Why I dislike “service learning”

451Learn and Serve America’s National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (NSLC) defines service learning as

a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.

At its best, service learning is an integrated approach in which students are engaged with the actual life of the community around them; they learn to act in socially responsible ways; their learning has value beyond themselves; and it’s relevant to their own experiences and future. A full service learning approach involves two-way learning, in which students and community members learn from one another, recognizing that each has important resources to share.

This is in contrast to standard learning, that which we usually see in classrooms. We call that “learning,” which suggests that it’s the norm, the ordinary, the unhyphenated, the unmarked. It’s considered to be real learning, unlike the specialized, add-on, extraordinary models such as “service learning.”

But here’s my problem, and why I dislike the term “service learning”: Why do we think that learning connected to life is the marked case? Why do we give it the special designation? Why is the usual approach considered the standard?

I propose that what has up until now been called “learning,” the activity we see so often in classrooms, henceforth be called “disconnected, irrelevant, irresponsible, minimal-value learning.” Accordingly, we drop the term “service learning.” Instead, it is just “learning”; the norm is then learning that is integrated, relevant, responsible, and serves the needs of both the learner and the society.


Roy, Loriene, Jensen, Kelly, & Meyers, Alex Hershey (2009). Service learning : linking library education and practice. Chicago : American Library Association, 2009.

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