Experience is essential to understanding, and understanding leads to social problem solving.

The Learning Pyramid

John Dewey (1859-1952)

Service Learning: A course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students (a) participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and (b) reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.

Therefore service learning integrates community service and educational objectives. Reflection is the bridge between the service activity and the educational content.

Dewey contended that experience is as important as theory because "personal experiences, such as those gained through community service, allow theory to take on meaning when reflection supports an analysis and critical examination of the experience."

It is through active learning and the interplay between abstract, remote content and personal, palatable experiences that student learning is deepened and strengthened.

Reflection is an "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supported form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it."

Experience becomes educative when critical reflective thought creates new meaning and leads to growth and the ability to take informed actions. Communication is a key to creating educative experiences and leads to educational, social, and moral development.

The Conditions that Maximize the Potential for Inquiry-Based Learning to Be Educative:

  1. It must generate interest in the learner.
  2. It must be intrinsically worthwhile to the learner.
  3. It must present problems that awaken new curiosity and create a demand for information.
  4. It must cover a considerable time span and foster development over time.

Experiences outside the classroom often cause dissonance, doubt, and confusion as students will face new circumstances and challenges. This perplexity is necessary because it fosters reflection and thinking.

Dewey's Educational Philosophy:

  1. Education must lead to personal growth.
  2. Education must contribute to humane conditions.
  3. Education must engage citizens in association with one another.

James Bradley

Criteria for Assessing Levels of Reflection

Level One

  1. Gives examples of observed behavior or characteristics of the client or setting, but provides no insight into reasons behind observation; observations tend to become dimensional and conventional or unassimilated repetitions of what has been heard in class or from peers.
  2. Tends to focus on just one aspect of the situation.
  3. Uses unsupported personal beliefs as frequently as "hard" evidence.
  4. Many acknowledge differences of perspective but do not discriminate effectively among them.

Level Two

  1. Observations are fairly thorough and nuanced although they tend not to be placed in a broader context.
  2. Provides a cogent critique from one perspective, but fails to see the broader system in which the aspect is embedded and other factors that may make change difficult.
  3. Uses both unsupported personal belief and evidence but is beginning to be able to differentiate between them.
  4. Perceived legitimate differences of viewpoint.
  5. Demonstrates a beginning ability to interpret evidence.

Level Three

  1. Views things from multiple perspectives; able to observe multiple aspects of the situation and place them in context.
  2. Perceives conflicting goals within and among the individuals involved in a situation and recognizes that the differences can be evaluated.
  3. Recognizes that actions must be situationally dependently and understands many of the factors that affect their choice.
  4. Makes appropriate assessment of the importance of the decisions facing clients and of his or her responsibility as a part of the clients' lives.


John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan Inc., 1916).

Task Group on Education, Strong Foundations: Principles for Effective General Education Programs. (Washington, D.C.: Association for American Colleges, 1994).

John Dewey, How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1933), 146.

John Gouinlock, ed., The Moral Writings of John Dewey (New York: Prometheus Books, 1994), xxxvi.

Dwight E. Giles and Janet Eyler, "The Theoretical Roots of Service-learning in John Dewey: Towards a Theory of Service-learning," Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 4 (1997):22-29.

Bradley, J. (1995). A model for evaluating student learning in academically based service, Connecting Cognition and Action: Evaluation of Student Performance in Service Learning Courses, ed. M.Troppe (Denver: Education Commission of the States/ Campus Compact).

National Training Lab (n.d.) The Learning Pyramid. Bethel, Maine.

What I Want to Know

Can all majors participate in Service Learning? Do I have to pay to participate in Service Learning? How do i get involved? What is Service Learning? What organizations does Service Learning have partnerships with?