Service Learning, Part II: a response to comments on Joanne Jacobs's blog

One of Joanne Jacobs's readers, Catherine, commented on my earlier Service Learning post:

>Actually, service experiences are often
>more meaningful when tied to curriculum
>and thoughtful systematic analysis.

Catherine's assertion sounds good at first blush, but is it really true? If a student shovels a sidewalk for an elderly neighbor or delivers meals to a shut-in, does "thoughtful systematic analysis" really make the experience more meaningful? I don't think so.

Even if you accept her assertion, reality gets in the way. At BCPS, the thoughtful systematic analysis is not happening for the kids that I know:
  1. In most cases, the students don't even realize that in-class projects are part of Service Learning,
  2. Students don't fill out the reflection forms for in-class projects, and
  3. Even if they were to fill out the forms, what teenager would do anything but roll his eyes at the questions? One example: "How did you build character from your service learning activity?"
>It’s true that service integrated into a course
>probably doesn’t fit the definition of “volunteering.”
>That’s probably why it’s called “service learning”

"Service learning" is educational jargon. Most people outside the school system don't know the official meaning. No matter how schools define it in their manuals, parents and kids will take it to mean community service. And because there is no pay, parents and kids will call it volunteering. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend led the effort to create Maryland's service learning graduation requirement. On her own website, she does not use the term "service learning". She calls it "community service".

I wonder how she feels about the state of her brainchild now.

Here's yet more evidence that BCPS's official definition of Service Learning ("not volunteerism") contradicts the reality of the program: The Dulaney High School website encourages Service Learning students to apply for Prudential's Spirit of Community Award, a "youth recognition program based solely on volunteering".

>I think you’ve taken something out of context

I don't think I've taken anything out of context. If anyone with knowledge of the BCPS system believes that I've done so, I'm happy to listen.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In a second comment, Catherine says:

>It’s not because service learning is inherently
>bad or a waste of time, as [BaltoNorth] suggests.

I am not suggesting that service learning is inherently bad. I am suggesting that:

(1) Mandatory service learning, as implemented in Baltimore County and throughout Maryland, has not succeeded and never will.
(2) The current BCPS implementation of Service Learning does not live up to the vision of its creators. Not even close.
(3) The BCPS implementation is worse than a waste of time. By breeding disrespect and cynicism, it damages our kids in a real--if small--way.
(4) The General Assembly in Maryland should 'fess up to its mistake, eliminate the graduation requirement, and divert all Service Learning resources (a non-trivial amount that includes administrators at the state, county, high school and middle school levels) to programs that are far more worthy.


  1. I tend to think of service learning as applied and facilitated learning, a process that involves learning about an issue and its context BEYOND the classroom; finding out what help is needed; selecting and working on a related project to help; and analyzing whether the project did help, as facilitated, but not dictated, by a teacher. Then continuing staffing, institutional commitment, and resources to continue the cycle with the next class and its project.

    Service learning is supposed to be governed by the 1989 Wingspread Principles (http://servicelearning.org/filemanager/download/Principles_of_Good_Practice_for_Combining_Service_and_Learning.pdf)
    where academic credit is for learning, not for service hours.

    Based on my experiences with MA students, from high schools to business schools, clocking volunteer hours with my charity rather than making an effort to connect with local charities themselves to learn something and to go beyond the activity of doing, I prefer a quality* service learning experience to these minimally staffed programs for students amassing volunteer hours and verifying signatures.

    I didn't realize that the landmark 1992 MD Board of Education requirement for community service for the class of 1997+ only translates into misunderstood curricula and tracked hours when it was supposed to be so much more.

    It seems like the MD system needs to be fixed with clearer definitions, perhaps eliminating the hours altogether and replacing them with N service learning courses, much like math, science, English, social studies, and other mandatory courses.

  2. ltsuruda wrote: "It seems like the MD system needs to be fixed with clearer definitions, perhaps eliminating the hours altogether and replacing them with N service learning courses, much like math, science, English, social studies, and other mandatory courses." Sounds good to me. Much better than the current mandatory program in Md.