How volunteer actions linked to core curriculum are boosting job readiness and responsible citizenship for students

By Craig Kielburger

What skills do today’s students need to succeed in the workplace of the future? Math, science, computer programming, robot wrangling—right?

In fact, surveys from tech giants like Microsoft and Google have found these future industries are more interested in a different skillset. Alongside coding, the innovation industry wants workers who possess soft skills like communication, leadership, problem solving, critical thinking and emotional intelligence. Youth need those same skills to tackle the at times overwhelming array of global challenges they are inheriting, like climate change, the refugee crisis and economic inequality.

Traditional education is all about the three “R”s—reading, writing and arithmetic. But if our education system is to meet the demands of the future, we need to add an “S”: service learning.

Service learning brings global issues, social justice and volunteer actions into the classroom in one holistic approach. Indeed, America’s schools have long incorporated these elements—but at a distance. Volunteering is an extra-curricular activity. Global issues are considered in the abstract, disconnected from the day-to-day lives of students. Service learning means tackling those issues through volunteering and advocacy as part of core curriculum.

For example, science and biology students learning about the loss of biodiversity could study shipping routes in the Great Lakes, and the impact on ecosystems from pollution and invasive species. Service learning goes beyond abstract discussion of this issue to actively finding solutions. Students might also learn about the water issues affecting Indigenous communities in the region by speaking to the elders in one such community. Based on their learnings, students could then develop a plan to address the issues, or undertake a campaign to raise public awareness. The science of water protection is taught alongside real-world water issues, including appropriate actions for student involvement.

What better way to learn about an issue than to take responsibility and ownership over it?

This is what the WE Schools program is striving to provide in its free resources: the rich, integrated curriculum that teachers have been telling us they want and need to enhance their lessons in the classroom.

The results are already profound.

In 2015, well-known organizational evaluator Mission Measurement conducted an independent survey of educators and student alumni of WE service learning programs. Compared to their peers who had not participated, these youth were: 7.7 times more likely to start a campaign to solve a social problem, 2.7 times more likely to start their own social enterprise or non-profit organization, and twice as likely to volunteer at least once a week. When they reach the age of majority, service learning graduates are more engaged citizens, 1.3 times more likely to vote consistently.

The academic impacts are equally powerful, likely because service learning makes the curriculum more engaging, and directly relevant to the real world. Eighty-two per cent of youth surveyed told Mission Measurement that service learning made them value their education more, and 65 per cent said it increased their motivation to go to school. Over half of students said their grades improved. Crucially, the survey also found these youth were 1.3 times more likely to feel prepared for college.

And then there are the social benefits. In Englewood—one of Chicago’s most at-risk neighbourhoods—students at Parker Community Academy used WE Schools resources to develop an awareness program and advocacy strategy to combat neighbourhood gun violence. They launched Dreams of Peace Week, which included a community forum that brought together police, local leaders, parents, teachers and students. The group discussed problems and sought solutions.

Of the 5,085 U.S. schools currently participating in the WE Schools program, 80 per cent are eligible for Title 1 designation—serving low-income, vulnerable communities. When Mission Measurement studied the impact of WE Schools programming on underserved youth, it found that WE Schools groups were:

  • 3 times more likely to be seen as leaders by peers and teachers
  • 2.1 times more likely to speak up and offer opinions in class
  • 1.6 more likely to feel better prepared to go to college
  • 1.7 times more likely to be sought out by peers to resolve conflicts
  • 1.7 times more likely to feel optimistic about their future

Service learning can help tackle other pressing issues facing students—especially at-risk youth. The new WE Well-being program features prevention-based resources, developed by mental health experts and delivered through core curriculum using WE’s experiential service learning models. These resources will help educators ensure that well-being is a core component of what young people are learning throughout the school year.

I believe that integrating service learning into every classroom across North America, from Kindergarten to Grade 12, is achievable, even over the next decade. Thousands of educators are already actively engaged.

Craig Kielburger is the co-founder of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day. He is also a syndicated columnist. This piece was adapted from one of his recent writings.

Bring service-learning into your classroom! Register for WE Day Connect today.