Social Learning Theory and Mandatory Volunteerism

The following exchange is from the discussion forum  for OTL560, “Facilitating Learning and Transfer.” The discussion topic for this week was to prepare a “top ten list of best practices for K-12 facilitation.” The assignment was a little vague, but presumably we needed to frame this within the context of various learning theories we’ve researched. Nonetheless, it inspired a deeper dive into an area of education I hadn’t thought much about, namely, social learning theory. One of my classmates offered the following:

3.  Service based learning is a method where the students learn and develop through active participation in well-organized service that involves the community or supports it in some way.  Service based learning promotes civic responsibility and respect, it is integrated into the curriculum, and it lends itself to opportunities for application of skills and knowledge that the students already have (that’s transfer right?).  It also gives students extended learning opportunities.  It is designed to equally benefit provider and learner. (Billig, 2000)

The reference: Billig, S. (2000, May). Research on k-12 school-based service-learning: The evidence builds. Phi Delta Kappan, 658-664. My response follows and I’ve highlighted the text which is important to have in mind when reading my classmates follow-up reply:

This is a comprehensive and excellent list of best practices. Good work.

I’m inclined, however, to challenge #3 as a best practice since I’ve a generally negative opinion of how service-based learning programs have been implemented. Billig (2000) leads with a good observation: “As service-learning has become more popular, both its advocates and its detractors have begun to ask difficult and serious questions. Just what is service-learning? Is it a model, a program, a pedagogy, or a philosophy” (p. 658-659)?

Looking at many of the implementations, it appears to be more of an agenda than anything else. In addition, there is an implicit contradiction at best and hypocrisy at worst with “required volunteerism.” The fundamental problem, the core weakness, is with the very definition of service-based learning. I’ve read many definitions, but the one offered by Billig (2000) from The Corporation for National Service is as good as any. The objectives, outcomes and goals defy any sort of measure for success except for the opinions and subjective impressions of the program administrators. Furthermore, the objectives, outcomes, and goals often serve the interests of the administrators/instructors/teachers and not the student.

My personal opinion is that theories such as this take public education into an area for which it is neither qualified nor has any kind of mandate. Teaching altruism places educators on a slippery slope that can too easily lead to expectations of teaching the “correct” moral, social, and ethical ideals. Global history is not kind to the precedent this implies. From the perspective of transfer of learning, Gray (2009) is spot on: “Forced education interferes with children’s abilities to educate themselves.”

As the saying goes, what can’t be measured can’t be improved. What sort of objective measures would you put in place to evaluate the effectiveness of service-based programs? How would you define the objectives, outcomes, and goals such that they are student-centric? Would students be allowed to opt-out?


Billig, S. (2000, May). Research on k-12 school-based service-learning: The evidence builds. Phi Delta Kappan, 658-664.

Gray, P. (2009). Seven sins of our system of forced education. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

My classmates’ reply:

We will have to agree to disagree, maybe it is because I take community, volunteerism, and public service to heart, it is part of who I am and I don’t see that in today’s youth. My daughter participated in a service based learning project last year and it opened her eyes, she had to do so many hours of community service, he delivered food to need families during the holidays, it made her realized how unfortunate some families are.  She also packed boxes to send overseas to soldiers, this really meant a lot to her knowing that people really supported the military, since both of her parents have deployed it made her proud of us and that she was supporting someone else parents in the same situations.  Yes it is harder to define objectives and outcome but I have seen the benefits not only in my own child but in her friends that participated.  I believe it is important and think that they need this exposure. I don’t agree that service based learning is forced education, no more forced than any other strategy, it is one way to promote student involvement in their community, the use of these teaching strategies are personal preference these are what I believe will motivate my students and myself to be a better teacher and see my students as individuals, this strategy could give me insight into what motivates them, it could make a difference.Opting-out?  Student’s don’t get to opt out of learning, this strategy is a learning experience.

There is a lot here to deconstruct. My response:

 [The following reply needs a bit of a preface. Inspired by the reading assignments of the past several weeks and the various paths that were followed as a result, this is presented as an opportunity to put theory to practice and endeavor to expand my knowledge base with respect to the topic of social learning. (A lengthy post touching on social learning theory done for selfish reasons!) So the reply may seem a little long, but we’re in a graduate program for a Masters, after all, and challenging each other to consider alternative perspectives and deepen our “mastery” of the knowledge is a good thing. Or, at least, it should be. That’s the spirit with which this is offered. – GE]

“We will have to agree to disagree”

Well…I’d encourage you not to shut down the conversation so soon. I’m willing to change my position. However, with such an important topic, more than anecdotes and personal experiences will be needed. I have plenty of my own and such recitations seem to confuse and polarize conversations more than they add clarity. And if, within the same sentence, you’re resigned to disagree “because [you] take community, volunteerism and public service to heart,” that suggests your disagreement is with a misperception that my position is I don’t take such things to heart. I very much do, and I hope you didn’t mean to imply this.

I’m well aware of the value and importance of service in the community and will forgo a sidebar establishing my service credentials. If my word is any good, take it on faith they are long and deep. I’d rather focus on clarifying my position, which goes to the age appropriateness of introducing social learning projects and with being careful about how those projects are presented and implemented. My read of the research is that such programs, particularly at the younger ages, are more for the benefit of teachers and adults rather than the children.

The argument for introducing teaching strategies based on social learning theory after an individual’s K-12 learning experience can be made from a variety of positions. Using “classical” development as a starting point, one can leverage the research and theories from Piaget and other similar theorists. Within this frame, altruism is viewed as a behavioral characteristic that emerges later in development and is a characteristic which emerges naturally without being “taught.”

