How Service Learning is Understood Within Catalonian Secondary Schools

Pilar Folgueiras and Esther Luna
University of Barcelona, Spain


This article examines the approach to service learning methodology in the Catalan context in secondary schools. We provide a brief conceptualization of the concept from this perspective and outline current service learning projects in the field of secondary education in Catalonia. Then we present some suggestions to improve the preparation and execution of the service learning projects.


Service Learning (SL) can be defined as a method of teaching that combines academic curriculum with service to the community. Students learn and develop by participating in their community and helping to fulfill the needs of that community. This type of experience promotes civic and social responsibility and critical reflection among the students, providing meaning to the learning journey. Here, we briefly present the current situation of SL projects in Catalonian secondary schools and proposals for improving their development.

Brief conceptualization of Service Learning (SL)

Despite the unquestionable boom of SL in many environments, there is a wide range of variation in the definitions used to refer to a particular project or program as SL. Considering the two key elements of an SL project, the academic curriculum and service to the community, Stanford University (Service-Learning 2000 Center, 1996) has represented the two concepts and frictions between them through “Service-Learning Quadrants” (Figure 1). This diagram is widely documented and used to differentiate SL from similar activities often misunderstood as SL.

Figure 1. Service-Learning Quadrants (Service-Learning 2000 Center, 1996)

Service-Learning is located in quadrant IV and includes developing projects, with the students participating in the diagnosis of a problem, the formulation of a plan, the follow-up, and the evaluation. Thus, integrated service is as relevant as the curricular goals to be achieved with this activity.

Service Learning in Secondary Education, Catalonia (Spain)

The Compulsory Secondary Education (ESO) is the system that regulates secondary education in Spain. This learning phase, for students aged 12-16, is a

continuation of Primary Education, and is aimed at preparing students for secondary non-compulsory studies, high school, and professional training or for incorporation to the labor force. These SL studies are carried out in Institutes of Secondary Education (Institutos de Educación Secundaria, IES), in Centers for Compulsory Education (Centros de Enseñanza Obligatoria, CEO), or in private schools in Catalonia, a Spanish autonomous region in the northeast corner of the Iberian Peninsula. It covers a surface area of 32000 km2, with a population of approximately 7.5 million.

Although SL has been present in secondary schools for over a decade, it became more visible in 2006, mostly through the creation of the SL Promoting Center. This center is a space for generating initiatives and convergence of actions directed to facilitate and strengthen various SL projects. The SL Promoting Center works as a public service, independent from the administration and combining SL, innovation, and quality education.

Within the SL Promoting Center, there are approximately 55 ongoing projects in secondary schools, including:

  • Direct service: Projects in which there is direct contact with people who might need it, such as communities at risk, physically or mentally handicapped people, etc.

  • Generational interchange: Projects that aim to encourage closeness between groups of people from different ages in order to increase mutual understanding and facilitate the exchange of knowledge and skills.

  • Environment: Projects on environmental care, conservation, and education. Recycling, environmental audits, cleaning, and conservation of natural and urban heritage, energy saving, taking care of animals in the area, etc.

  • Citizen participation. Projects that motivate the participation in the neighborhood or immediate surroundings, to promote civic commitment and improvement of the quality of life of residents through mass media, cultural activities, and participation activities.

  • Cultural heritage: Projects associated with the conservation of the cultural heritage and recovery and diffusion of cultural traditions.

  • Projects of cooperation and solidarity: Projects directed at sensitizing and defending human rights, solidarity, and human causes at the international level.

  • Health-related project: Health-related projects, activities to promote healthy lifestyles, and companionship for people suffering diseases.

It is complex and risky to associate the recent widespread interest regarding SL in Catalonia—as well as in the rest of Europe—to only one cause or particular event. In fact, SL is a discovery and not an invention. Many projects are not considered SL by the people behind them, although the conceptual features of the methodology correspond with those of SL. Moreover, SL is a bottom-up process, following a course from practice to theory. Therefore, it is not possible to pinpoint a first project or a first date in which the practice of SL began.

