Schools Must Connect Learning to Real-World Experience. Service Learning...

Opinion | Social-Emotional Learning

Schools Must Connect Learning to Real-World Experience. Service Learning Can Help.

By Matthew Atwell and Justina Schlund     Jul 26, 2021

Schools Must Connect Learning to Real-World Experience. Service Learning Can Help.

As communities across the country prepare for the upcoming school year, there is cause for long-awaited optimism. Many students will be returning to the classroom with different kinds of skills and relationships built during an incredibly difficult year. They’ve expanded their hobbies and interests, navigated new technology and learned how to play a role in keeping their communities healthy. They’ve maintained friendships across distance, helped out neighbors, built connections with classmates online and deepened relationships with family members.

This moment of transition has also spurred a national conversation around fears of “learning loss” and disengagement. But the learning opportunities that parents and teachers are concerned about students losing out on reach beyond what’s measured by academic test scores. If you ask them what kinds of learning are most needed to address this moment and support young people long-term, they’ll point to an education that prioritizes their social and emotional development and prepares students to make a positive difference in their communities.

In a new Civic report, Ready to Engage, both parents and teachers overwhelmingly demand a holistic view of education that prepares students for life, via both social and emotional learning (SEL) and service-learning, defined by the Corporation for National and Community Service as a form of experiential education in which students learn through service. This can include tutoring other students or volunteering in a community organization, as long as the experience is tied back to classroom learning.

In the report, parents and teachers agreed that “education should be about more than learning academic material.” Parents prioritized integrity and finding happiness over getting a good job or being prepared for college, and teachers endorsed developing students’ social and emotional competencies just as much as their academic ones.

But, troublingly, only one in 10 teachers believe their schools are very successful at developing students’ abilities to apply knowledge to real-world situations, making courses relevant to students’ futures, and developing students’ social and emotional skills. Additionally, schools in rural areas or with higher proportions of low-income students are least likely to have formalized SEL and service learning programs.

This implementation gap is a clear sign we need to envision a new definition for student success, one that is better aligned with the aspirations parents have for their children, and what teachers see as foundational for their students. It is time to expand the “learning loss” discussion to respond to both the widespread demand for SEL and service learning, as well as the disparities in their implementation. So how do we meet this critical moment in education, close the implementation gap for SEL and service learning, and prepare our students’ for lifelong success?

To close the implementation gap, here are five action steps that district leaders can take:

Envision an education that fully supports academic, social, and emotional learning. Work with students, parents, teachers and community partners to create a vision of student success that more clearly emphasizes the social and emotional aspects of learning alongside academics. Communicate the vision clearly and consistently through learning standards, mission statements and curricula. Expand access to integrated service learning and SEL opportunities.

Establish roles and responsibilities that ensure the work gets done. For example, create an SEL team that includes a service learning coordinator (or utilize volunteers like those from AmeriCorps) to cultivate community partnerships and expand service learning opportunities in schools.

Plan professional learning to promote educator’s capacity and knowledge of SEL and service learning. Teachers are calling for high-quality professional learning in SEL and service learning, including resources for adapting curricula and programs to virtual forums. Work with educators to define training priorities aligned to SEL and service learning goals, and provide job-embedded professional learning and coaching in evidence-based practices.

Integrate SEL and service learning standards together to enrich student learning opportunities. Dozens of states have already identified some type of framework or learning standards related to SEL, service learning or community service. Look for how to integrate these standards in practice—for example, formalizing service learning opportunities that include explicit reflection and practice of social and emotional competencies. If your state doesn’t have SEL and service learning standards, advocate for clear learning goals that prioritize these areas.

Emphasize SEL and service learning in workforce preparation opportunities. Social and emotional competencies create a foundation for students to pursue their career and life goals, and employers are looking to hire those who can collaborate, build relationships across diverse groups, think critically, and work toward goals—all skills built through service learning. Develop public-private partnerships with community partners and businesses to design work-based learning and service learning to explicitly emphasize SEL skills.

Both of our organizations, CASEL and Civic, have long prioritized SEL and service learning separately, building on research that shows the long-term benefits for students. Service learning increases student engagement in school, and at least one survey of students who dropped out of high school showed real-world learning opportunities like service learning would have improved their chances of graduating. Similarly, more than two decades of research shows high-quality SEL opportunities can bolster academic performance, mental health and long-term success.

In the world reshaped by the pandemic, our organizations recognize the power in integrating both SEL and service learning to develop engaged students and future leaders who are ready to achieve their goals, innovate during crisis, support their communities, and contribute to a more just and equitable world. The evidence and perspectives of teachers, parents, and youth are clear: We need to work together to ensure SEL and service learning positively impact next school year and beyond for students everywhere. These are the kinds of learning we cannot afford to lose.

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