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The Redemption and Promise of Service-Learning

This post was originally co-published by the CACE Blog and the ACSI Blog on September 25, 2018 in an effort to bring innovative and relevant thinking in Christian education to our respective readerships.

You may think that Christian schools—whose missions can often be boiled down to “Serve God, Serve Others”—may be leading the way in implementing service-learning. However, in their new book, Bring It to Life: Christian Education and the Transformative Power of Service-Learning, authors Lynn Swaner and Roger Erdvig say that often the power of service-learning is unrealized in Christian schools. Instead, it’s more likely that Christian schools have been doing some service activities, instead of genuine service-learning.

Serving or Service-Learning—What’s the Difference?

I am convinced that the phrase service-learning needs redemption—a basic reboot! When I mention service-learning to others, I hear the same mixed and often confusing responses that I mentally conjure up in response to those words. To this end, Swaner and Erdvig draw some helpful distinctions between what is serving versus service-learning. Service-learning is not any of the following service activities:

  1. Service hours with no link to the curriculum;

  2. Service limited to the inside four walls of the school community;

  3. An activity or project that does not provide direct contact with those being served;

  4. A one-time event instead of ongoing service (which helps facilitate relationships); and

  5. Service that is done from a “charity” perspective, as opposed to community-minded.

If these kinds of activities—though potentially valuable for students, teachers, and the community—are not service-learning, then what is? According to Swaner and Erdvig, it is “a pedagogy that intentionally connects classroom learning with service opportunities outside of the school.” They explain that service-learning:

  1. Connects community service or outreach with classroom learning and the curriculum;

  2. Takes students outside of the school setting and into the local community, to address real community needs;

  3. Creates authentic, meaningful relationships between students and those being served; and

  4. Increases and enhances student learning, as well as students’ desire and ability to serve others.

They further suggest that the true purpose of service-learning is “to address real needs of the community partner.

They also provide two key questions for administrators to help us differentiate and further develop our understanding of service-learning:

  1. The first question is, “Are the service opportunities offered by the school also available to students in other settings, such as their churches, youth groups, or families? (Food and clothing drives are good examples of fairly universal service activities.)” If the answer is yes, then what’s on offer might not be genuine service-learning, as it does not harness the educational power of the school.

  2. Conversely, and second, “Is there a meaningful connection between current service opportunities at the school and “real work” of learning in the classroom?” If the answer to this question is yes, then the odds are that true service-learning is happening.

If, as faith-based schools, this is a critical outcome of our missions, we need to redeem the term service-learning and do it right.

The Promise of Service-Learning

With this clearer picture of service-learning in mind, we can better answer the question of why exert the effort of engaging in service-learning (which the authors do not shy away from saying is resource-and time-intensive). Swaner and Erdvig present research that points to multiple benefits to students who engage in service-learning, such as positive gains in: 1) academic achievement, 2) civic engagement, 3) beliefs and values, and 4) leadership, spiritual, and personal development. All of these are in line with the mission statements and desired student outcomes of Christian schools.

Along those lines, I appreciate that, in the section on national service-learning standards, the authors have also formulated supplemental standards appropriate for Christian education. These standards articulate four additional areas: (1) Christ-likeness, (2) worldview development, (3) servant-leadership, and (4) lifelong service. While service-learning is well-practiced in many different educational settings, it not only can find a place in Christian schools, but also is well-suited to what we wish to see in students’ learning and spiritual formation.

Ultimately, service-learning can help students to grow in their identity in Christ, and in their ability to be His agents of restoration in a broken world. They can learn about how they are uniquely created for good works (Ephesians 2:10) and can gain practical experience in walking in those works, with Christian school teachers as helpful mentors and guides.

In fact, I will take the risk to suggest that genuine service-learning exemplifies the best aspects of deeper learning—learning through real work—the endpoints of project-based learning and what is called FLEX (Formational Learning Experiences) in the TfT (Teaching for Transformation) model. Christian schools serious about increasing student engagement and mission distinctiveness through deeper learning for their students would be well served by this book, in shaping and re-shaping service-learning at their schools.


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