This article focuses on how service-learning projects can help develop leadership skills in students from kindergarten through college. It discusses how the skills acquired while working on a community project can be transferred to the classroom and campus. Other direct and indirect benefits of service learning are also addressed.
Keywords Civic Responsibility; Critical Thinking Skills; Experiential Learning; Leadership Skills; National & Community Service Act of 1990; Reflection; Service Learning; Student Leadership; Volunteerism
A leader is one who leads or guides, and leadership is the process by which a person helps others accomplish their objectives and goals. Leadership differs from management in that it influences people to achieve goals rather than solely taking direction and completing individual work. Successful leaders can do this by applying various attributes such as values, ethics, knowledge, character, and persuasiveness. Conventional wisdom used to be that leaders are born; but people can acquire knowledge, gain character, develop a sense of ethics, and change their value system if need be. People can also learn to be persuasive, work well in a group setting, delegate, and many other traits that make an effective leader. Service learning can help students of any age develop all these characteristics through volunteerism.
The National and Community Service Act of 1990, as amended through December 17, 1999, defines service learning as a way by which students, through active participation in a service project performed in the community, learn and develop. Service learning projects are integrated into the academic curriculum or the educational aspects of the program, and the experiences must address actual needs in their community and help foster civic responsibility. For a project to be considered true service learning, it must also provide structured reflection time for students to reflect on and discuss what they may have learned and seen while servicing the community.
Service learning has become an important component of many educational programs from kindergarten through college. Service learning provides experiential learning by pairing classroom concepts with real-world community needs, which helps students see real-life applications of what they are learning in school. Service learning can help foster leadership skills in those who participate. Through service learning, students can take responsibility, learn new skills, develop presentation and persuasive skills, and become effective leaders. Service learning increases students’ critical thinking skills and helps them learn how to function as part of a group; both important leadership traits. For older students, service learning can also help define career goals and direct their collegiate studies by exposing them to professions they may not know exist and learning about the skills required of the profession. Students can meet government administrators, civil servants, college professors, social workers, scientists, health care workers, and others who work throughout the community. They are able to meet with leaders of professions and evaluate whether they have the same interests and leadership style as those with whom they come into contact. Interacting with community leaders provides real examples of leadership in action. Service learning projects help students acquire “skills necessary for effective leadership, including social and interpersonal skills, the ability to listen, and presentation skills, working in group settings, setting goals, negotiation, and conflict resolution. Students observe and analyze leadership skills and thus define their own” (Pleasants, et al, 2004, ¶ 11).
Leadership skills can be broken down into four categories: intellectual skills, participatory skills, research skills, and persuasion skills. Intellectual skills include interpreting, analyzing, summarizing, and evaluating information; understanding issues; being able to describe and evaluate; identifying criteria to make judgments; and identifying responsibilities. Participatory skills include solving problems and taking action, compromising, seeking consensus, and making decisions. Being able to understand the issues and make choices based on fact fall under the research category as does acquiring information from groups and individuals and reporting on meetings. Persuasive skills include being able to develop a rationale to support a particular point of view and building consensus ("Fostering Civic Responsibility," 2000).
Service learning projects can help youth enhance their leadership skills in many different ways. Students may offer to help other students who are working on the project but having difficulty completing their particular tasks or helping them to understand the project as a whole. Students may even contribute beyond what is expected of them or their particular assignment and continue to volunteer and work with the project host long after the community service project is completed. By working on one component of a project and having their classmates work on others, students are able to value the contributions of all team members. Students learn to respect their fellow team members and those individuals who are on the receiving end of the service project. They also learn to respect the philosophy of the organization and its accomplishments by their close association with the organization. Students learn to take responsibility for themselves and the project and learn to participate and collaborate in group activities. “Students learn about civic and social responsibility, their intellectual development is enhanced by answering engaging questions about themselves and their world; and they exercise moral/ethical reasoning when faced with difficult social issues while working on their projects” (Easterling & Rudell, 1997, ¶ 12).
All these leadership skills can be further developed by what they do in school. With the confidence and knowledge they gained from participating in service projects, students are ready for even more responsibility in school. Students involved in service-learning projects can come back in the classroom and help those who were not participants or who are too young to contribute to certain projects. For example, high school students could integrate information garnered on violence in adolescent relationships and conduct workshops on relationship violence and date rape for the entire school and develop an informational brochure or leaflet detailing the warning signs and where to go for help, thus all students benefit from a small group's desire to help others and the initiative they took ("Fostering Civic Responsibility," 2000).
Another example of how the leadership skills students acquire from service-learning projects can be used in the schools comes from the Eaton's Hill State School in Queensland, Australia. Teachers who instruct students in their early years there rotate opportunities for classroom responsibilities and leadership positions to give everyone a chance to participate. Students present at assembly with a few of their peers so they are not too overwhelmed or intimidated by the setting. Students show new students around the school on a one-on-one basis. They also present gifts of appreciation to classroom visitors on behalf of the class and share information about class activities as a group at special events or occasions. Students in the middle years do all of the same things as those in their early years but take on a little more responsibility and begin to act independently of the group. They present at assembly with peers or individually, or 'adopt' new students and help induct them into class and school routines and places. Students in their upper years at the school do everything the other students do, but they continue to build on their responsibilities and become tour guides, showing parents and guests around the school (Eaton's Hill State School, 2005).
There are now schools that are allowing students to become involved in decision making for the school. Students are assisting with textbook and instructional materials adoption with guidance from their instructors, which can increase their interest in school. They are serving on committees when vacancies occur at the school and helping the administration decide what new courses could be taught to be responsive to their needs and interests. Students are also helping to decide the scheduling of the school day, how the school building will be used, how available funds are spent, and issues concerning extracurricular activities (Fletcher, n.d.). These opportunities allow students to be fully engaged in their education, learn to appreciate all aspects that go into running a school and the employees that run it, and continue to hone their leadership skills.
Some assume that “leadership is an innate gift and is not something that can be learned. However, there is a teachable set of skills that can be learned; and any student can demonstrate leadership potential...
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