Debunking The Misconception Of Service Learning (It’s More Than Service!)

KIS students and faculty participate in service and service learning, sometimes interchanging the terms. Here high school senior Sarah discusses the difference between service and service learning. She hopes students value the empowering effect of learning intertwined with service.

Countless refugees striving at the brinks of life and death, women risking everything for #metoo, six year olds working endlessly. Our world is rife with injustice and inequality; in every corner, there is some form of poverty or corruption. In an effort to combat these injustices and alleviate the pain and suffering, many high school students raise funds and charity, whether that is a fund run or bake sale. Many of us who do this work are quick to say, “Yeah, I do service learning. Raising funds and giving service to people.” As correct as this phrase seems to be, service learning is a misnomer.

There is a difference between service and service learning. According to the National Youth Leadership Council, service learning is “an approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs.” In other words, service learning, as the name itself literally states, is the act of learning from the service we give to the people around us. While service is focused on the receiver of the service with documented student reflection to improve their next service, service learning stresses the learning before the service. Utilizing an academic context, teachers and students (and their parents) together construct a graded service oriented project or assignment that employs concepts students learn in class to benefit the community around them.


Let’s think through this idea. When we clean up a park, we volunteer. When we reflect on that experience to make improvements, we practice service. When we analyze the air and ecosystem of the park, we learn. Then we submit our air pollution data to an environmental agency: put all of these steps together and we practice service learning.

Although there are subtle differences, it is undeniable that service volunteerism and service learning are highly intertwined. Service learning is built on the foundations of service, volunteerism, and charity. As Korea International School presses for more service learning in classes, we understand that charity, volunteerism, and service are prerequisites for service learning. Service learning is not completely disparate from service. Rather, service learning is an extension, the next stage of our impact on the world.

Why is service learning important anyway? In a world where we are repeatedly told that giving and compassion is important, it seems that service is an obvious answer. But service learning is more complex, and requires a greater level of understanding. With so much pressure and stress on academics, many Korean students are oblivious to the immense power their learning can have on others. When schools focus on service learning, students must reflect on the service they are doing, which leads them to a deeper understanding of themselves and the community around them. It brings forth paramount questions: what is the purpose of learning? What good is there about learning the rise and fall of animals and plants? What good does learning redox reaction, Benjamin Franklin, multiple integration do? Service learning aids us in grasping the true value of learning, and the lasting impact it can have on our society.

With these benefits of service learning, we need to shift curriculums from merely taking exams to include service learning so that when students go into the real world, they will know that those nights of studying chemistry, history, literature can be put into good use by applying their learning far beyond the world of any school wall. We must take a risk to go out to the community with a genuine passion to make a difference. Equipping students with facts and concepts is not enough for them to make lasting changes in the world; they need to cultivate responsibility, compassion, and understanding through service learning. But before we do anything, we need to be aware of the true definition of service learning as an extension of service, with the intention to sustainably improve a community. And only then can we press for service learning in schools.

Sarah is a senior who has been a school journalist for the past four years, writing on various platforms about veiled issues around our school and the world. 

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