Developing Moral Character Through Service-Learning

By Amy Meuers, NYLC CEO

Different points in history have demanded that people stand-up for what is right, what is moral and ethical. In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups are more immoral than individuals.” These words could have been written today. Civil injustice, terrorism, hate, and violence fill our television screens, our social media feeds, and our airwaves daily. Doing what is right is needed now more than ever. However, doing what is right is not always easy.

In the 1968, a classroom experiment “A Class Divided” was conducted in Riceville, Iowa, by the third-grade teacher Jane Elliott (PBS Frontline.) This daring experiment was created to address issues of racism and prejudice in a small, mostly white town, after that shooting of Martin Luther King Junior. It was meant to teach young children what it feels like to be discriminated against. Teachers can talk about a subject but if the information does not have a direct link to real-world learning and application, the subject matter can be lost in translation. This teacher created a setting that connected the students directly to the subject-matter of racism. These children would never have experienced what it is like to be judged solely based on a physical attribute if this teacher had not dared to stand up for what is moral and just.

This teacher’s experiment is still valuable today. People are still judged by the color of their skin, not the “value of their character”. Perhaps if the lessons that Ms. Elliott provided to her third-grade class were a core part of every school’s curriculum we could turn the tide on racial prejudice and many other issues facing our world. Service-learning provides opportunities for students to develop moral character (Shumer, Lam, & Laabs, 2012). Students use reflection to learn from mistakes; they do not back away from issues that are uncomfortable; they stand up for what is right and just; and they exemplify integrity. Developing moral character is not easy. It is so simple to turn a blind eye to injustice, believing that you can’t make a difference or that the problem is too big. In addition, as Dr. King said, “Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily”. People do what is easy, not necessarily what is just and moral.

Service-learning is not easy but when implemented with quality it provides students with the opportunity to develop their moral character. It connects community to classroom and challenges students to act on issues that matter to them. It meets academic content standards and it develops civically informed and engaged global citizens. Service-learning helps students do what is right, to step out of their comfort zone and make deep-rooted change in themselves. It allows them to change the world.


A Class Divided. (1985, March 26). PBS Frontline.

Shumer, R., Lam, C., & Laabs, B. (2012). Ensuring Good Character and Civic Education: Connecting through Service-Learning. Asia Pacific Journal Of Education, 32(4), 430- 440.

King, M. (1963). Letter from Birmingham Jail.