Service Learning: Above & Beyond Classrooms

By working together with the community, students in Singapore are developing important life skills and making a positive difference in the world.
Service Learning: Above & Beyond Classrooms
By Carli Allan
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Year 12 students at Tanglin Year 12 took on a bicycle renovation project for their CAS (Creativity, Activity, Service) project.

Service learning offers students practical, hands-on learning experiences that are not possible in a traditional classroom setting. It’s an opportunity for students to apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world situations, develop practical skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, and communication, and learn the importance of social responsibility and ‘giving back’.

From planting trees to volunteering in food banks, recycling bikes to rebuilding school playgrounds in Cambodia, service-learning opportunities, voluntary work, and community projects has become part of an education at Singapore’s international schools.

Laura Heyworth, Head of Middle School at Tanglin Trust School said:

“In simple terms, service learning is a method of teaching and learning which connects classroom lessons with an authentic community need in a meaningful way. It exposes students to a global outlook and enables them to recognise power and inequality in the world. 
“Service learning can be applied across all age groups and subjects, from nursery through to university. It can involve a single student, or a group of students or even an entire school. With an embedded whole school approach to service learning, student ideas become a reality.”

What is service learning?

Each year, students at International Community School participate in a variety of service learning programmes that give back to the local community.

Service learning has moved with the times, and now looks beyond traditional activities such as visiting nursing homes and charity bake sales.

As Ms Heyworth at Tanglin says:

“By exploring real-world issues such as social justice, students can move away from an understanding that service learning only means charitable fundraising; we can’t make long lasting positive change in the community by baking and selling cupcakes, even if they are delicious!”

Today, schools are focused on service-learning activities that align with their curriculum, address real-world problems and needs in their community. Activities can be as varied as tutoring and mentoring younger students, participating in environmental clean-up projects, volunteering in food banks or shelters, or working with local non-profits or community organisations. .

Recent examples of philanthropic activities at Tanglin include the Tanglin Thrift event. Students partnered with GoodWeave to raise awareness of child labour and developed a Thrift Shop where donated clothes were resold to raise funds for the organisation. And, for nearly 20 years, Year 6 students have supported the Caring for Cambodia charity to help improve conditions for students in 21 schools – both through fundraising efforts at home and hands-on work at one of the schools. 

Ms Heyworth adds: 

“Possible future projects might be transforming an annual food collection drive into an exploration of poverty and hunger within our local community, potentially leading to a partnership with a local organisation to hold a collection at a greater time of need.

"This could even be developed through the computing curriculum, with students working on web design to create a more engaging and easily accessible website for the organisation. The possibilities are endless!”

At GESS, students work with long-time community partner, It’s Raining Raincoats, to pack goodies and delivered them to foreign workers, and have an annual Giving Tree programme, resulting in 130 items donated to Love, Nils, HEART @ Fei Yue and Sengkang Family Service Centre.

At Chatsworth International School, service groups in the school range from arts-based activities such as community outreach theatre, to community initiatives such as creating care packages for migrant workers, or school-based needs such as recycling.

Jake Eades, Middle Years Student Advisory Programme Coordinator at Chatsworth says:

“At Chatsworth, our students engage in service-learning activities locally with Food Bank Singapore through food drives and awareness campaigns. On a regional level, we collaborate with organisations like Caring for Cambodia and Blue Dragon Children's Foundation, raising funds and awareness to address educational inequalities and support vulnerable children. These activities instil a sense of social responsibility and global citizenship.

“Service learning benefits students of all ages by fostering empathy, compassion, and social responsibility. It helps students understand their potential to positively impact their community and the wider world. By working with those less fortunate, students also develop a sense of gratitude, appreciating their own privileges and opportunities.”

UWCSEA takes service very seriously, and all students get involved in both local and global initiatives and concerns. The IB's CAS – Community, Activity, Service – dovetails perfectly with UWC's guiding principals as students have many opportunities to work with a range of people in the community, and in both local and global initiatives.

Every grade has a local service initiative and global concern that they support for the entire academic year, and this often involves a trip to visit the organisation either in Singapore or overseas. As students’ progress up the school, they can select which ‘causes’ they champion.

The school says:

“The service initiatives are not so much about raising funds but more about raising an awareness of the development issues that contribute to a need.”

UWCSEA provides an extensive and diverse programme that offers students the opportunity to work with a range of people in the community, including the elderly, adults and children with learning difficulties and/or physical disabilities, kindergartens, after-school centres and outreach programmes for disadvantaged children, teenagers not in mainstream education, domestic workers, and adults in long-term hospice care.

There are also school service initiatives ranging from student council leaders and sports ambassadors to playground buddies and green leaders.

Just like sport and the arts, service learning is seen as a valuable addition to the curriculum. At International Community School, service learning is embedded within school culture from a young age; for example, Elementary students take part in activities themed ‘A Servant’s Heart’ – building rock gardens on campus, making Xmas cards for the community, teaching English to migrant workers. 

St. Joseph's Institution International’s deep-rooted Catholic values underpin its strong service learning programme. Elementary students can sign up to the school’s bespoke Community, Activity, Sport, Service programme, which is SJI International’s version of the British Duke of Edinburgh Award or the International Baccalaureate’s CAS programme. In high school, students take part in service projects in Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and India. 

