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Make Service Learning Global

Service learning goes beyond volunteering or fundraising. It has explicit learning objectives and involves real-world skills and critical analysis. My colleague Heather Singmaster examines ways to make service learning projects globally focused.

By Heather Singmaster

As service learning has taken root in schools and afterschool programs, its primary focus has been local and national. However, examining global issues can motivate a greater understanding of and involvement in local issues, and vice versa. If you already have a service component to your program, look for the global implications of the issues you already address. Or, help youth identify causes that are inherently global, such as protecting the environment, rebuilding after natural disasters, assisting those in poverty, or expanding educational opportunity, and create local projects that take into account broad perspectives and implications.

It is also important to provide structure, focus, and clear learning objectives for knowledge acquisition as young people embark on international service projects. Remind students always to respect the people and causes you are taking on. Youth should see themselves not as heroes who set out to rescue a victim, but as citizens who share an equal part in the challenges and responsibilities of a global age.

Here are some steps to get started:
Organize committees and groups to work on project planning, and create an oversight structure that considers which decisions youth can make and which adults must make.

Identify the kinds of skills that will make young people effective agents of change. As participants help to structure service learning projects, encourage them to consider the full scope of their involvement by asking the following questions:

  • Relevance: Does the project identify an issue that is important both locally and globally? Does the project idea inspire others?
  • Research: Have participants used a variety of international sources to learn about this issue? Are their assumptions, ideas, and conclusions based on a solid knowledge base? Have they conducted their own research, such as polling or interviews, on how this issue impacts their community?
  • Point of View: Does the project consider the issue from multiple perspectives?
  • Analysis: Does the project thoroughly examine the issue and present informed conclusions on how to take action?
  • Implementation and Impact: Is the project collaborative, creative, and effective? Do participants demonstrate leadership abilities?

Consider discussing these elements with the students and get their input from the conceptual stage through completion. Some schools draw up a student agreement based on these conversations to make sure—for all involved parties—expectations are very clear.

Learn more about the characteristics of successful service learning programs. Also consider many schools that are serious about global learning have made service learning a graduation requirement.

Follow-up and Reflection
Reflection is a critical piece of any service learning initiative—both during the project and afterwards. It also gives students the opportunity to practice their research, writing, presentation, and technology skills. Other students in the school, in turn, will be able to learn more about global challenges. Consider some of these activities for students:


  • Oral presentations: This could include one-on-one student presentations with the teacher or project leader; a whole-class or group discussion; or an oral report to the class and community partner, ideally with PowerPoint or other multimedia assets. Students can also research the issues and local experts, then organize and moderate an evening panel discussion with invited guests and a public audience.

  • Multimedia projects: Create a photo, slide or video essay; post images to an Intranet or Internet site; create drawings, collages, or other artwork of the project; or stage dance, music, or theater presentations. Curate a photography exhibition using photographs from around the world, with appropriate captions, and give docent presentations to family and community members.

  • Writing: Record the experience through essays or research papers; write in journals, whether shared or maintained privately; create a case study or history of the project or of an individual outside the school who participated; develop a guide for future participants; or write a news release and try to place it with a local newspaper.

Give students the chance to consider how they want to make a difference in the world, and provide the background knowledge on issues that are appropriate in order to ground the learning and help them make informed choices. That is a critical component of a world-class education.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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