Many countries have begun using SL as a method for Citizenship Education, promoted by the European Commission. Citizenship Education is a response to the perceived lack of political interest in young people, with the consequent weakening of democracy and social cohesion. Citizenship Education demands the participation of multiple actors and spaces other than the school. Educational centers need to open themselves and collaborate (from an educational perspective) with organizations and institutions in the community. One of the aims of Citizenship Education is precisely the involvement of the students with the community, for the development of active citizens through social life.

Considering the purposes and aims of Citizenship Education, the preparation of projects that include the principles and methodologies of SL is an effective educational approach to promote the development of active and responsible citizens among young people (Folgueiras and Martinez, 2009; Luna, 2010; Martinez-Odria, 2007; Puig and Palos, 2006).

From 2007 in Spain (and consequently also in Catalonia), the subject has been named Citizenship Education and Human Rights and is taught in the last cycle of Primary Education and in all courses of Secondary Education, as established in the Organic Law on Education. Many SL projects are being carried out within Citizenship Education and Human Rights.

This class follows a recommendation of the Council of Europe in 2002, which states that education for democratic citizenship is essential to the core mission of the Council. The Council wishes to promote freedom, tolerance, justice, pluralism, Human Rights, and Rule of Law, which are the foundation of democracy. The Council of Europe recommends to the governments of the Member States that education for democratic citizenship become a priority objective of educational policies and reforms (Council of Europe, 2002).

In January 2012, the Education Minister of the new government of the Popular Party in Spain, José Ignacio Wert, announced that the subject would be replaced by another called Constitutional Civic Education, since, according to the minister, the previous subject involved an “ideological indoctrination.”

Suggestions to improve the preparation and execution of the SL projects

Based on our experiences with SL projects carried out in Secondary Civic Education in Catalonia (Folgueiras, P., Cabrera, F., Luna, E., and Puig-Latorre, G., 2011), we present suggestions to improve the preparation and execution of SL projects. Specifically, these suggestions are associated with reflection, evaluation, and participation.

Regarding reflection in SL projects

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” Thus, reflection is a fundamental principle in any SL program (Holland, 2001). Dewey considered that reflection is essential for students to acquire knowledge and skills; reflection, besides being the purpose of SL projects, is the means through which projects mobilize both student learning and relationships that are built among the people involved.

The process of reflection, used in addition to the chosen educational method, should involve interactions between emotion and cognition (Felten, Gilchrist, Darby, 2006). By opening the door to emotion, we are not suggesting that we should bring emotion into the process of reflection; emotions have always been present and will continue to be. Nor do we have to encourage the use of reflection by simply asking the student, “How do you feel?” Teachers

should explicitly consider the role emotions can have on every reflective learning process. This consideration is of particular relevance in SL projects. Students often deal with new situations in the community that lead to all kinds of emotions; if these emotions are perceived, utilized, and reflected upon, and a cognitive association is made, the learning can become more meaningful.

From the perspective of joint reflection, we would like to emphasize the study by Ikeda (2000) analyzing the strategies used to systematize reflection using journal writing and discussion groups. Ikeda brings out the benefit of joint reflection regarding discussion groups. Specifically, students enjoy listening to the experiences of their peers, debating about them, and using discussion to help them solve problems and develop the competencies involved in different situations.

Regarding the evaluation of the SL projects

Here we evaluate the SL projects and learning achieved by the students in courses on Citizenship Education taught in Catalonia:

  1. The evaluation of projects should not end before assessing their impact and level of complexity, as well as the degree to which the objectives have been met by the community or organization in which the work has been carried out. Sustainability should also be considered to assess the possibility of working in the same direction, if the achieved changes will survive in time, etc.Such an evaluation of the projects will also allow the preparation of an inventory of good practices for the improvement of future projects.Project evaluation should be a continuous and negotiated task, through, for example, a participatory evaluation. This evaluation modality goes beyond considering the effects of an intervention and works to deepen the processes of change and the participation of people. A follow-up of the process from its beginning to the end is of great importance. Thus, the evaluation process, including the participatory evaluation, is useful to commit the people involved in it.Participatory evaluation has three phases: the initial phase, the process itself, and the final phase. To fulfill its methodological principles, it is essential to create mixed commissions (or a work team) made up by the teaching staff, the participants of the community, and the students. It would be interesting to include student family members as well.During the meetings of the initial phase, the characteristics of the project (in our case, the SL project) are adjusted to the characteristics of the participants (school, entity, etc.). During the participatory evaluation of the process per se, the meetings are intended to keep a follow-up of the execution of the project and train us as accompanying participants through the whole experience. The finalparticipatory evaluation is intended to find out if the project has worked and to continue the training on any necessary aspects. Likewise, the process of evaluation allows us to reflect on the used method, in this case about SL. In short, meetings are used for reflection, training, and evaluation of the project.
  2. Regarding the evaluation of the educational outcomes, we take as a premise that our evaluation practices have to be changed (Biggs, 2005). SL projects seem to be good opportunities to develop new evaluation systems in which the “evaluation power” is shared, recognizing in the students the capacity to be responsible for their own learning process. The idea is to promote a formative evaluation that arises from the student and is based on self-learning, as opposed to a formative evaluation in which both teachers and students are informed on the advances of learning (Cabrera, 2011).

Furthermore, with this kind of perspective we promote an evaluation that contributes to social development in terms of social equality and cohesion (Cabrera, 2011), which is more coherent with the philosophy of SL. This is likely to have a positive influence on student satisfaction.

We consider that a key aspect of evaluation is the strategy used. In fact, some authors, such as Osler and Starky (2005), Kerr and Cléber (2004), Bordas and Cabrera (2001), and Cabrera (2011), point out the close relationship between the evaluation strategies used by the teachers and the development of citizenship skills. Besides the evaluation strategy, another relevant point pertains to how evaluation is registered. For this reason, it is of great relevance that the used strategies go hand-in-hand with systematic evaluation suggestions. We know that as in any learning process, not everything can be evaluated, only those elements considered as priorities to achieve the intended academic knowledge.

Regarding participation in SL projects

Participation of the students is essential for SL projects and the involvement of the families could be a powerful influence, not only because of their opinion but also through direct participation. In fact, in Catalonia (as well as in the rest of Spain) there is little participation of the families with children in primary school; this worsens when it comes to secondary education. A study carried out by Alguacil and Pañellas (2008) showed that only 7.2% of parents are involved in Parent Boards, while the remaining 92.8% at the most simply pay school fees. In the same study, the authors suggest doing activities that link families, environments, and school. We believe SL could be used as a tool to enhance the participation of the families, which would have a positive influence on student participation and most probably on the community as a whole. To achieve this, families should be invited to get involved in phases one and two1of the SL projects.


SL is not only growing in Catalonian secondary schools but also in other educational levels, such as universities. We believe it is necessary to create links between universities and other educational centers, such as secondary schools. Thus, we would like to emphasize, as it has already been said elsewhere, that SL should be an important part of the training in teacher education programs with projects put into practice directly in a school. Student teachers could gain more experience—apart from teaching practicum—and eventually promote this type of project themselves during their professional career, encouraging values such as empathy and solidarity (Lakesand Jones, 2008; Nandan and Scott, 2011; Blum and De la Piedra, 2010) while providing an integrated community service.

The University of Barcelona, in Catalonia, has put this idea into practice in Teacher Training. One of the ongoing projects is “The Friends of Reading” through which students help children and adolescents in schools and colleges with their reading. Assessment of this project, coordinated by Folgueiras (2011) indicates excellent results regarding the development of the students and the service itself.

In the project “Learning together from schools, colleges, and the university,” students offer reinforcement classes to secondary school kids with learning difficulties.

The bank of experiences at the University of Barcelona’s SL Promoting Center2 includes records of successful projects linking schools and universities. For example, a program was developed wherein pre-service teachers help to improve reading skills in primary and secondary school-aged children. The university students work in close collaboration with the Barcelona Education Consortium’s Success Program and with the Adsis Foundation’s “Another Reading” Program, dedicating approximately two hours each week to support and reinforce student reading. Through service learning, the program aims to improve teacher training by linking academic knowledge with practical experiences, by allowing students to experience teaching firsthand, and by contributing to the citizenship education of future professionals. Through experience, service, reflection, and training, university students are able to practice not only teaching skills learned in the classroom, but citizenship skills as they address a real need in the community. And as they reflect on their experiences, they are able to link theory to practice.

