the world faces increasingly belong to us all, the importance of social and environmental responsibility and the instilling of the ethic of service will remain key components of leadership.


At St. Thomas School, our children are inspired, empowered, and challenged to become compassionate, involved, and reflective citizens who work collaboratively and lead responsibly in service to others.


“Service-learning is education in action.” Sen. John Glenn

According to the National Youth Leadership Council[1], Service learning is “a philosophy, pedagogy, and a model for community development that is used as an instructional strategy to meet learning goals and content standards.” Students engage in service learning activities with intentional academic and learning goals with opportunities for reflection that connect directly to their academic disciplines.

When service-learning is used in a structured way that connects classroom content, literature, and skills to community needs, students will:

  • Apply academic, social, and personal skills to improve the community.
  • Make decisions that have real, not hypothetical, results
  • Grow as individuals, gain respect for peers, and increase civic participation.
  • Experience success no matter what their ability level.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of themselves, their community, and society.
  • Develop as leaders who take initiative, solve problems, work as a team, and demonstrate their abilities while and through helping others.

The idea of Service-Learning is directly linked to teaching methodology, curriculum and programming, and differs from other kinds of volunteerism and service.. The following are important elements of the educational program, but are not considered central to service-learning.

Volunteerism: Students engage in activities where the emphasis is on service for the sake of the beneficiary or recipient (client, partner).

Practicum: Students work in a discipline-based venue in place of an in-class course experience.

Community Service: Students engage in activities to meet actual community needs as an integrated aspect of the curriculum with the focus being on the service provided as well as the benefits to the recipient.


Although Service-Learning can often be anticipated to be part of a high school or college experience, we believe at St. Thomas that modeling the values and processes of service-learning within an elementary environment are critical in developing a life-long ethic of service. At St. Thomas School, teachers act as coaches and mentors, articulating exemplary practice. Wherever possible, tangible models are used to exhibit exemplary practice at all stages. What can be achieved within an elementary setting may differ from the high school experience, but what defines an effective program at St. Thomas School is as follows:

Meaningful Service

  • Service-learning engages students in service tasks that have clear goals, meet genuine needs in the school or community and have significant consequences for the learners themselves.

Link to Curriculum

  • Service-Learning provides clear educational goals that require the application of concepts, content, and skills from the academic disciplines and involves students in the construction of their own knowledge.
  • Service-Learning engages students in tasks that challenge and stretch them cognitively and developmentally in varied modalities across the disciplines.
  • Service-Learning incorporates assessment as a way to enhance student learning as well as to document and evaluate how well students have met content and skills standards.

Student Voice and Choice

  • Service-Learning underlines the role of student voice as integral in selecting, designing, implementing, and self-evaluating the service project.


  • Service-Learning involves communication and interaction with both the community outside of school and between children of different grades within the school, and it encourages partnerships and teamwork.
  • Service-Learning is based upon the principle of reciprocity where students evolve through mutual teaching and learning, action, or influence between all participants in the learning and service experience; this reciprocity extends to relationships between institutions as well as relationships between people. The emphasis is on the “third space,” where participants find common ground.

Civic Responsibility

  • Service-Learning offers opportunities of service that promote the understanding of improving society, working for social justice, and caring for the environment. Through these, an understanding of the concept of democracy is grasped.
  • Service-Learning develops a life-long ethic of service.
  • Service-Learning values diversity through its participants, its projects, and its outcomes.


  • Service-Learning provides continual opportunities for reflection that take place before, during, and after service, using multiple methods that encourage different types and levels of critical thinking, and is a central force in the design and fulfillment of curricular objectives.
  • Service-Learning employs formative and summative evaluation in a systematic evaluation of the service effort and its outcomes.
  • Service-Learning demonstrations that involve multiple methods are designed to acknowledge, communicate, and further validate students’ service work.

