Stephen Dalton

In this issue of Showcase, Stephen Dalton introduces his extensive experience with service learning.

Stephen Dalton

My journey to teaching English in Japan started in an unusual fashion: it began with teaching advanced conceptual mathematics! In the late 1980s, I joined a social change non-profit organization called Project SEED in California. We explored algebraic concepts such as the additive law for exponents with 4-6th graders from the poorest schools in and around San Francisco. Rather than teaching algorithms, we used advanced math to encourage students to think critically and work together to solve difficult problems.

After almost 20 years, I find myself returning to this broad goal of fostering cooperation and critical thinking, but from a completely different angle. Following stints of teaching both Spanish and English as foreign languages at UC-Santa Barbara and the English Language Program (ELP) of UC-Berkeley, I became acquainted with service learning.

Service learning is like volunteering on steroids. According to Ash and Clayton (2009), it is comprised of three parts: volunteering in the community, classroom learning relevant to the volunteering, and reflection activities where students integrate their volunteer experience with what they have learned in class. Through these three modalities, students slowly construct their personal understanding of the social challenges they address through volunteering. These problems can range from homelessness to aging societies to global warming. Generally service learning is done domestically, and often holds no L2 benefits. However, when combined with foreign language study, students in a service learning course can understand how deeply these problems affect all of us, giving rise to a larger sense of global citizenship.

My first foray into volunteering in an academic context was at the English Studies Institute (ESI) in Berkeley, a privatized spinoff of the now-defunct ELP. The pilot volunteer project I helped design for visiting Taiwanese EFL students paved the road for the creation of a full-fledged service learning program. Today, students from Kyoto’s Ryukoku University, a partner of ESI, participate in one of four volunteering options: social welfare, environment, K-6 education, and the elderly. Each option features an English teacher dedicated to teaching about the broader context of the social problem, as well as the language necessary for successfully working with the local volunteers. Students must journal about what they learn and how their experience in the field connects with that learning. Whether it is serving food to the homeless, cleaning up the beach, keeping company with the elderly, or acting as a teacher’s assistant in a 1st grade class, students are encouraged to think seriously about how various social challenges arise and what this experience means for their lives going forward.

After traveling to Japan for a year’s sabbatical at Ryukoku University, I joined Osaka Gakuin University (OGU) to help with campus internationalization. Although the International Center there does a good job of attracting foreign exchange students, many of them need more help integrating with the campus. Because of language barriers, many Japanese students also find meeting foreign students on campus a challenge. My assignment to help internationalize the campus was addressed again by . . . service learning.

The service learning class I introduced at OGU accepts both foreign and Japanese students irrespective of language ability. Although I taught in English, every word was consecutively translated into Japanese. This created an atmosphere in which the Japanese and foreign students felt comfortable talking in both languages—when paired with a foreign counterpart, they could act as both language learner and teacher. Each hybrid pair of students worked together to check understanding of the classroom lectures on global problems. They also created activities that they executed while volunteering with local NPOs in Kansai. For instance, each pair visited local elder-care facilities to chat with the elderly. Later the pairs taught English songs to young children who had fled Fukushima following 3.11.

In each case, both Japanese and foreign students were encouraged to reflect on what they were learning not only from their experience and the classroom, but also from their foreign partner. As both improved their L2 oral communication, they also learned different ways to tackle challenges. For the first time in their lives, many of them were using their L2 to solve real problems, not pass a test. 

In the current semester, exchange students studying at OGU from around the world will partner with Japanese students to feed the homeless, assist the elderly, and provide solace and stimulation for those fleeing nuclear contamination. Although the volunteering is local, the challenges are global: increasing inequality, aging societies, and how to generate power safely and cheaply. Whether it’s an exchange student speaking Japanese, or a Japanese student speaking English, they are learning to work together, think critically, and reflect on how to create solutions for the world. At the JALT national conference in Kobe, I spoke on how to implement this model of service learning for Japanese universities. If you missed the talks, please email me at <> with questions or comments.


Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection for applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1, (25-48). 

Stephen Dalton holds degrees in Economics and English from the University of Chicago and San Francisco State University. He is an Associate Professor at Osaka Gakuin University, where he teaches English to Japanese students, Economic History and Intercultural Communication to foreign students, and service learning to both.

Website developed by