According to Piaget and others, children don’t develop a concept between self and other until somewhere around age 4. Until somewhere around age 7, children are egocentric and prone to classification errors in thinking (“My ball is round. The moon is round. Therefore the moon is a ball.”)  The formal operational stage, the ability to form and test hypotheses on the way to solving problems and answering questions doesn’t begin until somewhere around 11 or 12 years of age and needs years to mature. In fact, it is considered a life-long effort. It isn’t a stretch to conclude this ability hasn’t matured sufficiently to comprehend complex social situations until senior high school or later, Lake Wobegon Effect not withstanding.

Furthermore, the research shows that the understanding of relative position with respect to how one is doing (richer vs. poorer, etc.) doesn’t emerge until late in a child’s development. It follows that implementing a social learning theory as a matter of policy and mandate, perhaps at any level in K-12, is at best counter productive and can therefore be described oxymoronically as “mandatory volunteerism.”

But Piaget’s theories have come under considerable attack of late. So what are the consequences to my thesis? The argument can also be made with more recent research as is presented by Haskell (2001). From this frame, it is argued that children do not go through distinct development stages, rather their development evolves with the acquisition of an ever expanding and validated knowledge base. Here again, the research strongly suggests that individuals in the K-12 age ranges, particularly the younger ages, are not sufficiently developed in terms of both knowledge base and cognitive ability to realize the successful transition of learning from experiences derived from social learning theories.

If the learning objectives and educational goals for such experiences don’t go beyond the immediate experience of satisfaction, gilt, shame, anger, pity, fear, or sorrow for some group or individual, then the lasting lesson from the experience is likely to manifest some time later in the individual’s life. And it is also likely that lesson will not be what the educator intended, as the individual will begin to connect the experience to knowledge gained subsequent to the social learning experience. If the social learning experience is to be successful, the learning objectives and educational goals must necessarily be thought out in detail, critically reviewed for success (formative assessment), and the experience must include the essential elements for successful transfer of learning. Not an easy task, to be sure.

As Tan (as cited in Haskell, 2001) notes, “students who are very low in prior knowledge cannot benefit from cognitive strategy instruction. Students who adopt a surface passive approach probably do not have the critical mass of facts necessary for them to use any cognitive strategies” (p. 98). In the case of social learning, the requisite knowledge base includes more than just social experiences and associated emotional responses.  Without developed critical thinking skills and an understanding of economics, money, where wealth comes from and how it is created, relevant historical background and a plethora of other issues, assigning a ten year old to help serve meals to the poor is more likely to be remembered as a chore or something done to please an adult rather than a connection to the undercurrent of prevailing social issues. I other words, if you want more than a transient visceral response to a social learning experience, if you want to get to a solution to a social problem, then transfer of learning must occur. And that needs a robust knowledge base from which to work and draw meaningful conclusions.

History has recorded, as I alluded to in my previous post, where unfettered social learning can lead when such practices are institutionalized. As educators, we would do well to keep in mind that not every form of altruism is good. Unintended consequences can be costly to the student, the educational provider, and the community. Oakley (as cited in Angier, 2011) describes various forms of pathological altruism, which look to be the end result of what Haskell (2001) describe as “‘runaway’ transfers” (p. 102).

Well intentioned programs that implement any kind of “mandatory volunteerism” make as much sense as teaching calculus to third graders. I would be opposed to that as well based on the same principles and reasons as stated above. Cognitively, the student isn’t capable of understanding the content at that age. Again, my position is not against social learning theory per se, rather with the appropriateness of its application to any context involving K-12 students.

“I believe it is important and think that they need this exposure.”

I fully respect and do not doubt your good intentions. Nonetheless the challenge remains: how would you define the objectives and outcomes, and how would you measure success at reaching those outcomes and goals? The risk is in paving another road with good intentions to…well, you know where.

I suspect our differing viewpoints do not rest with the value of social learning theory, rather its application and implementation. I see it as something that, if it is to be an authentic and sincere learning experience, must be the choice of the student. Otherwise the significant risk is that the lesson learned will not be the one intended.

I’ve thousands of hours of service donated to the interests of women’s health over the past 20 years. By comparison, I’ve probably given nary a second thought to saving snail darters in the Little Tennessee River. But someone has. And that’s the beauty of altruism enabled by asynchronous collaborative efforts and supported by tools such as the Internet and cell phones. We each champion our own causes and on balance, everything seems to get taken care of according to it’s need or importance.

It isn’t for any one of us to judge in the grand scheme of things whether women’s health is more important than the extinction of snail darters. But I will be the judge of which one is more important in my corner of the world and reserve the right to make that determination. That’s the lesson I would want to convey to any young adult enrolled in a social learning based program.

To summarize, my thesis is that social learning theories should not be implemented until after the student has achieved a requisite level of maturity – perhaps not even before college, given the insulated lives and rate of maturity in today’s younger generation. In other words, until they have had sufficient opportunity to develop the essential knowledge base to evaluate the social implications of their actions. If students have no underlying knowledge, let alone a comprehensive knowledge base, of the many and varied issues that comprise homelessness, poverty, war, global warming, snail darters, or whatever, how can an educator in good conscious assert that the lessons they intend will be transferred into real life outside school? Haskell’s review of the research in this area under these conditions says transfer of learning won’t occur.

“Opting-out? Student’s don’t get to opt out of learning, this strategy is a learning experience.”

I don’t understand this statement. It seems out of context. Can you elaborate more on what you mean? It seems to be a rather definitive statement that students do not have a choice in what they may be interested in learning. What if the social learning experience violated the student’s values, morals, or ethics? Would parents have the option of opting-out on behalf of their children?



Angier, N. (2011, October 3). The pathological altruist gives till someone hurts. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Haskell, R. E. (2001). Transfer of learning: Cognition, instruction, and reasoning. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.