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Defining Service Learning: What Are “Authentic Needs?”

By Jérémie Rostan
Defining Service Learning: What Are “Authentic Needs?”

The “authentic needs” addressed by service learners are second-order deficiency needs, i.e., they are issues of capability and economic, social, or environmental sustainability. A simple thought experiment offers a litmus test to determine when that is the case.

“Is this service?” is probably the question most frequently asked to service learning coordinators around the world. More often than not, the answer is quite intuitive; but it is also based on heuristics rather than on a precise definition. Just like beauty, we recognize service when we see it, yet we seem unable to say what it looks like in general. This is an issue for at least three reasons. First, an obvious practical reason, effective programs need explicit rules and clear criteria to determine what qualifies as service learning and what doesn’t. Second, an even more important pedagogical reason, understanding what “service” means is one of the main objectives and learning outcomes of any service learning program. Third, and most importantly, a philosophical reason, if the essence of service learning remains fuzzy, then it becomes difficult to justify its unique importance. Engaging in service has unique and critically important learning benefits, but these benefits stem from and thus depend on the fact that service learners address a specific kind of issues.

What kind? A common criterion is that service learners address “authentic needs.” Far from solving the problem, however, this criterion begs the question, what are “authentic” needs? Using Maslow’s famous hierarchy, one could say that they are actual needs, “deficiency” needs such as food, shelter, or belonging, rather than wants or “growth” needs. Yet, school canteens are full of hungry teenagers, and feeding them does not qualify as service, while organizing a food drive for the homeless does. Addressing a basic need is thus necessary but insufficient to engage in service. What is actually needed is that service learners address a deprivation of such human necessities. This leads to a simple but useful distinction between first-order and second-order needs. First-order needs, such as our need for food, are not problematic in and of themselves. They are what it means to be human. Second-order needs, however, are the inability to satisfy such needs without social progress, as is the case of homeless people. Paradoxically, they are “authentic” needs because they are not so much needs as they are social issues.

Service learners address second-order basic needs, such as the inability to afford food. Conceptually, this is satisfying; but how does one make such a determination? An easy test to determine whether a situation is truly problematic and thus worthy of service is to ask what would happen in an ideal world. Would it cease to exist? Objectively, an ideal world would be one where all the needs of all living beings would be met. This does not mean that all needs would disappear, however. Second-order needs certainly would, but first-order needs would simply be systematically satisfied. Because an ideal world is both objective and normative, this simple thought experiment gives us a criterion with which to define “authentic needs,” and thus service. A need that would still exist in an ideal world is by definition not an issue. Rather, it is an advantage. Take the need for food. In an ideal world, nobody would go hungry, or even feed on less than great tasting dishes made with high-quality ingredients. All the food needs of all people would be met, but they would not disappear. Why? Because these needs, as long as they are satisfied, create many “functionings” that are integral to human life, the pleasure of taste and satiety, the art of cooking, the social dimension of eating, the contribution of cuisines to culture, etc. What would disappear, however, is the need for soup kitchens and other similar social disadvantages.

In this view, service learning is concerned, not so much with needs, but rather with capabilities and social progress. This is in line with an approach based on sustainability, if it is understood that human systems are sustainable (economically, socially, and environmentally) when they enable all of their members to access essential functionings, without exclusion. Thinking about service learning this way helps redirect our attention to the real issues underlying the “needs” addressed by service learners. If the real issue is not that homeless people are hungry, but that they cannot sustain themselves, then what needs to be addressed is not only the emergency of the homeless situation, but also what drives and traps people into homelessness. From there, this definition also helps explain why true service is always service learning and requires sustained action, including research and advocacy. If the real issue is not the need itself, but the inability to satisfy it without social progress, then addressing this issue requires investigation (of its various causes), planning (to address its various factors, including by raising public awareness and influencing decision makers), and a lifelong commitment (until social change is achieved). What is more, this clarification allows us to reframe service learning, moving away from a paradigm where students are “saviors” satisfying other people’s needs to one where they are activists empowering themselves and others. Finally, this perspective helps understand why reflection is such a critical component of service learning. Indeed, it naturally leads students to grapple with critical understandings, such as the ones embedded in the following prompts:

Critical thinking on assumptions: I used to believe… / now I know…

Critical awareness of privilege: I used to take for granted… / now I am thankful for…

Critical consciousness of causes and consequences: I used to be blind to… / now I see…

Critical acknowledgement of role played: I was oblivious to… / now I realize…

Critical conscience of responsibility: I used to ignore… / now I believe it is my responsibility to…

Critical realization of efficacy: I used to feel helpless about… / now I feel capable to…


Jérémie Rostan is the Pre K-12 Service Learning Coach at Yokohama International School in Japan.

LinkedIn: Jérémie RostanYokohama International School 


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05/25/2022 - Jérémie
Thank you, Valeria. The "thinking routine" framework is, of course, borrowed from Project Zero.
05/25/2022 - Valeria
Thank you for providing these questions as a framework for better understanding service learning and the impact of understanding underlying factors of first order basic needs.