What Are the Benefits of Community-Engaged Learning?

One of the most promising movements to emerge in recent years in high school education is Community-Engaged Learning (CEL). Done well, CEL has the potential to increase student engagement, deepen the learning that students do across the curriculum, and greatly improve the college readiness of students. These are heady goals. But before we examine them, it’s important to ask a more foundational question: What do we mean when we talk about Community-Engaged Learning in high schools?

What is Community-Engaged Learning?

Community-Engaged Learning is a term that encompasses a variety of educational experiences, but they do have some common characteristics. CEL experiences take students outside the walls of the traditional classroom and into one or more communities. They do this in order to expand student perspectives, get students working with community partners who are subject-area experts, and create opportunities to apply classroom learning in real world scenarios.

What might that look like in practice? One type of CEL experience for high school students is primarily instructor-designed. An example of this type of project might have science students working with local public works officials and water quality scientists to understand both watershed management and drinking water purity, to develop easy-to-use water testing kits, and to generate interest in local water testing by creating social media campaigns. Another instructor-designed CEL experience might have students studying history acting as actual historians in a specific community, researching public records and doing oral history interviews with local residents, which could culminate in local history exhibition or publication that students produce.

Students Directing the Shape of Their Education

As students mature, and gain experience working in their communities on these kinds of projects, they also develop a number of skills that make them ready for more student-designed CEL experiences. One way to encourage this growing independence is with an entrepreneurship program, where students learn the ins and outs of business from young people doing interesting work with local start-ups. Then, students would be set up to start their own businesses (profit or not-for-profit), tackling unmet community needs or specific local problems.

Another student-designed CEL experience is an internship program. Internships are most appropriate for high school juniors and seniors, as students will have to have a high level of maturity to work independently outside the school. But the benefits of internships for high school students are enormous.

High Student Engagement

One of the most important advantages of community-engaged learning for high school students is an increase in student engagement. We’ve all heard students say about the work they’re doing in high school, “What’s the point?” We may have even said such a thing ourselves from time to time, and with good reason. Much of the work that students do in high school does seem to be pointless. And teachers are often not good at communicating the relevance of subject matter to students.

Community-engaged learning directly answers this question. Students see the point in the work they’re doing because they’re doing real work in the world, as opposed to worksheets in the classroom. And once students see the point of their work, their engagement increases as well. Students want to learn Statistics, because they’ve just administered a survey they wrote to people in their community, and no they have data to analyze. Students master the ins and outs of persuasive writing, and they see the value of revision, because they’re presenting a proposal to their city councilperson or state representative, and they want it to be perfect.

In short, CEL goes a long way toward creating students who really want to learn. It creates a culture of engaged learners by constantly giving students opportunities to apply the learning they’re doing in their academic classes to real world experiences that matter to them.

Deeper Learning

One problem with keeping students engaged in traditional high school courses is that the breadth of material that those courses cover means that students don’t have the time or opportunity to go deep into areas that interest them. The saying about the typical high school World History survey course is that it covers the history of the world, on every continent, from the Big Bang to the present day. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but with that kind of scope, students rarely get the opportunity to be really interested in what they’re learning before it’s time to move on to the next thing.

Community-Engaged Learning experiences encourage students to explore a deeper level of learning. CEL projects often utilize mentors in the community, address real problems that communities are grappling with, and let students do work that is meaningful to them. These are the ingredients of deep learning, which focuses on thinking critically and solving complex problems; communicating effectively; and being empowered through self-directed learning.

A Head Start on College

Colleges and universities in the U.S. are already shifting to Community-Engaged Learning models for much of their coursework. Stanford University alone offers over 150 courses with CEL components. And students who are already well versed in CEL, and the essential skills necessary to thrive in these kinds of learning environments, start their college experiences with a head start on their peers. After all, they’ve spent their high school years leading teams, taking responsibility for their own learning, and doing real work in the real world.

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