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The Why, What and How, Intentional Service Learning in the Primary School

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The Why, What and How, Intentional Service Learning in the Primary School

‘The Starfish Story’ tells the tale of a young boy who takes action to bring about positive change in his environment one small act at a time. In the story the boy is busy throwing some of the hundreds of washed up starfish back into the ocean when he is approached by a passerby who asks him what he is doing. The child replies that he is helping the starfish and putting them back into the ocean where they are safe. The man laughs and tells the boy not to waste his time as his small actions will not make a difference. The little boy picks up a starfish and tosses it into the ocean and says to the man, “I made a difference for that one.”

This story inspired our recent Starfish Exhibition—A Celebration of Primary Service, which gave our Primary students an opportunity to pause and reflect on the Service they have been involved with over the course of the academic year, through College and Local Service activities and the Global Concerns (GC) programme. Reflection is essential to the Service Learning process. As Catherine Berger Kaye, an international Service Learning consultant states, “Service is not Service Learning until the reflection and sharing takes place.” Renowned educational reformer John Dewey also believed that “we do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”

The exhibition provided students time to consider the impact of their Service involvement, whether that was helping in the gardening community, visiting the elderly at St Andrew’s or raising awareness and funds for one of their many GC projects. The intention was that learners would recognise the impact of their contributions, and understand that many small acts combined can have a large impact, creating positive change in the world around them.

The importance of Service Learning (Why)
Service has been an integral part of our College since our beginning. In fact, other educational organisations often look to UWCSEA for guidance when developing their programmes. Learning through Service provides a values-based and holistic experience for students and is one of the five core elements of our Learning Programme, together with Academics, Activities, Outdoor Education and Personal and Social Education. For many parents and educators, our commitment to Service is
one of the traits that sets UWCSEA apart from other international schools.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that today’s society needs a dramatic shift in order to cope with global challenges and the uncertain future of humanity and the natural world. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a collection of global goals set by the United Nations, covering urgent social and economic development issues. These goals call for a transformation of the way in which the world addresses key issues such as poverty, health, education and climate change by 2030 (the year that current K2 children will graduate from UWCSEA). As the saying goes, children are our future, which leads to the question—what do schools need to do to equip children and young people with the drive, desire and skills to bring about positive change in the world?

Service Learning offers a way for students to work in an experiential manner to develop the qualities and skills that will motivate them to participate as active and successful citizens throughout their lives. Catherine Berger Kaye defines Service Learning as “guided or classroom learning is applied through action that addresses an authentic community need in a process that allows for youth initiative and provides structured time for reflection … and demonstration of acquired skills and knowledge”.

Defining Service Learning at UWCSEA (What)
Whilst our learners have always taken a significant amount of Service action, UWCSEA’s written Service curriculum was developed as part of the Curriculum Project. This deliberate approach has embedded Service Learning into day-to-day classroom experiences across all grades K–12. Importantly, it has become a measurable part of the learning programme we offer, with Standards, Conceptual Understandings and Benchmarks applied in the same way as for the academic elements of the Learning Programme.

UWCSEA Service curriculum standards:
Awareness: By developing awareness, qualities and skills, individuals can become determined global citizens who recognise their ability to enact positive change.
Sustainable Development–Systems Thinking: Individuals and groups can plan to engage effectively in the sustainable development of local and global communities.
Taking Action–Being a Changemaker: By taking informed, purposeful action, individuals and groups can act as changemakers, contributing to the sustainable development of local and global communities.

A key resource for creating the Service Standards was Catherine Berger Kaye’s ‘Cycle of Service Learning’ which describes how the learning is not only based upon the act of Service; rather it is also in being aware, thinking critically to prepare for Service, taking informed action, and finally reflecting upon and sharing experiences. Informing the process of writing our curriculum, Systems Thinking enabled us to look at the overall curriculum, rather than at discrete parts, to understand and make explicit the interconnectedness and relationships between the elements.

Service Learning in the classroom (How)
Implementing the Service curriculum is ongoing and we continually review the intended learning outcomes to optimise their impact. For example, we recently reconfigured the Grade 1 Lion Befrienders Local Service to enable students to be involved in information gathering and decision making by taking a systems thinking approach to planning the activity.

Grade 1 Lion Befrienders Case Study:
Awareness: Prior to the visit interview questions were developed and a small group visited the centre in order to meet the residents and gather information to help decision making and planning.
Sustainable Development–Systems Thinking: After the visit the students compiled and discussed their findings, which they then shared with their classes. From this, and students and teachers worked together to plan activities going forward.
Taking Action–Being a Changemaker: Grade 1 students regularly visit the Lion Befrienders centre, using the plans they created as a guide. Students then reflect individually, shared their reflections with their families (via Seesaw) and with K2 students to provide inspiration and encouragement.

Each grade-level team is in the process of analysing the Conceptual Understandings and Benchmarks so as to determine how they can be further integrated into the students’ learning. As this takes place, the complete spectrum of Service Learning will be fully embedded into our programme.

Service Learning is a key element of the UWCSEA Learning Programme, and is crucial for us to achieve our mission of education as a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future. This is perhaps best explained by students; such as Finn in Grade 1, who had this to say about his involvement in Service: “Helping people makes them happy. And that makes us happy. And that makes the world a better place”. The starfish story of UWCSEA.



Berger Kaye, C. (2010). The Complete Guide to Service Learning: Proven, Practical Ways to Engage Students in Civic Responsibility, Academic Curriculum, & Social Action (2nd ed.). Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing Inc.

18 Jun 2018
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