Service Learning: Developing a Lifestyle of Service

Service, community service, and service learning are buzzwords that describe the good work of people who want to meet the needs of others. For the church worker, the community activist, and the educator, service to others would seem to be a way of life, or second nature. For the Christian, service to others is easily visualized as sacrificial in nature, echoing Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to bring about forgiveness for sins, and also seen as the responsibility of believers, as when the early apostles provided for all in the community so that “none among them had need.” I am suggesting neither a socialistic approach to benevolent activities nor Christian martyrdom, but I am positing ideals of service to others as a way to raise the level of community, so the biblical justice described in Micah chapters 3 and 6 might be evident among us. These types of service expressions often range from feeding the homeless to visiting shut-ins, from advocating for prisoners to tutoring students, and a myriad of hands-on, tangible projects such as yard work, general cleaning, and disaster relief. This article will explore the pedagogy of service learning, offer approaches to meeting individual and community needs, and challenge readers to commit to a lifestyle of service.

Established in a historical frame of civic education, service learning is a tool for reawakening a programmatic educational response to civic justice; it is an emerging teaching method applicable across disciplines and cultures (Kenworthy-U’Ren and Peterson). Various scholars propose that service-learning pedagogy provides the basic tools necessary for students to resolve fundamental challenges they face by mixing academic rigor with practical relevance (Godfrey, Illes, and Berry; Cheit). This idea finds support in Kolb’s model of experiential learning, which suggests that “significant and important learning takes place by the combined processes of abstract conceptualization, concrete experience, and then reflection on that experience” (Godfrey, Illes, and Berry). Some of the best approaches to meaningful learning create a balance of reflection both prior to the service activity and then again after the activity is completed in order to help identify meaningful takeaways.

The service-learning construct has both support and criticism from educators. In some cases, service learning has garnered support in higher education by suggesting that the ability to sustain the service-learning model is “important to the efficiency, quality, and impact of service learning” across disciplines and educational systems (Vogel, Seifer, and Gelmon). For others, particularly in business circles, the integrity of business education that includes a service component is in question, as if to suggest this trades professional education for a lesser experience embracing of atheoretical roots and returning to vocational training schools (Trank and Rynes). At Lee University, business students have countered this argument by volunteering with the local VITA (volunteer income tax assistance) program to prepare free tax returns for local community residents living at or below the U.S. poverty line. The outcome of students putting their skills into practice yielded nearly $750,000 in tax returns. It’s a win-win situation for the students and the community members in need. Such examples of meaningful, relevant service to others are evident in almost all disciplines.

Realizing that not everyone buys into this idea of testing theory before earning the title of theorist, it might help to note that the acceptance of service and experiential learning is Dewey’s philosophical foundation of pragmatism whereby Dewey believed in the “primacy of experience” and the “organic connection between education and personal experience.” Kolb and Dewey each supported a professional environment where theory and praxis would be intertwined as part of the student’s educational experience. Kolb described his theory of experiential learning as one of four models in which learning occurs: (1) when people learn by concrete experience, (2) by reflective observation of experiences, (3) by abstract conceptualization of theoretical models and concepts, and (4) by active experimentation to discover cause-and-effect relationships. It seems there is growing support for higher educational organizations that support the integration of theory and praxis, otherwise known as service learning.

Jacoby defines service learning as:

“A form of experimental education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development; service-learning combines service objectives with learning objectives with the intent that the activity change both the recipient and provider of the service” (5).

An advantage of service learning is the illumination of community problems, which then provides the opportunity for students (as providers) to design ways to meet the needs of the recipient by proposing potential solutions to problems (Mitchell). One activity that I have seen work well is community mapping. Using the analogy of a tree, group members will identify an issue (the tree trunk), the causes (roots of the tree), and the effects (fruit or branches). Then group members will identify potential solutions to effect positive change. This activity provides the group with hands-on practical applications that are theoretically based. I have used this activity with students, parishioners, business leaders, and community partners with great success as followers and leaders have discovered the power of self-discovery, compelling them to become change agents.

A challenge for educators supporting service learning is to establish a platform for students to test the theories learned in the classroom through meaningful service. These experiential learning environments and educational exchanges enable students to go beyond classrooms and textbooks to address real-life issues (Lester, Tomkovick, Wells, Flunker, and Kickul). In many cases, examining these real-life issues bring to light negative organizational systems and structures, but practical application of the students’ education through meaningful service can encourage them to be socially and morally responsible to help address these concerns (Godfrey). In addition to heightened moral awareness, service learning allows an opportunity for educators to embrace the social justice orientation that is often assumed in service-learning by teaching civic virtue and encouraging global citizenship (Mitchell, Cipolle, Lanham, Rowman, and Littlefield; Jacoby; and Rosenberger).