At STS, each curriculum areas is grounded in a set of core knowledge, skills, and understandings. However, while all disciplines include these, the learning outcomes[2] for Service-Learning are sometimes less tangible. With this in mind, we strive to engage students in experiences that result in:

Awareness of Self and Others

  • The capacities to accurately perceive one’s strengths and weaknesses and handle everyday challenges with confidence and optimism
  • Perspective taking: The capacity to accurately perceive the perspectives of others

Positive Attitudes and Values

  • The intention to engage in safe and healthy behaviors and be honest and fair in dealing with others
  • The intention to accept and appreciate individual and group differences and to value the rights of all people
  • The intention to contribute to the community and protect the environment
  • The intention to commit to life-long service
  • The belief that each citizen can make a difference
  • The understanding that citizenship confers responsibilities

Responsible Decision Making and Leadership

  • Problem Identification: The capacity to identify situations that require a decision or solution and assess the associated risks, barriers, and resources
  • Adaptive Goal Setting: The capacity to set positive and realistic short and/or long term goals
  • Problem Solving: The capacity to develop, implement, and evaluate positive and informed solutions to problems
  • Leadership and “followership:” The capacity to develop a healthy team in which all members are engaged, opinions are heard, and consensus is reached; the capacity to serve a team or group by employing one’s one skills, allowing others to lead when it best serves the outcomes

Social Interaction Skills

  • Active listening: The capacity to attend to others both verbally and non-verbally to demonstrate to them that they have been understood
  • Expressive communication: The capacity to initiate and maintain conversations and to clearly express one’s thoughts and feelings both verbally and nonverbally
  • Cooperation: The capacity to take turns and share in both pairs and group situations
  • Negotiation: The capacity to consider all perspectives involved in a conflict in order to resolve the conflict peacefully and to the satisfaction of all involved
  • Help seeking: The capacity to identify the need for support and assistance and to access available and appropriate resources

Service-Learning is a process and a cycle, where each step leads to the next. It is a form of experiential learning that leads directly to real-world needs. At STS, Service-Learning is a process that involves five stages.[3] The core components of the process are outlined below:


Students will need to be introduced to the idea of community and service. With guidance from their teachers, students can then:

  • Identify a need
  • Draw upon previously acquired skills and knowledge
  • Acquire new information through a variety of means and methods
  • Analyze the underlying problem


Students are closely involved in designing a plan that will:

  • Collaborate with community partners
  • Develop a plan that encourages responsibility
  • Recognize the integration of service and learning
  • Become ready to provide meaningful service
  • Define realistic parameters for implementation


Through direct service, indirect service, research, or advocacy, students take action that:

  • Has value, purpose and meaning
  • Uses previously learned and newly acquired academic skills and knowledge
  • Offers unique learning experiences
  • Has real consequences
  • Offers a safe environment to learn, to make mistakes, and to succeed


During systematic reflection, the teacher or students guide the process using various modalities, such as role play, discussion, and journal writing. Participating students:

  • Reflect internally
  • Describe what happened
  • Demonstrate learning
  • Examine the difference it made
  • Discuss thoughts and feelings
  • Place experience in a larger context
  • Consider project improvements
  • Generate new ideas
  • Identify questions
  • Receive feedback


Students demonstrate skills, insights, and outcomes to an outside group. Although this may be counter-intuitive, research suggests that celebrating Service-Learning may decrease the learning students acquire. Demonstrations, however, are unique opportunities to exhibit gained knowledge and understanding. Methods used might include:

  • Reporting to peers, faculty, parents, and/or community members
  • Writing articles or letters to local newspapers regarding issues of public concern
  • Creating a publication or website that helps others to learn from the students’ experiences
  • Making presentations and performances
  • Creating visual art forms, such as murals


“An Asset Builder's Guide to Service-Learning.” Search Institute: Minneapolis, MN. 2000.

Cress, Christine; Collier, Peter; Reitenauer, Vicki et. al. Learning Through Serving: a Student Guidebook for Service Learning Across the Disciplines. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC. 2005.

“Essential Elements of Effective Service-Learning.” National Youth Leadership Council: Saint Paul, MN 2006.

“K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice.” National Youth Leadership Council: Saint Paul, MN. 2008.

Kaye, Cathryn Berger. The Complete Guide to Service Learning. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing Inc. 2004.

“Reflection in K-12 Service Learning.” RMC Research Corporation: Scott’s Valley, CA: Learn and Service America’s National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, 2003/2007.

Thomsen, Kate. Service Learning in Grades K-8. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press. 2006.

Foundations of Service Learning

Published: August, 2009

[1] Service-Learning Standards For Quality Practice, National Youth Leadership Council, 2008.

[2] Based on Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Key Social and Emotional Competencies. May 2000.

[3] Based on Kaye, Cathryn Berger. The Complete Guide to Service Learning. Free Spirit Publishing Inc. 2004. Page 36.

[4] Based on Kaye, Cathryn Berger. The Complete Guide to Service Learning. Free Spirit Publishing Inc. 2004. Page 47.