The Separation of Service-learning from Volunteering...and Does It Matter?

By Susan J. Ellis

The United States is in the midst of the Obama Administration’s “United We Serve” Summer of Service, urging volunteer activities of all sorts, culminating on September 11th.  This effort has its own “branding” and momentum.  So I was dismayed to discover that the “National Learn and Service Challenge,” slated for October 5-11, is being publicized with no visible connection to what the rest of the nation is doing before then.

Since school is out and the Summer of Service campaign was only officially announced in June, it’s understandable that curriculum-based service needed a later timeframe.  But why no cross linking and acknowledgement?  Young people do all sorts of volunteering outside of school.  Yet we persist in this total separation – and, in some cases, elevation – of service-learning over volunteering.

Following a long tradition of experiential education,1 most service-learning programs today were conceived as school reform efforts, giving students the chance to practice or apply what they have learned in the classroom in the real world.  Therefore, they were developed by educators with a total focus on curriculum relevance.  Certainly there was interest in offering students useful work to do in the community, but rarely were the agencies who would be the hosts of these students asked about what types of help were needed.  Further, little thought was given to any “downside” to the idea of using the community as an extension of the classroom.   If anything, teachers took the attitude that agencies should welcome any type of student, whether out of civic obligation or because this would be a “free” worker.

The Great Divide

So we evolved service-learning as a world unto itself, completely divorced from the emerging field of volunteer management.  Educators and volunteer program leaders speak only to their peers without realizing that both could benefit from interaction with the other.   Consider:

  • Both worlds have evolved their own professional tools without cross-fertilizing.  Practitioners go to different conferences, read different books and journals, visit different Web sites.  It is rare to see a citation or link pass across the divide.
  • Too much of the literature written by educators creates a false hierarchy, at least from the community’s perspective.  Three descending levels of service are identified.  The top is “service-learning,” because it is curriculum based.  Next comes “community service,” which can be done as an extra-curricular activity, but possibly qualify for any compulsory pre-graduation requirement. And at the bottom is “volunteering,” which is generally defined (dismissed?) as “unpaid helping.”
  • The Corporation for National and Community Service (The Corporation) has an entire division called Learn and Serve America, but they do not connect the dots themselves.  When was the last time we in volunteerism heard anything about it?  At the state level, the Commissions charged with spending The Corporation’s grant money on AmeriCorps or RSVP are often not making decisions about service-learning grants.  In Pennsylvania, for example, these are administered directly by the Department of Education with zero communication about their work outside of school circles.  Note that the Learn and Serve Challenge I mentioned at the beginning is actually run by The Corporation, yet not a single link on the site connects back to United We Serve or non-education resources.
  • We have allowed service-learning to disassociate itself from volunteering step by step.  For example, not wanting to be a part of National Volunteer Week, proponents of what was National (and now Global) Youth Service Day scheduled itself on purpose on the Friday before the other celebration.  From the National Conference on Volunteering and Service, through state conferences on volunteering, to local associations of volunteer program managers, educators who send students into the community are conspicuous by their absence.  Once only was I invited to speak at the National Youth Leadership Conference and my workshop topic was “Words Apart or Worlds Apart?”  There were over 500 people at the event and about 17 showed up for my session – every one of them from a nonprofit agency.

This divide exists beyond the United States, though in some countries it is the volunteer community spearheading the drive to incorporate service-learning into school curricula.

So What?

Maybe there is nothing wrong with this state of affairs and clearly very few people are talking about it.  But here is why it troubles me:

  1. To give students the best service-learning experience requires a partnership between the teacher and the person in the agency working with the student.  So, on the front line where it matters most, it takes more than educators to make it work.  When and how do teachers learn about how community agencies operate?  How do agency staff learn what students need from them to learn most effectively?  What takes precedence:  service or learning?  From the agency’s perspective, the answer will always be service.  Do teachers know the difference and why it matters?
  2. It is often argued that service-learning is civics education. The goal is to make young people recognize the role that an active citizen can and should play and to create a “lifelong tradition of service.”  Since service-learning is always done by students, but volunteering is done by everyone, isn’t it contradictory to denigrate the latter as simply “unpaid helping”?  Are we really teaching young people to understand the importance and scope of the volunteering they will be able to do all their lives – both activism and hands-on services?
  3. The conduit, or entrance point, for students to find an agency placement is most often the volunteer office.  Who else is able to interview unpaid, part-time workers, match them with appropriate assignments, give them an orientation, and monitor their progress?  And, as often happens, when a student wants to continue a placement long after the connection to the classroom has ended, who else has a way to allow them to stay on officially?  Do they somehow transmute from a “student” to a “volunteer,” or is there more the same than different here?
  4. Who is gathering data on the contributions to the community of students in service-learning assignments?  Do they show up on the surveys of who volunteers?  Are we sure?  Do agencies report on them with or separate from adult (or even young) volunteers? 
  5. Why can’t teachers and agency representatives learn from each other, through the student placement?  Agency staff can be an important resource for new teaching materials and information; educators can help an agency consider its learning environment for all constituents.

There are, of course, special considerations for students seeking service-learning placements.  They need to articulate learning goals and be matched to work that gives them a chance to meet those.  They need a supervisor who explains things and is encouraging.  They need to be integrated into the agency during the short span of a few weeks in which they will do their work.  But all of this is simply extra attention to what’s necessary for any volunteer.   Indeed, maybe our non-student volunteers would appreciate exactly the same attention!

Whose responsibility is it to try to make a connection between these two worlds?  Perhaps volunteer program managers should seek out service-learning administrators/educators in their communities as a first step towards bridging the gap. 

  • Do you agree that there is a serious divide between service-learning and volunteering?
  • Is it right or wrong or in-between?
  • What can we do about it, at least locally?

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