How K-12 Students Can Address Real-World Problems Through Service Learning

benefits of service learning

One of the most common refrains heard by educators from students is, “…But how will I ever use this?” It doesn’t matter if the subject matter is STEM or humanities. Students can have a difficult time applying lesson materials from their textbooks to the world around them.

When looking to kickstart an educational initiative, finding a way to empower students to change the world around them for the better helps those students connect their classroom experiences to the real world. That’s why NTC delivers curriculum in the way that we do. 

One of the best methods used by educators to bridge the gap between theory and practice is incorporating service learning. The benefits of service learning are numerous. Those benefits range from improving student outcomes and investment in learning to facilitating better relationships between schools, the communities they serve, and the businesses that contribute to the student-led service projects.

So what exactly is service learning, and why is service learning important? How does it relate to project based and/or problem based learning? And how can we make it a reality in the communities your company serves?

What Is Service Learning?

Simply put, service learning combines learning goals with service to the community in such a way that both the students and greater community benefit. As an educational strategy, it can be deployed in subjects across the board—it is not limited to humanities or to STEM.

But service learning is not just another name for community service. Tying service to in-class learning goals is a key component of service learning. By connecting students’ service to educational goals and providing them avenues for reflection, they are able to better identify the connections between their classes and their community.

That reflection is key to how service learning affects students. Many people learn life lessons through community service, but the benefits of service learning creates a specific pathway to connect the ideas and concepts from the classroom to the world around the student.

We often recommend using the livestream or full school assembly provided to the schools we engage on behalf of our clients as a kick-off event to start a service learning initiative. 

Problems vs Projects

Before going further into some of the common types of service involved in service learning, it is important to identify what type of learning service learning is. There are a lot of different categories of pedagogy, and understanding these terms can be very beneficial when discussing educational initiatives with school boards, administrators, and teachers.

A common question when teachers build their courses is, “what will this unit’s learning be based on?” Different teachers and education theorists have different answers, but for many, the question comes down to problem based learning vs project based learning.

This is actually something of a false dichotomy since problem based learning can reasonably be seen as a subset of project based learning. Basing learning in projects simply means that the lessons culminate in the application of knowledge to design or create a tangible product or event.

Key features of problem based learning include that the origins of the project at the heart of the curriculum are based on a real-world problem that students have identified. 

In problem based learning, students identify a problem, define it, research it, generate potential solutions, formulate ways to test those solutions, and present their results. This is where service learning takes things one step further— bringing solutions out into the community.

Types of Service Learning

All service learning provides opportunities for practical application of in-class lessons, but not all service learning looks the same. There are several categories of service that can be used to strengthen and give depth to the concepts and tools that students are learning in the classroom.

  • Direct Service: This is a service in which students work one-on-one with people in the community. This could take the form of tutoring, students of a foreign language helping new immigrants fill out paperwork, participating in volunteer programs at nursing homes, etc.
  • Indirect Service: This type of service operates a bit more behind-the-scenes than direct service. This type of service includes organizing fundraisers, creating educational campaigns for renewable energy, planting trees as part of an environmental improvement and beautification drive, and similar activities.
  • Advocacy: This type of service revolves around public policies. Students write to government officials at the city, state, and even national level to push for policy changes or lead demonstrations to raise awareness for those that need help. 

What these three types of service learning have in common is that they involve students and teachers identifying a need in their community and leveraging their education and energy to help resolve that need.

Some service learning projects can involve multiple types of service. For example, a class may identify a need to install solar panels at their school to lower energy costs and gain the benefits of renewable energy.

In this case, advocacy and indirect service will be needed to research and lobby the public officials who can approve the addition of solar panels to the school, find grants and other public money for the panels, organize an awareness campaign and fundraising events to get donations from the community, and contact corporate sponsors for potential matching funds and private financial and equipment donations. Direct service would then come in when carrying out the planned information and fundraising events.

Benefits of Service Learning

So how does service learning benefit the people involved? It offers different benefits to each entity involved with making it a reality.

Students involved in service learning show improved comprehension of subject matter, are more invested in their classes, generally, and gain a sense of accomplishment from exerting a measure of control on the world around them. 

Corporate backers of service projects benefit by increasing their presence in a community and by ensuring their outreach and education money is well-spent.

School districts benefit by being able to point to tangible, quantifiable outcomes of in-class learning to show how property tax and donation money are put to use.

Introducing Service Initiatives to Students

While many service learning based curricula focus on students identifying problems that they can address with their service, kids don’t always know where to look. This is where teachers planning ahead can help jump start the process.

Utilizing the services of an organization such as The National Theatre for Children to introduce the subjects that students can engage in for service learning projects helps ensure that the problems students choose to address have accessible resources that can be used when those students engage in their service.

NTC has touring shows and streaming productions that engage K-12 students on a variety of topics such as renewable energy, emergency preparedness, and sustainability practices. And by sponsoring these productions as part of your education and outreach initiatives, you can help ensure that your company is a part of the improvements brought about by the students in the communities you serve.


How K-12 Students Can Address Real-World Problems Through Service Learning