Beyond the complexity of the global context and the diversity of forms of social intervention proposed by higher education institutions, in the last few years the academic community has been converging towards some basic consensus around three fundamental or “programmatic” features that distinguish service-learning:
1. The students’ protagonism in the planning, development and evaluation of the project: service-learning is a proposal of active learning, and therefore it is the students, more than the teachers, who must be the leading characters and make the activities their own responsibility
2. The development of solidarity service activities aimed at collaborating effectively with the solution of concrete community problems. We intentionally describe “service” with ” solidarity”, knowing that both terms can imply different interpretations and connotations. Unlike the word “service”, which can refer to individual and purely charitable activities, “solidarity” implies a collective doing and a “doing with” rather than a “doing for” much closer to the deeper understanding of the pedagogy of service-learning. However, the concept of “solidarity” has also been quite downgraded in recent years, which is why we have opted here for the model of solidarity as an “encounter”, as a space for social transformation and co-protagonism of those who are reduced in other models to the passive role of “beneficiaries” or “recipients”. For service-learning, the “beneficiaries” are not only the people in the community, but also the students themselves. By going out into the field, they will find training opportunities like the professionals and citizens that are not offered in the academic context. The ” protagonists ” or ” actors ” of a good service-learning programme are not only the students and teachers, but also the community leaders and the ” beneficiaries/co-protagonists ” of the project.
3. The intentional linking of solidarity practices to the learning and/or research content included in the curriculum. The leading role of teachers is fundamental, since pedagogical planning is precisely what distinguishes service-learning from other outreach, voluntary or university social responsibility practices. Overcoming old conflicts between the “outside” and the “inside” of the institution, in a good service-learning project the classroom and the workshop become engines of local development, and activities in the community are planned according to curricular content and specific research projects. The reflection of students on their own practice, and their participation in the planning and evaluation stages are instances of learning that should be intentionally planned.
In other words, we could define service-learning as an activity or program of solidarity service led by students, oriented to effectively respond to the needs of a community, and planned in an integrated manner with the curricular content in order to optimize learning.