Service learning builds on a tradition of activism and volunteerism which was popular in the '60s but which greatly subsided during the '70s and '80s. But the goal of service learning is to empower those who serve. This is not necessarily the goal of volunteerism, community service or experiential education.
The tradition of volunteer service saw a rebirth in the late '80s as cultural, educational and civic leaders challenged higher education to fulfill its historic mission to promote civic responsibility. Many colleges accepted this challenge and created a support network, Campus Compact, to develop and promote service learning as a pedagogical strategy. Service learning is now a national movement and is utilized in the majority of colleges and universities in the United States.
The philosophical antecedent and academic parent of service learning is experiential learning. As in all types of experiential learning – cooperative education, internships, volunteerism -- service learning directly engages the learner in the phenomena being studied with the expectation that richer learning will result. The critical difference and distinguishing characteristic of service learning is its threefold emphasis: 1) enriching student learning, 2) revitalizing the community and 3) focusing on issues of social justice, culture and society as a whole. To accomplish this, effective service learning initiatives involve students in course relevant activities which address the real safety, economic, educational and environmental needs of the community. Moreover, service learning approaches assume that the community must define its own needs, and that students can participate in the community's processes of self-government. Students' course materials – texts, lectures, discussion and reflection -- inform their service. Students' service experiences are brought back to the classroom to inform the academic dialogue and the quest for knowledge. This reciprocal process is based on the logical continuity between experience, knowledge and public participation.
In service learning courses, real life comes tumbling into the classroom as students' service experience provides the content for purposeful dialogue leading to real understanding of academic concepts. Most conventional pedagogies are abstract and deductive, relying on presenting theory and then encouraging application to specifics. In contrast, service learning is more inductive, using experience provided by students to lead to conceptual or theoretical understanding. Service learning is best understood in the context of a continuous learning cycle where meaning is created through concrete experience, reflection or assimilation, abstract conceptualization or theory building, and active experimentation or problem solving.
The pedagogy of service learning represents a substantial change from the traditional lecture driven, content based, and faculty centered curriculum. Service learning education is a process of living, not a preparation for life. Service learning rejects the notion that students are empty vessels waiting to be filled. In a culture characterized by information overload, effective teaching must encourage information processing as well as accumulation. In a complex society, it is almost impossible to determine what information will be necessary to solve particular problems. All too often, the content which students learn in class is obsolete by the time they have finished their degree. With this in mind, it seems much more important to "light the fire than to fill the bucket."
Service learning provides students with real-life, meaningful experiences which by their very nature force critical thinking. In service, students encounter events that may conflict with their assumptions. They deal with issues or incidents that challenge familiar competencies and/or understandings. These experiences create perplexity or dissonance, which is often the beginning of learning.
Learning is not a predictable linear process. It may begin at any point in the cycle. Students may have to apply their limited knowledge in a service situation before consciously setting out to gain or comprehend a body of facts related to that situation. The discomfort experienced from the lack of knowledge may encourage further accumulation of facts or the development and/or changing of a personal theory for future application. To assure that this kind of learning takes place however, skilled guidance in reflection about the experience must occur. This facilitation of reflection is the critical responsibility of the service-learning teacher.