Section II: Chapter 1: Overview of Service-Learning
Characteristics of Service-Learning (Continued)
- Multiple voices – Service-learning is a partnership process, bringing instructors, students, and community partners into a relationship that is reciprocal -- and at best even mutually-transformative. Those served have a central voice in determining the nature of the service, meaning that instructors share – perhaps in an unprecedented fashion – responsibility for crafting the instructional strategy. And the students themselves are full partners in the process, co-creating the learning objectives, the service objectives, and the process by which they are attained and evaluated. Ultimately, service-learning requires the creation of spaces for shared voice and involves shifts in power and responsibility.
- Continuous engagement – Any learning process is maximized when students remain engaged with it, but in the case of service-learning it is especially important that you and your students think of the process as one of continuous engagement. Some of your students may have study habits that lead to sporadic involvement in their courses, driven perhaps by looming deadlines (upcoming exams or papers to be submitted). In the case of service-learning, this discontinuous engagement is not only detrimental to their learning (including their learning how to learn in self-directed ways), since learning is understood to be a developmental process, but also may put fulfillment of their responsibilities to the community at risk. A carefully integrated service-learning course may well require the students to engage with one or more elements of the course – reading, reflection, research, service, preparation for class, group project management meetings, etc. – everyday or at least on a more regular basis than they may be accustomed to in many of their other courses.
- Multiple locations and times – The service-learning process, obviously, is not spatially confined to the classroom or the campus or temporally limited to class hours. Rather, the process is distributed across many venues -- in and out of the classroom, online, on-site at the community organization, in transit to the community organization, in residence halls and other places where students gather, etc. – and many blocks of time – during regular class hours, during scheduled service hours, during transit to and from the community, during times when the organization’s staff can be available for orientations or interviews or consultation, etc. Many students are accustomed to studying and communicating with one another on their own schedules (sometimes in the middle of the night) and may therefore have to adjust to the schedule of the organization where they serve.
- Open-endedness – Unlike some of the more traditional classroom experiences, the service-learning process is often full of ambiguity. Black and white / right and wrong thinking must frequently give way to reasoning in gray areas, and many undergraduates are not developmentally well-prepared to handle the reality of uncertain, contingent, or contextualized knowledge. Social issues and organizational and interpersonal dynamics are complex, and efforts to learn through engagement with them can be unpredictable. Your service-learning students may want you to “just give us the answers,” and you yourself may long for a greater degree of control. While it is crucial that you, your students, and community partners go into the service-learning process with desired outcomes established, it is also true that how you get to those outcomes may be a mix of the planned and the unanticipated; and you may need to revise the initial objectives as well as the strategies for achieving them as the process unfolds.
In his article on the counter-normative nature of service-learning, Howard (1998) concludes that “reformatting classroom norms, roles, and outcomes so that both academic and experiential learning can be joined requires a very deliberate effort around a rather formidable challenge” (p. 28). As you begin the course design process you will likely encounter specific ways in which you and your students will have to think differently and act differently than you are all accustomed to. As we will discuss in more depth in Chapter 5, students need to be prepared for the non-traditional nature of the service-learning classroom, for the challenges of collaborating with diverse others, and for dealing with ambiguity in problem and role definition.
While its non-traditional nature is at the heart of many of the challenges posed by the pedagogy, “it is this very dissonance and its associated difficulties that give service-learning much of its potential as a transformative pedagogy and make it such a vital component of education in the 21 st century” (Clayton & Ash, 2004, p. 59). Thus, we are not merely exposing our students to a new pedagogy and helping them learn to undertake it effectively but rather are intentionally using the pedagogy – largely because of its unique nature – as a means toward the most important ends of our work: nurturing the development of young people as learners, as scholars, as citizens, indeed, as human beings.