According to Godfrey and Grasso, the pedagogy of service learning is easily woven into curricular objectives by three typologies: service-learning with a little “s”and big “L” (primary focus is on academics); big “S” and big “L” (dual emphasis on civic service); or big “S” and little “l” (primary emphasis is in the community service activity). With the insertion of a hyphen (-) service-learning becomes a relationship between service and learning. “Service learning should include a balance between service to the community and academic learning, and that hyphen in the phrase symbolizes the central role of reflection in the process of learning through community experience.” (Eyler and Giles 4)

Lee University and many other higher education institutions embrace the hyphen between the words service-learning, which supports the integration of service and learning as one paradigm, without either being greater than the other. Perhaps a favorable transformation of educational structures could result from educators integrating real-life experiential models early on in the students’ journey to help motivate them toward scholarship with the ultimate goal of developing lifelong servants. In addition to the curricular platform for the integration of service and learning as described by Godfrey and Grasso, service-learning literature identifies three different elements necessary and critical for creating successful and meaningful projects managed by the three “r’s”: reality, reflection, and reciprocity (Godfrey, Illes, and Berry). Each of the three “r’s” is evident in communities where service is valued at the core of the institutional mission.

Our world is constantly in a state of whitewater. Community members in need are looking for leaders that will guide them successfully through change. Christians serving in education and church environments or in the marketplace hold the responsibility to lead the service charge. Leadership at its core is defined as a process where leaders influence followers through relationships (Yukl; Ciulla; Kouzes and Posner). Christianity at its core is based in the premise of relationships, both vertical and horizontal. The responsibility is the same regardless of one’s career position—to embrace and model a lifestyle of service to others.

If it is true that service learningapplies to projects embedded with both theory and praxis, and that Christians have the responsibility to lead and model a lifestyle of service that is both sacrificial and justice based (Kenworthy-U’Ren & Peterson), wouldn’t it be reasonable that church workers, community activists, and educational leaders work to develop an environment for others to learn the value of service embedded living? Together, we can model a lifestyle of service that evolves into a force across the globe to model sacrificial living and leading toward serving the least among us.

Works Cited

  • Cheit, Earl F. “Business Schools and Their Critics.” California Management Review 27 (1985): 43–62.
  • Ciulla, Joanne. Ethics: The Heart of Leadership. Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 2004.
  • Dewey, John. Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1938.
  • Eyler, Janet and Dwight Giles, Jr. Where’s the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
  • Godfrey, Paul C., Louise M. Illes, and Gregory R. Berry. “Creating Breadth in Business Education Through Service-Learning.” Academy of Management: Learning and Education 4.3 (2005): 309–23.
  • Jacoby, Barbara. Service-Learning in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
  • Kenworthy-U’Ren, Amy L. and Tim O. Peterson. “Service-Learning and Management Education: Introducing the ‘WE CARE’ Approach.” Academy of Management: Learning and Education 4.3 (2005): 272–77.
  • Kolb, David A. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
  • Kouzes, James M. and Barry Posner. The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Wiley and Sons, 2007.
  • Lester, Scott W., Chuck Tomkovick, Theresa Wells, Lanette Flunker, and Jill Kickul. “Does Service-Learning Add Value? Examining the Perspectives of Multiple Stakeholders.” Academy of Management Learning and Education 4.3 (2005): 278–94.
  • Mitchell, Tania D. and Susan B. Cipolle. “Challenges and Possibilities: Linking Social Justice and Service-Learning (Review Essay).” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (2010) 94–97.
  • Rosenberger, Cynthia. “Beyond empathy: developing critical consciousness through service learning.” In Carolyn R. O’Grady (ed.). Integrating Service Learning and Multicultural Education in Colleges and Universities. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2000: 1–19.
  • Christine Q. Trank and Sara L. Rynes. “Who Moved Our Cheese? Reclaiming Professionalism in Business Education.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 2.2 (2003): 189–205.
  • Vogel, Amanda L., Sarena D. Seifer, and Sherril B. Gelmon. ”What Influences the Long-Term Sustainability of Service-Learning? Lessons from Early Adopters.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 17.1 (2010): 59–76.
  • Yukl, Gary A. Leadership in Organizations, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.