Email received with this question: “I would really appreciate if you can share me the difference between terms such as volunteer, community service, service learning.”

These answers are broad strokes intended to open the dialogue.

In society in general the role of the volunteer is quite important — providing much needed assistance in ways that are not being met through salaried positions. For example, in youth sports programs, in a library, or a hospital. In a school however, the term volunteer is different. We ask a child to volunteer to take papers to the office. This is helpful, however with school being a place of learning, there is no learning that is necessarily taking place. We do need adult volunteers in school; youth volunteers in schools are necessary and helpful but this is not service.

Community service is generally speaking identifying a way to take action (service) in the environs (the community) and doing it. This may just involve showing up. While sometimes this can be done well, in many cases this can also be done without some of the significant markers that deepen understanding or learning. The participants may not be prepared. They may not have a personal voice or investment. They may not know why they are doing the action. They may be seeking school credit or to resolve a school or court appointed punishment. They may skip reflection altogether. There may be learning though it may not be explicit.

With service learning, the conceptual framework takes participants through five stages: investigation, preparation, action, reflection (ongoing), and demonstration. The students have investigated to understand the community assets and needs regarding the issue; they know their own skills and talents and how to apply them in a way that meets the authenticated need. They have engaged with partners, as is appropriate, and see the value in all involved. They prepare with knowledge and skills to be ready to implement a well thought out plan of action that listens to the voices of all involved. Along the way they reflect in meaningful and purposeful ways — again letting their voice and choice determine how the reflection is done and when. Demonstration captures and tells the story to others, and may even appear as service in how they communicate the entire process, the learning and the service. The entire service learning process is intended to move the curriculum forward, and deepen the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, through high level student inquiry and application of ideas. Wow!

All throughout my website under Resources and Blogs you will find articles and examples that I believe brings all of this into greater clarity. And of course, The Complete Guide to Service Learning adds more explanation of each stage of service learning, with hundreds of examples and hundreds of books that are excellent to use in the process.

I love receiving questions!

Thanks for reading. Please send your thoughts (and more questions) to

By Cathryn Berger Kaye, M.A.


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