And, at Singapore American School, there are over 45 service clubs in the high school and 70% of high school students voluntarily take part in community service each year. The focus on service learning starts young – and students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 take part in service learning opportunities; for example, 315 individuals are fed each month by our second grade students' work with Food from the Heart.

Service learning in the IB

At Chatsworth International School, community initiatives have included creating care packages for migrant workers.

While service learning is not always compulsory in education – and student participation can be voluntary – but it is increasingly seen as a valuable educational experience that benefits both students and the local community. However, there are some schools and specific programmes that require a certain number of service hours as part of the curriculum. 

The focus of the IB Diploma Programme goes beyond acquiring knowledge. In addition to the six subjects that students’ study in the IBDP, students participate in Creativity, Activity, and Service (CAS) which takes them out of the classroom and into a real-world context while helping to better themselves and the world around them. IBDP students must complete a minimum of 50 hours’ community service – and then demonstrate how their experiences have helped them develop as individuals.

Examples of CAS projects are wide-ranging, from coaching a youth sports team at One World International School to Tanglin students restoring abandoned bikes and donating them to disadvantaged families.

Jake Eades, Middle Years Student Advisory Programme Coordinator, at Chatsworth explains further:

“In the IBDP, service learning is a key component of the CAS program. It challenges students to plan, propose, and follow through on initiatives, teaching them about commitment, responsibility, and problem-solving. It cultivates a sense of empathy, social consciousness, and global citizenship, demonstrating how academic learning can translate into positive social action.”

Elsa Baptista, Diploma Programme Co-ordinator at Canadian International School (CIS) says that CAS is “one of the attractive features of the IBDP as it encourages students to find balance outside of the academic programme and encourages them to try new creative, active or service related endeavours.” 

She adds:

“It’s these experiences that can make students really stand out in their university applications. Our alumni often continue with these activities after graduation in their new university communities.”

While A Levels are one of the most well-established routes to a university degree, they have been criticised globally for being too narrow, particularly when compared to the breadth of study offered by the IBDP. At Tanglin, though, all A Level students follow the Tanglin Core and complete the Extended Project Qualification and the Community, Action, Service programme (the CAS is not reserved only for its IB students).

Andy Goodliffe, Head of Sixth Form at Tanglin, explains why. 

“A Levels are a series of standalone courses while the IB is a holistic diploma, and any good A Level or dual-pathway school will acknowledge the shortcomings of A Levels and try to bolt on different elements that make it a character-based education. 

“At Tanglin, we bolt on CAS and the Extended Project Qualification; we feel confident that both our pathways do a similar thing because we top up the A Levels with the character education that we know is required, while the IB already has it in one package. Every 16-18 year old should have a creative output, should be active, and should be involved in service learning. It makes sense that we make our A Level students do that too.”

Volunteering in the Duke of Edinburgh Award

Dover Court is one of five schools in Singapore to offer the Award

It is more important than ever for students to show universities that they have something more than  academic achievements – and the DofE Award is one opportunity to add ‘soft skills’ such as service learning to university applications.

A school, college or youth group has to be licensed by the DofE charity to run the programme, and there is currently just a small number of international schools in Singapore offering the programme. Known as the Duke of Edinburgh International Award outside the UK, it is also referred to as the National Youth Achievement Award in Singapore.

Those offering the Award include Dover Court International School, UWCSEA (Dover), Dulwich College (Singapore), Nexus and Tanglin Trust School.

The four main sections of the International Award – Volunteering, Physical, Skills and Expedition – focus on many different opportunities for personal development. For the voluntary service section, students must do something useful without getting paid – and that could be helping children to read in libraries, leading a voluntary scout group, litter picking, or working at an animal rescue centre. 

There are many tales of students who have found that the Award has changed the course of his life. According to the DofE website, 62% of participants felt that the Award helped them make a difference to their community, and 82% felt that the award made them want to continue will volunteering activities.

Former Dover Court student Pranav joined the Award because he wanted to take part in “an ongoing volunteering, physical and skill activity all with an exciting expedition at the end”.

He added:

“The volunteering aspect of DofE allowed me to earn experience in helping the elderly with certain aspects of their lives. This helped me realise how much I enjoy helping others.

"Without the DofE experience, I would have not realised this and would not have a goal for the end of high school to be motivated for. I am grateful to the DofE award for helping me recognise my passion and subsequently giving me my goals for university.”

Driving change in schools

Both school and parents can encourage service learning in their child’s education. Schools should be incorporating it into their curriculum and providing students with the opportunities to engage in meaningful activities with local organisations and community groups. Parents can model civic responsibility by volunteering themselves and discussing the importance of giving back to the community. 

Commenting on the collaborative effort needed between schools, parents and the community, Ms Heyworth (Tanglin) said:

“One way to promote service learning with your child is to encourage discussions about global issues and how Service as Action can be much more than fundraising.

"Encourage your child to do their own research to understand the issue and what they might be able to do to help. Also, believe in the power of a child’s voice; with the right encouragement and support a child’s voice can drive the change we want to see in the world.”

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