Change Stories


11 May

Engaged students, vigorous society: "service-learning" represents a great education opportunity for all

Service-learning (SL), aka Learning through Civic Engagement, is a teaching and learning concept that combines the social involvement of pupils with appropriate learning more

Engaged students, vigorous society: "service-learning" represents a great education opportunity for all

Service-learning (SL), aka Learning through Civic Engagement, is a teaching and learning concept that combines the social involvement of pupils with appropriate learning content at school. For Silke Petersen-Bukop, an educationalist at a "Gemeinschaftsschule" (similar to a comprehensive school but including primary school) in Flensburg, SL is a form of teaching that benefits pupils and teachers, individuals and society. A teacher with many years of experience, she is firmly convinced that service-learning is a key to modern-day learning – especially in the post-Covid-19 era.
Silke Petersen-Bukop
"You keep on learning your whole life," believes Silke Petersen-Bukop. She teaches German, religious education and philosophy in grades 5 – 10 at the Fridtjof-Nansen School in Flensburg. It was doubtless this same belief that led her to continue her academic career after the birth of her four children and obtaining her first degrees in German and Romance Philology. She decided to study Protestant Theology and German with the objective of becoming a teacher. In 2012 – after many years of teaching – this belief ultimately resulted in her discovering service-learning more or less by accident while taking an in-service training course for teachers aimed at something else. She has since been "infected with service-learning", as she says.

"Schooling must not be confined to the classroom"

Once her curiosity had been piqued, she then decided to attend the nationwide service-learning conference organized by the Foundation for Learning through Civic Engagement, and was immediately hooked - inspired by what was on offer and the opportunity to exchange news and views but above all by the SL approach, which is based on combining social involvement with appropriate learning content in students’ lessons. Silke Petersen-Bukop is firmly convinced that schooling must not be confined to the classroom but take place in close conjunction with society and real life. "School is the worst place to learn," she says, with a knowing smile.

And so the Fridtjof-Nansen School in Flensburg soon ran its first service-learning project, as one of a range of compulsory-course options. The course’s motto was "Make a difference!" (literal translation "Move something!"). Demand for the new course was huge – even though this was initially due to a misunderstanding because students thought the course was about fitness and aerobics. But what was actually concealed behind this motto then triggered ever-growing enthusiasm among the ninth- and tenth-graders. They discovered the true meaning of "commitment" and "involvement", they learned how to find out what a community really needs and many of them identified for the first time their own strengths and how they could contribute them to the team’s work. The actual demands in terms of their commitment, reflection and the subsequent processing of their experiences in lessons, plus the huge amount of individual responsibility assumed by students, are encapsulated in a total of six quality standards for service-learning. The target is to create a learning culture that strengthens young people’s capacity for action and that helps to cement our democratic society, by enabling the children and young people, irrespective of their social origins, to acquire skills like assuming responsibility, proactive involvement and critical thinking.

Highlights of service-learning, both big and small

Silke Petersen-Bukop has supported innumerable service-learning projects since then. One such memorable project was the War-Escape-Asylum project she initiated together with a fellow-teacher and about 60 tenth-graders, which won the Service-Learning School Prize in 2018, a prize awarded annually by the Foundation for Learning through Civic Engagement.

The origins of the project can be traced back to 2016 when many refugees arrived in Flensburg, most of them on their way to Sweden. Some of them stayed and became an ever-growing presence in the town. "We have to spotlight this", was Silke Petersen-Bukop’s firm conviction, especially as it became increasingly apparent just how much this difficult situation polarised the classes.

And how the students turned this philosophy class topic (aimed at informing the public about migration and refugee experience) into actual reality left a lasting impression on them: one team, for example, conducted elaborate research which served as the basis for developing a video that was accessible to children which explained the backgrounds of and reasons for fleeing one country and migrating to another. A second group compiled material on the "Balkan route" (a term which is often mentioned in politics and the media), including a map that illustrated just what this route meant for those people who used it. And yet another group of students put together an "escape suitcase" for illustrative use in lessons; this was triggered by a story a student had been told by her own grandfather. And so the project threw up entirely new, specific and also personal connections with the issue for the young people. One student decided to continue conducting interviews in the streets of Flensburg long after the project had been completed.

Being awarded the School Prize was a high token of appreciation and a very special event for both the students and the teachers involved, yet Silke Petersen-Bukop recalls above all the many smaller service-learning achievements. The pride of the lower grade pupils, for example, when they organized hours of reading aloud to children in day care centers, or a school pond that was created as part of an SL project. Smartphone courses for senior citizens proved extremely popular, with students being veritably inundated with inquiries – even though they had to find the appropriate operating instructions on the Internet themselves since the devices they were confronted with were relatively old – like their owners. Experience has taught Silke Petersen-Bukop that service-learning is able to reach people of all ages and genders. And there are certain benefits that can be observed in each project: how shy students thrive and prosper, and how students facing difficulties at school demonstrate their hidden talents.

"service-learning boosts people’s resilience"

Silke Petersen-Bukop regards service-learning as a counterbalance to the "self-optimization hype", which has been quite prevalent for some time now. This hype focuses entirely on "me myself", she says, and produces a "society of egotists". SL, by contrast, focuses on the community, on others, and on bringing about a change of perspective. And yet, SL is also about promoting each individual’s strengths, about giving everyone the gratifying experience of having helped to successfully implement a service project. Celebrating the completion of each project with everyone involved is an integral part of service-learning.

Silke Petersen-Bukop also provides pastoral care at her school and therefore knows that in the moments when students doubt themselves and their capabilities, they are able to take comfort from the fact that they can actually make a difference. It frequently happens that years later students can still recall the smallest of details of their projects.

But Silke Petersen-Bukop is aware that it is by no means only the students who benefit from the positive effects of SL. "Service-learning boosts resilience" – of everyone, including the teachers, she says. The appreciation and recognition they gain for this form of teaching, from students, fellow-teachers, and from associates outside the school, are "things to treasure", she adds.

Here she draws not only on her own personal experience but also on the experience she gained as an service-learning propagator. Silke Petersen-Bukop worked for a long time in that capacity at the SL Competence Center Schleswig-Holstein. At the Center for Teacher Training (ZfL) of the Europa-Universität Flensburg she is currently introducing the concept of service-learning to other educationalists, encouraging them to adopt this new approach. This is also being promoted by Schleswig-Holstein’s Ministry of Education as part of a cooperation agreement for service-learning which was newly concluded in 2020.

Potential for the post-Covid-19 school

Silke Petersen-Bukop is firmly convinced that service-learning possesses a huge potential for schools in the future. Social media and the Internet have rendered teachers replaceable as purveyors of knowledge. Therefore, their role in future will have to shift to that of mentors who support their students in categorizing knowledge and linking it up with their own experiences. Especially in post-Covid-19 times, she continues, lessons which impart knowledge above and beyond specialist subject information will become even more important. It is currently impossible to foresee what gaps the crisis has caused and what consequences it will have for the students. What will then be needed, she says, are approaches such as SL that offer scope for demand-driven learning and shared reflection of the experience gained.
Silke Petersen-Bukop’s vision is to use service-learning in all school subjects. Brimming with ideas for future projects, she is perfectly clear about one thing: service-learning is much more valuable for students’ prospects than any grade in their school reports.

The Freudenberg Foundation has been committed to service-learning in Germany since 2001. What used to be a keynote in the Freudenberg Foundation’s portfolio was hived off in 2017 and set up as an autonomous foundation, the Foundation for Learning through Civic Engagement, for which the Freudenberg Foundation continues to provide both institutional and project-referenced support.