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The "Changemaker" Cycle for Meaningful Service Learning

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

The term "service learning" gets banded about a lot in education nowadays, but what actually is it and how does it differ from community service?

According to Eyler and Giles (1999), "Service learning is a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students work with others through a process of applying what they are learning to community problems, and at the same time, reflecting upon their experience as they seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding for themselves."

Service learning is more than simply participating in community service activities every once in a while, like planting trees or volunteering in a homeless shelter. Service learning it is flexible pedagogy which can be used in a variety of classroom and community settings to address real community needs. However, failure to effectively organize and facilitate service learning can result in poor outcomes for students and sometimes well-meaning actions on sustainability can result in unintended community consequences.

"Taking action on sustainability requires building the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes necessary to make positive change. Empowerment brings students to the center of the learning experience by enabling them to cooperate and take ownership of their learning."

A growing number of forward-thinking schools and youth organizations are offering service learning opportunities in their local communities or further afield, either led independently or via external providers/partners. But when service learning is delivered in an adhoc fashion without careful preparation, structure or prolonged commitment, it is challenging to have a deep and lasting impact on either the students or the wider community.

The Changemaker Cycle

As a result, I have developed The Changemaker Cycle, which offers a simple framework for taking individual and collaborative action on sustainability designed to support the experiential learning process.

Essentially, there are four core stages in taking action on sustainability problems as outlined below in Figure 1.

1. INSPIRE - We Are All "Changemakers"

Everyone is a "changemaker" and we can all make a difference in our own lives and our communities.

It is vital that we inspire a culture of responsible global citizenship in schools and other youth organisations by cultivating a changemaker mindset on "glocalized" (global and local) sustainability challenges.

2. EMPOWER - Knowledge, Skills, Values & Attitudes

Taking action on sustainability requires developing the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes necessary to make change. Empowerment brings students to the center of the learning experience by enabling them to cooperate and take ownership of their learning.

Building knowledge of the scientific concepts underpinning sustainability means understanding the complex interplay of processes and patterns that sustain life on our planet. However, true understanding comes from combining the scientific approach with emotions, values and humanity. Students must learn to make connections between themselves, their communities, global society, and the non-living and living environment. Connecting learning to the wider curriculum and exploring sustainability in a holistic way, learners realize that we are part of bigger systems operating at a variety of scales. The Compass of Sustainability is an excellent framing tool for systems thinking and orientation on transitioning to a sustainable future.

3. ACTIVATE - Action Planning & Partnership Building

Planning and implementing action for sustainability can be on an individual or collaborative basis. As teachers and youth educators, it is important that we play our part in building a framework of learning opportunities for students to take action on sustainability both in their individual lives and in the wider community.

Learners must take responsibility of the planning and implementation process, and this requires commitment and leadership in order to bring together the partnerships and resources needed to take community action. Building healthy community partnerships is essential to this process, and by bringing relevant stakeholders together, it is more likely to provide a valuable and meaningful learning experience that successfully replicates the way the real world works. This stage should be underpinned by regular reflection and evaluation.

The students require a detailed action plan with specific objectives designed to help take action on a sustainability priority, which they themselves have identified and care deeply about. A useful way to do this is through a simple exercise called "Community Mapping". This activity helps learners to build a picture of the most pressing sustainability problems facing a community, together with a detailed understanding of the available assets and resources they might be able to leverage to address them.

4. CHANGE - Implement, Evaluate & Reflect

Now put the action plan into practice and focus on implementing impactful change on a specific sustainability priority in the community.

After the students have delivered on the ground, it is time to evaluate the service learning experience and critically reflect on the learning process and outcomes.

"Students must learn to make connections between themselves, their communities, global society, and the non-living and living environment."

Reflection offers valuable insights and lessons for learners and is an essential part of the service learning process. It also connects learners with their emotions, helping them to formulate their own values, assumptions and beliefs.

Ask students to consolidate what they have learned by asking a range of reflective questions, such as:

  • What went well?

  • What didn't go so well?

  • Did you meet your key objectives?

  • What would you do differently next time?

  • What did you learn about yourself?

  • What did you learn about the sustainability problem you were working on?

Repeat the learning cycle and carefully take community action using The Changemaker Cycle as an powerful framework for making change!


Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E. Jr. (1999).Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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