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Experiential Learning - the pebbly beach of social literacy

Why undertake community based projects

Active Citizenship and the Development of Social Literacy: a case for experiential learning

Based on the work of Jon Davison and James Arthur

Exploring the relationship between social literacy, citizenship education and
community involvement and argues the case of the centrality of experiential 
learning to the development of active citizenship.


  • An active citizen is someone who not only believes in the concept of a democratic society but who is willing and able to translate that belief into action
  • Social literacy concerns itself with the development of social skills, knowledge and positive human values that engender the desire and ability in human beings to act positively and responsibly in range of complex social settings
  • Essentially, the Government wishes to build schools as learning communities that develop individuals who feel they have an active and full part to play in society;
    • who feel they can cope with relationships with other people;
      • who are sociable;
        • who are going to be good parents in the future.
  • Active citizenship implies and even requires action on the part of the citizen pupil
  • The ability to think and act on social and political concerns underpins effective citizenship education.
  • Pupils therefore need to develop active, collaborative and co-operative working patterns focused on real problems in a real community - what is variously called service learning, community-based learning, community participation, community education or experiential learning.

The main obstacles to experiential learning are:

  1. Superiority of subject-based knowledge
  2. Under-valuing of practical knowledge
  3. Priority given to written knowledge as opposed to other forms of presenting knowledge
  4. Superiority of knowledge acquired by individuals over that developed by groups of pupils working together.

The participation ladder

  1. Pupils understand the community project they are involved in and know its purpose
  2. Pupils know why they are involved
  3. Pupils have a meaningful role within the project
  4. Pupils have made a free choice to be so involved
  • The action competent pupil is able and ready to participate and can argue, reflect critically and relate his or her opinions and actions to a values framework

A good community participation programme will address the issue of academic relevance by connecting knowledge, skills, and concepts with accomplishing a meaningful purpose in the school and/or community. As such, experiential learning becomes an integral part of school improvement and contributes to this by ensuring that knowledge is gained by the pupil through guided interaction with the community and local environment. It should develop critical thinking skills that help pupils make evaluations and judgements since community issues and problems cannot always be neatly defined and solved so pupils will also develop problem-solving skills. This should in turn assist pupils to think across the boundaries of traditional curriculum subjects which should help them become more adept at integrating and applying what they are learning. Experiential learning, well planned and executed, allows pupils from a variety of backgrounds and abilities to work together on real problems that provide unity and purpose beyond the classroom. This facilitates inclusion, promotes equity and fosters appreciation of cultural diversity by assisting pupils to relate to others from a wide range of backgrounds and life situations. It will help pupils to value and understand the differences among individuals and communities. The school community itself will change by creating new relationships with the local community that will be viewed increasingly as a positive learning environment that benefits the school. As all members of staff and pupils become participants in the process of experiential learning they develop a personal and collective stake in making something positive happen beyond the walls of the school.

Will schools develop a model based upon:

  1. The community of the school?
  2. The community in the school?
  3. The school in the community?
  • What will be the underlying purposes of service learning?
  • Will the school attempt to develop in pupils, understandings that will result from:
  1. Learning for service?
  2. Learning about service?
  3. Learning from service?
  • The Community Service Volunteers organisation lists five citizenship competencies for experiential learning
  1. Work in a variety of group settings
  2. Identify and evaluate the values and ethics of self and others in the community
  3. Recognise, appreciate and support vital elements of the local community
  4. Gather and evaluate data necessary to effect positive change
  5. Implement effective decision making and problem solving strategies


Community service projects may originate in a number of ways 
  • Pupils conducting research on their community may identify community needs.


  • Action as part of community service needs to be a learning experience
    • Experience will not only take the form of direct involvement
      • Experience may also result from reading, writing or discussion with peers, teachers, community members or others


  • For community service experience to be worthwhile, pupils need to see the connection between service and learning
  • The experience needs to be ‘made visible’ to them


  • Finally, it is important that there is recognition not only of service, but also of the learning that has taken place


  • Experiential learning in the community provides pupils with concrete opportunities to participate with others in serving the public
  • It presents schools with a powerful way of enhancing their pupils learning by developing an effective range of social skills
  • The progress of pupils in citizenship needs to be recorded through a variety of means and they will need to learn how to gather their own evidence of progress
  • Experiential learning in the community is more likely to inculcate and develop altruism, philanthropy, self-reliance and personal social virtues than is a classroom-based, ‘delivered’ course of citizenship education
The social dimension of the curriculum must be about acting and doing in real contexts, 
learning from service, not simply a cognitive activity,
learning about service
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