Rhode Island’s perspective and possibility widening boarding and day school, grades 6-12 and postgraduate.

Service Learning for the 21st Century: The Power of Reflection and Reality

Alexandra McMullen, Director of Middle School
On a dreary mid-winter morning, a sophomore student brings a ray of light into the auditorium. He is sharing the experience that he had on Saturday at the local soup kitchen, during which he helped prepare and serve meals to those in need. His voice thick with emotion, he explains how the experience impacted him in a positive way and how important it is to help others. At a subsequent meeting, an announcement is made by a senior student, who is soliciting faculty to host additional soup kitchen trips because students want to help every Saturday, as opposed to just one time per month. At a third meeting, a sixth- and an eighth-grade student are heard asking others to bring in gently used board games that will be donated to homeless children. This drive was the result of the impact that an outside speaker had on middle school students; she spoke about her experiences living amongst the homeless in Providence.

As a result of reflection, a group of students decided to act, and with minimal logistical support from adults, are currently seeing this service opportunity through to implementation. Working entirely in teams and mostly self-supported, this student implementation includes phone calls to local shelters and senior centers, creating and distributing fliers with information needed for the donations, and drafting announcements/communications to provide to the community. These are just a few examples of the important role that service learning plays in the daily lives of St. Andrew’s students.

According to Dr. Barb Jacoby, service learning is a unique balance of both reflection and reciprocity; education where students engage in activities that address human and community needs together alongside structured opportunities for reflection. It is based on the idea that learning doesn’t occur only as a result of an action or experience, but as result of intentional reflection on that experience, while simultaneously achieving specific learning outcomes.[1] To help promote authentic engagement, students need to be provided with the opportunity to contextualize and craft their own service experiences, as well as the chance to intentionally reflect at different points, as this is the crucial element that binds service to learning.

Providing appropriate context is also essential in order to facilitate a deep and lasting connection to the overall service learning experience. Prior to the experience, this would include having students experience the topic (e.g., homelessness, hunger, the environment) in some way, either through discussion, reading, or a combination of the two so that they can build a bridge between learning content and personal experiences. Students might be asked to list what they think they know about the topic or what they would like to learn more about, which will help to identify biases or assumptions that can be broken down and addressed post experience. Post activity, it is equally important to strengthen this bridge between “service” and “learning” by asking students to raise questions that, if it were not for the experience, might not be raised about the particular topic in addition to circling back to address any assumptions or biases that were raised during the first round of reflection. According to Jacoby, this “challenging reflection” is meant to encourage students to revisit their initial responses from a new angle that the experience has provided them, which helps them to discover different perspectives and raise subsequent questions that will encourage them to avoid “simplistic, one dimensional conclusions” about the service learning topic at hand.[2]

In addition to offering students both context and reflection, providing them with the chance to craft their own experiences should be held in equally high regard. According to authors Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles, in order to provide students with experiences that are both authentic and meaningful, the majority of these opportunities should be student centered and student driven.[3] Intentionally integrating themes of social justice and service into the overall curriculum, providing service experiences that promote student collaboration instead of competition, and identifying issues that address real life problems in real life settings will help to achieve this goal and maximize student engagement, both inside and outside of the classroom.


[1]Jacoby, Barb, Ph.D. "What Makes Service Learning Unique: Reflection and Reciprocity." Faculty Focus. N.p., 1st Nov. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2017.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Eyler, Janet, and Giles, Dwight. "ERIC - Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series., 1999." ERIC - Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series., 1999. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2016.
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Rhode Island’s perspective and possibility widening boarding and day school, grades 6-12 and postgraduate