Itai Dinour -

Mar 23, 2021

The Power of Service-Learning

In late March of 2020, as the world was grappling with the realities of COVID-19, you may have missed the release of the final report of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Created by Congress in 2016, a group of 11 distinguished military and civilian leaders travelled the country to solicit ideas and make recommendations for how we can “increase participation in military, national, and public service to address national security and other public service needs of the Nation.” While the timing of the final report was unfortunate, the insights could not be more urgent as we grapple with how to help our country address the social and economic damage the pandemic has left in its wake.

One recommendation that could be implemented immediately is expanded service-learning starting in kindergarten and continuing all the way through college. The Commision defined service-learning as an “instructional approach that integrates classroom teaching and reflection with community service projects. Service-learning techniques may be applied in virtually any class — including science and mathematics — and provide students with meaningful experiences by exposing them to the values of service, such as commitment, contribution to community, and collaboration.”

While more funding is needed, including the restoration of the federal Learn & Serve grants program, there are plenty of bright-spot exemplars of what this work looks like in action. In schools affiliated with EL Education in addition to learning from text and classroom-based experiences, students use the natural and social environments of their communities as sites for purposeful fieldwork and service connected to academic work. Youth Service America runs service campaigns and offers resources to K-12 educators and out-of-school time professionals to bring this approach to their students. Campus Compact supports nearly 1,000 colleges and universities to become more civically engaged through trainings, fellowships, and online resources for administrators, faculty, and students.

Another exemplar is Cornell University. For over a decade, Einhorn Collaborative has recognized that active student engagement with their communities can advance learning outcomes that support the development of pro-social skills, including building empathy, bridging divides, and learning collaborative problem-solving. Because of this, we developed a partnership with Cornell to design and implement a strategy that would provide 100% of undergraduate students a high-quality, service-learning experience — what Cornell’s calls Community-Engaged Learning — as an integral part of their Cornell experience. Last month, our Trustee and Founder David Einhorn, joined a panel conversation at the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference to discuss the progress the university has achieved under this initiative.

We invite you to read a recap of the conversation below and meet some of the amazing students, alumni, faculty, and administrators whose tireless efforts, along with those of dedicated community partners, make this work possible.

As we start to turn the corner on this pandemic, many are calling to reimagine an education system that is capable of “recovering from the many crises of this past year in ways that sow the seeds for reinvention toward better, more equitable models of learning.” These new models of learning should be grounded in what we already know about how to prepare future generations to become the changemakers our communities desperately need. Let’s harness the wisdom of those already doing this work to expand service-learning to students everywhere. The result will be a generation of bridge-builders equipped and motivated to rebuild the social fabric of America.

Read more about Cornell’s commitment to Community-Engaged Learning here.

Itai Dinour formerly led Einhorn Collaborative’s Bridging strategy. Learn more about our work in Bridging and more about Itai. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter.