Service Learning for Human Rights Education

Author: John Terry, Jefferson Twp. (NJ) Public Schools


At Human Rights Educators USA, we maintain that, “Human Rights Education is a lifelong process of teaching and learning that helps individuals develop the knowledge, skills, and values to fully exercise and protect the human rights of themselves and others.”[1] To this end, it is essential that students have access to learning experiences that allow them to practice and apply these knowledge, skills, and values in a context – i.e. the real world – that both encourages students to see the connection between their classroom learning and engagement with their larger context, but also to actually be engaged in the work of exercising and protecting human rights as they learn.

For this reason, service learning offers a means through which these goals of human rights education can be attained. The Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform (ASLER) defines service learning as

“a method by which young people learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs; that are coordinated in collaboration with the school and community; that are integrated into each young person’s academic curriculum; that provide structured time for a young person to think, talk, and write about what he/she did and saw during the actual service activity; that provide young people with opportunities to use newly acquired academic skills and knowledge in real life situations in their own communities; that enhance what is taught in the school by extending student learning beyond the classroom; and that help to foster the development of a sense of caring for others.”[2]

A human rights education that is substantive and meaningful needs to be grounded in the realities of actual human experiences. Thus, a service learning model provides an extension for any classroom-based instruction in human rights that provides a path to more fully attaining the goals of human rights education.

Since the work of exercising and protecting human rights in the face of challenges to human rights is inherently critical of dominant political, social, or cultural structures, it is thus important to understand service learning experiences that are embedded within human rights education as necessarily challenging these dominant structures. It is here that Paolo Freire’s notion of “praxis” – defined as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” – becomes appropriate as a philosophical approach to service learning for human rights education.[3] Moreover, Freire’s notion of “praxis” can also be associated with reconstructivist philosophies of education, in which schools play a role “in the formation of active and critical citizens” who are engaged in questioning and confronting contemporary issues and/or oppressive societal structures that may be posing challenges to human rights.[4] Through “praxis” or a reconstructivist approach to learning, students are engaged in active, inquiry-based learning that critically analyzes the reality of their own community through investigation and action. It is thus important that a service learning experience that aims to achieve the goals of human rights education keep this philosophical approach in mind.

This guide, informed by the educational and philosophical concerns mentioned above, is intended to provide educators with a loose blueprint to follow in adapting service learning experiences to human rights education. The following service learning experiences can be adapted as extensions of any lessons in human rights education that are provided on this website or beyond, as a stand-alone unit plan for classroom-based civics education, as an extra- or co-curricular experiences for students involved in human rights education activities within or beyond the walls of school environments, or for any other purpose an educator concerned about human rights may develop.

This guide to service learning for human rights education is intended to offer a general process for implementing such a service learning program. However, the resources that are provided are intended to serve as examples. Educators using this guide are encouraged to use any other resources they see fit to “plug in” to the framework, and to be flexible and adaptive to the needs of their student population. Additionally, the process of service learning for human rights education is intended to be cyclical, and not linear, in nature meaning that the educator may find it useful, or even necessary, to return to previous steps in the process in order to achieve project-based objectives.

Identify the Issue

 The first important step in a service learning program that is critically-minded in its approach is to lead students through a process by which they identify a human rights issue, or range of human rights issues (depending on whether you want to have students approach this as individuals, within groups, or as an entire class). Students can go global in their focus, but if possible, a more local focus is recommended as a way to make the lessons of such a program more real for students – both in their investigation (the information may be more eye-opening), and in their action (the goals may be more attainable).


It is recommended that student input in choosing the issues be maximized to promote both student engagement and authenticity of the service learning experience for those who will be participating. To that effect, Carole Ames (as cited in Stefanou & Parkes, 2003) offers that students may be more oriented toward mastery when “(a) tasks involve variety, novelty, diversity, and interests; (b) tasks are meaningful and therefore hold justification for engagement; (c) tasks are challenging; (d) students have control over the process, the product, or both; (e) students are encouraged to develop and use self-engagement and monitoring skills and effective learning strategies; (f) students have real choices and input.”[5]

It is also worth noting that human rights issues to be addressed through service learning could also be identified during the course of human rights-oriented instruction that precedes the service learning unit.

Research and Investigate

Once the issues are defined, a service learning experience in human rights that is truly critical of existing societal structures should include a component of research and investigation where the students gain a more concrete understanding of the challenges posed toward the realization of human rights within or beyond their community. Moreover, a research-based component in service learning emphasizes the academic value of the experience, especially as inquiry-based or problem-based learning becomes more commonplace, as promoted in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards, or the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), to name a few.

At this phase of the service learning program, students could carefully define the issue they are seeking to address, as well as the parameters of the problem and, if possible, its root causes. Additionally, students should also be seeking to identify impacted populations, as well as stakeholders who may have a vested interest in resolving the issue, or in obstructing its resolution.


Take Action

 As themes or patterns emerge from student research, they should be encouraged to move onto the next phase of the service learning program: taking action. It is this part of a service learning program in human rights education that is critical to attaining the goals of human rights education. The basis for protecting human rights relies upon the abilities and actions of people who stand up to defend and promote human rights, and a service learning program that is research-based and action-oriented can provide students with not only a glimpse into how human rights can be promoted, but can also provide them with valuable opportunities to actually engage in this line of work.


Ideas for Assessment

Because many school-based learning experiences are structured in a way that require student performance to be assessed and evaluated, a service-learning program for human rights education offers a variety of opportunities for educators to assess their students’ work. Moreover, assessment opportunities that are not tied to grades or traditional classroom-based work can offer helpful information for educators and for participating students on the effectiveness of student work throughout the service-learning program, or on the effectiveness of the project’s design and implementation by the educator. The various stages of the service-learning process – identifying the issue, developing and utilizing research and analysis tools, and taking action – can all be assessed.



The framework described above for service learning in human rights education can serve as a template upon which a service learning program can be built and tailored to the needs of educators and their students. The resources offered here are merely suggestions to help make the process more accessible and tangible for educators in the field. The challenges posed to human rights will vary based on conditions and contexts of local communities, and it is important, for both the integrity of the inquiry-based learning process, and for the effectiveness of work that promotes and defends human rights, that this framework to remain open-ended. Moreover, the work of human rights education can only be more closely aligned with the principles upon which the discipline is built if it is oriented toward informed action that critically engages with and attempts to tackle authentic real challenges to human rights that exist in our world.


The author acknowledges ideas and suggestions for this essay from Matthew Doktor, Karen Hopkins, and William Fernekes.

[1] Human Rights Educators USA. (2014). “About HRE USA.”

[2] Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform (1993). Standards of quality for school-based service-learning. Service Learning, General, Paper 4. Available at

[3] Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing.

[4] Elgström, O. & Hellstenius, M. (2011). Curriculum debate and policy change. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 43 (6), 717-738.

[5] Stefanou, C. & Parkes, J. (2003). Effects of classroom assessment on student motivation in fifth-grade science. The Journal of Educational Research, 96 (3), 152-162.