October 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 5 // Commentary // 5COM1

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Extension Is Not Just Service, But Service Learning Is Important to Extension

Service learning teaching methods connect meaningful community service to academic curricula. Service learning blends community service goals and formal and informal (standard/academic and experiential/non-standard) educational goals in a manner that benefits participants and recipients. Service learning is a set of techniques and tools that can strengthen community relationships and connections.

Greg Simpson
4-H Program Assistant
Tanana District Offices
Alaska Cooperative Extension
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Fairbanks, Alaska
Internet address: ftgds@uaf.edu

I do not think a uncertain balance or conflict exists if we define the Cooperative Extension Service as a primary service component of the triad mission of the land-grant university: teaching, research, and service. Although it may be true that nowhere in the original legislation or amendments that established the land-grant institutions, experiment stations, and Cooperative Extension Services, does the language indicate that Extension solely or exclusively constitutes the service part of the land-grant mission, Extension should play an important role in providing leadership, partnerships, and opportunities for service learning initiatives within the land-grant system.

Service learning is a teaching/learning method connecting meaningful community service with academic learning, personal growth, and civic responsibility. As a method of educational and informational delivery, the service learning model emphasizes that clients and students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized experiences that meet actual community needs and that are coordinated in on-going collaboration with the school or institution and the community. Schools using the service learning model (as contrasted to volunteerism or community service) integrate the service experiences into the student's academic curriculum or provide structured time for students to reflect and analyze the experiences and the connection of the experience to themes or theory or data, in short to think, talk, or write about what the student did and saw during the actual service activity and how the experience connects to larger issues or projects.

Service learning is designed to provide students and clients with opportunities to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real life situations in their own communities and to enhance what is taught in school by extending learning beyond the classroom and into the community and thus augmenting or fostering the development of a sense of caring for others.

Service learning blends service and learning goals in such a way that both occur at the same time and are enriched and supported by one another. It is a synergistic approach that combines formal (academic) and informal (experiential or non- academic) educational subject matter with a eye toward making the subject matter service-oriented. Services provided to clientele take into account methods for reflection, analysis, generalization, and make a strong, structured, clear link between application and experienced. This clearly established and defined link often sustains knowledge and services and further understanding of the possible effects, consequences, and outcomes.

Service learning has the potential to be one of those rare education models that enable participants to be winners. It focuses on activism and local control in a structured sense, combining but also because of its structured mission of reflecting, sharing, and working toward an understanding of materials or information and the processes of change or alteration that occur in the community.

Extension often has unique perspectives and relationships formed between institutions of higher learning and K-12 schools and local communities that those using or developing service learning initiatives should be aware of and use. Extension personnel work with volunteers in a wide variety of ways and methods. Extension personnel work in connection with a wide variety of state, local and national governmental agencies, non- profit and profit groups and companies, college and university departments and schools within and outside of the land-grant institutions. Extension personnel research, develop, plan, and initiate substantial, effective, locally-based programs geared toward making community members more self-sufficient, better informed, or more strongly empowered. All of this is valuable and important in terms of strengthening and developing service learning initiatives and programs.

Service learning is not a new idea. John Dewey wrote that actions directed toward the welfare of others stimulate academic and social development (Dewey 1916, 1933, 1938). William Heard Kilpatrick, who coined the term "Project Method," argued that learning should take place in a setting outside of school and involve efforts to meet real community needs (Kilpatrick 1918, 1925). During the "me decade" of the 1980's community service declined or became highly de-emphasized in school environments. With the national legislation of the early 1990s, however, a resurgence of community service, especially community service tied to school curricula, seems to be on the rise. Service learning, in differing forms and degrees, has been an integral element in child-rearing practices in most cultures throughout history.

The provisions of the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993 encourage schools and institutions to develop service learning programs. Many schools and post-secondary institutions have been able to build upon existing student service activities. By adding a reflection component and more fully integrating community service activities into the curriculum, these schools have transformed their existing volunteer activities into service learning. Others have created new programs. Because Extension is involved in the dissemination of knowledge and expertise in ways that empower and build life-long capacities for growth and development in our constituents, Extension should develop service learning initiatives or strengthen existing service learning programs though partnerships with existing centers and programs.

It has been proven and argued that service learning programs at colleges and universities can and do strengthen relationships between higher education institutions and the communities served. When students and community members are involved as recipients and/or participants in traditional research-based courses, formal or informal, relevant information can be gleamed and learned in the process. When projects and course information result in service experiences, the recipients are forced to use the information to make changes, "to make a difference" and to do something with what they have learned.

We must begin to recognize the potential that service learning may hold for Extension and how Extension can better extend itself toward strengthening service learning initiatives. As a model for engaging clients and volunteers and building and strengthening community relationships and connections, service learning may prove to be an effective and malleable set of techniques and tools.

Abstract: Service learning teaching methods connect meaningful community service to academic curricula. Service learning blends community service goals and formal and informal (standard/academic and experiential/non-standard) educational goals in a manner that benefits participants and recipients. Service learning is a set of techniques and tools that can strengthen community relationships and connections.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. In The later works of John Dewey (Vol. 8). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 105-352.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier Books, 1938.

Kilpatrick, W.H. (1918). The project method. Teachers College Record, 19, 319-335.

Kilpatrick, W. H. (1925). Foundations of method: Informal talks on teaching. New York: Macmillan.