Service Learning versus “Activist Learning”

From the late 90s through the 2000s, I participated in a number of service learning programs across the U.S. Some were hyper-local, such as the program in Taos, New Mexico, focused on building cultural and social connections between the Taos Pueblo and youth in the neighboring town. I worked at the state level in Washington, helping administer a Learn and Serve America grant that went to dozens of subgrantees across the state. I also worked nationally with the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National Service promoting service learning.

Along the way I saw patterns of educational abuse that were extremely disconcerting for me. In the worst cases, young people were being taught the missionary perspectives of the European conquistadors who believed they knew best for those they were to have been serving. Other times, students were extremely tokenized, made to seem as if their presence was all that was needed, while their actions, opinions, ideas, and knowledge was trivial or meaningless.
From that position, in 2006 I drafted an introduction to “Activist Learning”. In this intro I wrote that,

Activist Learning is an intentional strategy for creating knowledge characterized by taking action to realize just relationships that transform unequal power structures in our personal, social, political, environmental, spiritual, and economic lives.

I was clearly reacting to the pressures of poorly implemented service learning. However, I thought it was essential to problematize the position I saw many service learning programs occupying, and provide an alternative conceptualization.
Today I know that there are many, many high quality service learning programs across the U.S. and around the world. There are a number of criteria and assessments available to young people and adults in service learning programs, and a plethora of good examples of service learning challenging the missionary perspective I was railing against. 
The problem today presents itself to me in a deeper way. Instead of poor programs, I see now that there are poor perspectives, activities perpetuated by well-meaning but ill-prepared practitioners who want to do the right thing, but are wholly incapable of that because of the assumptions and ideas they hold. It is these people who I want to target with the considerations of Activist Learning, if for no other reason than to challenge their thinking.
What do you think? What are the next steps that are necessary to develop service learning, and does a consideration need to be made for a new pedogological norm focused on “Activist Learning”?
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker and writer who researches, writes and shares about youth, education, and history. Learn more about me at

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