In another significant project, “The Nightingale” (El Rossinyol, in Catalan), student volunteers from the university act as mentors to immigrant students in the area to enhance cultural, social, and linguistic integration.

Working with local schools, mentors help students become familiar with their new communities. The program trains mentors and facilitates networks of support between schools and universities nationally and internationally.

Currently, there are more than 100 participants in five cities and the program receives wide institutional support.

It is clear that SL is developing along its own course in Catalonia. Both the requirements of government and the opportunities available in the educational system indicate that SL in Catalonia will continue to grow and that successful projects will be those that effectively connect schools and universities, and that follow thoughtful evaluation plans.


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Biggs, J.B. (2005). Calidad del aprendizaje universitario. Madrid: Narcea.

Blum, D. y De la Piedra, M.T. (2010). Counter-storytelling through service- learning: Future teachers of immigrant students in Texas and California re-tell “Sell” and the “Other”.International Journal of Progressive Education, 6, 2, pp. 6-26.

Bordas, I. y Cabrera, F. (2001). Estrategias de evaluación de los aprendizajes centrados en el proceso. Revista Española de Pedagogía, 218, pp. 25-48.

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Cabrera, F. y Luna, E. (2008). Diálogo escuela-comunidad: el aprendizaje- servicio. En E. Soriano (Coord.). Educación para la ciudadanía intercultural y democrática (191-226). Madrid: La Muralla.

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Felten, P., Gilchrist, L. and Darby, A. (2006). Emotion and Learning: Feeling our Way Toward a New Theory of Reflection in Service-Learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12, 2, pp. 38-46.

Folgueiras, P. (coord.), Cabrera, F., Luna, E. y Puig, G. (2011). Projecte d’estudi sobre l’avaluació de l’impacte (grau de satisfacció i xarxa territorial) dels projectes d’aprenentatge-servei. Retrieved November 15, 2011 from:

Folgueiras, P. y Martínez, M. (2009). El desarrollo de competencias en la Universidad a través del Aprendizaje y Servicio Solidario. Revista Interamericana de Educación y Democracia, 2 (1), 56-76.

Holland, B. (2001). A Comprehensive Model for Assessing Service-Learning and Community-University Partnerships. New Directions for Higher Education, 114, pp. 51-60.

Ikeda, E.K. (2000). How Reflection Enhances Learning in Service-Learning Courses. Presented at the American Educational Research Association (AERA). National Conference, New Orleans, L.A. (paper).

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1 The number of stages or phases established for SL varies depending on the authors. In this study, we focus on the proposal by Cabrera and Luna (2008). First phase: preparation, awareness, and motivation. Second phase: diagnosis. Third phase: plan the action. Fourth phase: execute the action and assess the process. Fifth phase: learning recognition and evaluation. Sixth phase: assessment of the project.

2 More information, visit the webpage

About the Authors:

Pilar Folgueiras

Pilar Folgueiras is a senior lecturer and researcher in the field of educational research, citizen participation, and service learning. She has several publications, has directed and participated in research, and has conducted lectures and presentations on this subject.

Professor, Department of Methods of Research and Diagnosis of Education, University of Barcelona,

Esther Luna

Esther Luna is a lecturer and researcher in the field of conflict management, citizen participation, and service learning. She has visited many universities in Europe and the U.S., helping to advance the main topics of her areas of research from an international perspective.

© 2012 Journal for Civic Commitment

Community College National Center for Community Engagement (CCNCCE) sunsetted October 1, 2015. Mesa Community College hosts content from The Journal for Civic Commitment, published by the CCNCCE, to ensure it remains publicly available.

The important work of the CCNCCE was made possible through the financial support from many civic-minded foundations and organizations, including the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Learn and Serve America-Higher Education program, the Kettering Foundation, Campus Compact (through funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Arizona Community Foundation, Arizona Foundation for Women, Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold Foundation, and The Teagle Foundation.