Service-learning (SL) now has over 50 years of literature and critical evaluation. While much has changed, SL remains largely driven by John Dewey’s vision for institutions of higher education. The goal of SL is participation in democracy–in the development of educated citizens active in public life. In bringing service into conversation with course content, students come to understand their position within the community and how structural issues impact daily life. The goal as many articulate it is transformative experience, a shift in world view that helps students overcome stereotypes and misconceptions, as opposed to more transactional, charity-style service that risks reinforcing these misconceptions (Mitchell 2008).
While much early scholarship on SL took the form of case studies analyzing student outcomes and styles of service used in the class, more recent literature has taken a critical turn. Case studies are giving way to more engagement with theory and developmental models that increasingly prioritize critical thinking with a social change orientation. Butin (2006) and Mitchell (2008) highlight several core elements of critical service learning over its traditional counterpart:
- reflection includes discussion of structural sources of inequities;
- work to bring service and learning together explicitly accounts for power, including the fact that SL participants often have more power than those they serve; and;
- opens discussion about and with community partners to explore solutions to issues.
One of the additions to the SL literature I find most exciting is a turn of the lens to explore how service impacts the community. “Achieving the Partnership Principle in Experiential Learning” is an example of such work, which argues for using a community rather than student perspective to examine community capacity to support student learning and how reciprocal partnerships can be built. Hear more about choosing a partner and building a strong partnership in our next Foundations of Service-Learning series post, when we’ll discuss identifying the service opportunity that’s right for your class.
- Butin, Dan W. “The limits of service-learning in higher education.” The review of higher education 29.4 (2006): 473-498.
- Dewey, John. 2008. “The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy.” In The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 10, 1899–1924: Essays on Philosophy and Education, 1916-1917, edited by Jo Ann Boydston, 137–43. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Gazley, Beth, Teresa A. Bennett, and Laura Littlepage. “Achieving the partnership principle in experiential learning: The nonprofit perspective.” Journal of Public Affairs Education (2013): 559-579.
- Mitchell, Tania D. “Traditional vs. critical service-learning: Engaging the literature to differentiate two models.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 14.2 (2008).
This post is the third in a series on the Foundations of Service-Learning. Follow the series via the service-learning foundations tag.