Learning Through Service

By caring for others,
students learn how to care for themselves - and their world

One of the articles in The Learning Revolution (IC#27)
Originally published in Winter 1991 on page 50
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

By the time they reach college, many students have learned to refer to the larger society beyond the walls of academe as the "real world." The separation this reflects is perhaps one of the most ironic, and tragic, aspects of traditional educational models – we isolate learners from the very culture we profess to be preparing them for. Yet for many students, a deep encounter with those in need may be the most educational thing that ever happens to them.

Kate McPherson is Director of Project Service Leadership, which assists schools and communities in implementing service learning programs. Her project is one of four regional centers funded by the Kellogg Foundation to provide such assistance throughout the country. Contact Kate at 2810 Comanche Dr., Mt. Vernon, WA 98273, 206/428-7614, or the National Youth Leadership Council at 1-800-366-6952, for more information.

Youth Service America, a national clearinghouse for community service programs, estimates that high school volunteers donate 17 million hours of unpaid service annually at an estimated dollar value of almost $60 million. Such programs not only meet important local community needs, but teach students about responsible citizenship by giving their studies real-life applications and helping to create a positive transition into adulthood.

Service learning provides a hands-on, collaborative approach to learning. It also engages students in real problem-solving and in exercising their own initiative – opportunities that are rare in most school curricula. Here are some examples from Washington State:

  • Students in Gig Harbor tutor new immigrants who speak the foreign language that the students are studying. With Spanish, for example, students develop a more thorough understanding of the language and a greater appreciation for Hispanic culture. Developing a lesson plan gives them practice in finding effective ways to explain an idea. And by conversing about the tutorial subject in Spanish, students develop a more integrated understanding of the subject’s content.
  • Social studies students at Lakeside School and Kennedy High School in Seattle are spending time with homeless families providing meals, gathering supplies, and working in shelters. For these students, homelessness is no longer just a word, but a complex political and economic issue with real names and faces, sounds and sights.
  • Industrial arts students at Foss High School in Tacoma apply their skills in design and problem-solving by working on projects such as a chair designed and built for an eighteen-month old child with multiple sclerosis. This project involved determining which materials would provide the needed stability and mobility, and developing an expandable design to grow with the child.


The value of student service to the community is important, but just as important is the effect of service on the students themselves. This is perhaps best reflected in excerpts from their own writing about their experiences. From a student who worked at a homeless shelter:

For me, this experience was eye-opening, stereotype-breaking, and attitude-changing. I really grew attached to some of the kids at the shelter, and found myself wanting to return to see them again. I am a person who was initially opposed to the whole service learning thing…. but I have changed my attitude almost completely (which is not something I do very often). You can be told about poverty until you think you have heard all there is to know about it. Until you witness poverty and homelessness first hand, however, it will not have an impact. It does not take much exposure to a human need to get personally involved and begin to care about a situation. I am convinced that just a little time required in community service will yield a lifetime of dedication to help.

From a student who worked in a teen runaway shelter:

The way in which I was personally benefited the most was by what I realized by the end of that Saturday night. I was feeling good about myself and was, in fact, on a small ego trip. After all, just look at what I had done – I must have spent thirteen hours collecting clothes and five hours slaving over an oven baking (and eating) peanut butter cookies. I essentially gave up my whole Saturday to feed the hungry. But after watching these teenagers, who had so little material wealth compared to myself and who could be satisfied with what I considered garbage, I began to see the truth. A very uncomfortable notion crept into my mind – the idea that these kids were, if anything, superior to myself. Not in what they had, but in who they were.

More and more districts across the country are infusing service into their K-12 curriculum, seeing it as central to their educational mission and as a powerful tool for creating partnership between communities and schools. Service fosters an ethic of caring and community within the school. As service becomes an expected component of classroom goals and a part of teacher-student discussions, schools develop into more compassionate environments where students care for others – and are themselves cared for.

Adults And Learning

by Dorothy Billington

"I have surpassed what I thought were my limits so many times that I now know I have no limits."

– 38-year-old graduate student

Until recently, psychologists believed that we peaked in intellectual and psychological development at 20 or 21, remained stable until late middle age, then declined. Only now is new research confirming what most of us knew intuitively: that given proper conditions, adults can continue to grow throughout their lifespans.

Because there had been little research on how and why adults develop cognitively and on the developmental effects of different types of adult learning programs, I conducted a four-year study of these questions. 60 adult graduate students participated, half enrolled in traditional authoritarian learning programs, half in a nontraditional, self-directed, mentor-oriented program.

The research findings were startling. Two psychological tests, a questionnaire, and interviews all revealed congruent results – as though the research snapped multiple, identical pictures of a barely visible phenomenon. Adults in the traditional authoritarian programs actually regressed developmentally, while those in the self-directed learning program grew significantly.

Those in the traditional program reported a loss of self-esteem and frustration. Those in the self-directed program reported experiencing profound learning and personal development.

We learn best when the subject is personally meaningful, when we have input into what and how we learn, and when we have some measure of control over our life as a learner. In traditional graduate schools where teachers lectured and assigned specific reading material and specific topics for papers, adult students reported experiencing more frustration than learning. Individual needs cannot be accommodated in authoritarian, lockstep classes.

My research also showed that support, mutual trust, and respect were important factors in adult learning. Rigid, nonconstructive criticism devastates even an older student’s self-esteem, whereas thoughtful, constructive suggestions prod students toward higher levels of thinking.

To learn new ways of thinking requires giving up old ways, resulting in temporary disequilibrium and pain. Adults, like children, need a sense of safety to explore new ideas, new ways of thinking. Like a toddler learning to walk, we must feel free to occasionally fall as we learn. The discomfort and failures – when experienced in a safe environment – are catalysts for further development.

Why is it important for adults to learn throughout their lifespan? With our rapidly changing technology, most adult skills and knowledge quickly become obsolete without continual learning. A burgeoning problem for U.S. businesses is the dearth of employees who can cope with rapid change, complex problems, and uncertainty.

We need adults at the more advanced developmental stages who can apply higher-order thinking to problem-solving, decision-making, and long-range planning. The survival of the planet, in fact, is dependent on the decisions made not only by well-educated, but wise human beings who have had the opportunity to develop their fullest potential.

Dr. Dorothy Billington conducts research, writes and consults on issues of adult development and learning. She may be reached at 4101 181st Place SE, Issaquah, WA 98027 (206) 746-5239.

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