Inquiry and Research as Foundations of Service Learning.
Service Learning programs are at risk of becoming pre-fabricated, do-good postscripts to the school curriculum with little connection to essential academic lessons. In contrast, by building community service and civic action upon an underlying framework of inquiry, service learning programs can provide a deeper context for learning. The Kids Around Town (KAT) Model is one model that provides such a context for learning. This article draws on Model's seven years of field experience to suggest specific examples of the sorts of research questions that educators can use to train students in methodologies of meaningful inquiry.
Inquiry and Research as Foundations of Service Learning
What do we really mean when we use the term "good citizen"? A popular interpretation is that of U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley and Corporation for National Service Chaff Harris Wofford, who have called for the creation of "active duty citizens" through service learning (Riley & Wofford, 1999). It would be a tragic perversion, however, to envision this citizen corps as troops of civilian "soldiers" carrying out orders from above to execute good deeds, since the spirit of voluntarism they are calling for should contradict requirement and performance of service. Yet columnist Jane Eisner expresses concern that such distortions are a real danger (Eisner, 1999). In the excitement of mandating service "hours," are we losing sight of the partnership that must link the goals of improving citizenship and improving student academic capacity? Her concerns are substantiated in a survey reported by The New York Times, in which college students indicate that their "interest in public service does not extend to voting or talking about politics." (Clymer, 2000). Most of these students saw no connection between public policy decisions and the socio-economic problems their community service activities were intended to ameliorate. They expressed powerlessness within our democratic system. Thus, their service activities touch only society's symptoms; students remain unprepared to address underlying causes of the problems and uninterested in and uninformed about participating in political means to remedy them.
One way to help address this shortcoming in the current implementation of service learning is to prepare students in advance of the experience by flaming useful questions before deciding upon a service solution. Too many service learning projects lack roots in underlying research questions. Without a clear, inquiry-based structure for data gathering and analysis, service activities are doomed to remain isolated, do-good deeds, full of non-transferable skills, resistant to integration into the broader understanding that service learning is supposed to promote.
As professionals devoted to scholarship and research, many academic leaders assume that inquiry is built into academic life! But seven years of training teachers to implement a civic education model persuade me that this assumption is naive. The program I helped develop with Sharon Kletzien of West Chester University of Pennsylvania is rooted in inquiry, and relevant civic action is designed to grow out of this inquiry. In the Kids Around Town (KAT) Model, service results from a multidisciplinary process of problem-solving; its specifics are student-designed, student-tailored civic and service applications meant to address the specific situation studied. Instead of just offering a pat-solution in which students participate, the KAT approach teaches students how to generate and creatively solve meaningful questions.
Kids Around Town (KAT) was honored as a 1996 Outstanding Program of Excellence by the National Council for the Social Studies. Sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania Citizen Education Fund, KAT has engaged thousands of students and hundreds of educators across Pennsylvania in serious public policy issues and empowered these learning teams to respond by initiating responsible civic action (Rappoport & Kletzien, 1996; Rappoport, 1999). A number of school districts across Pennsylvania have requested that KAT provide additional staff development and technical support in service learning.
With KAT as with other appropriately implemented service learning programs, the over-riding question is not "Class, would you like to visit the senior center and sing a holiday concert to entertain the residents, or would you rather tutor first graders in reading?" Intergenerational programs and tutoring are worthy service activities from a school perspective if and after they are framed as responses to persuasive questions. Service learning isn't supposed to just plug students into pre-fabricated community service slots the way standardized test-takers fill in circles with their number two pencils. Instead, the service solution and hence, the very questions themselves, need to derive from compelling experiences and problems the learners themselves raise, and questions they are actively taught to discover, observe, and analyze.
The components of the KAT Model sound familiar to service learning advocates:
* Select a Local Public Policy Issue (community issues include school districts, local government, environment, libraries, etc.);
* Research the Problem and Analyze Findings (gather data from multiple sources, check validity, reliability, bias, patterns, etc.);
* Problem Solve (consider alternatives, possible consequences);
* Take Civic Action (an infinite number of possible community service activities);
* Assess and Reflect on the Results and Process.
Less familiar are the habits of inquiry behind each of these components. An example from one of KAT's staff development sessions is illustrative of this point. The group was discussing local schoolwide or community problems that teachers thought might interest their students. In this context, one teacher enthusiastically described her school's problem as the "need for a bridge" to cross over the busy road that divided the school building from the playing field. Pause for a moment to consider that thinking.
In actuality, the problem was that students moving from the classroom building to the field for gym class had to encounter dangers from crossing a busy highway. The teacher--though with good intentions for student safety and with vitality in her approach--inadvertently defined the problem with a single solution. By defining the problem as the need for a bridge, the teacher blurred the actual problem, which included both the safety of the children and the efficiency of the school logistics, with potential solutions. By defining the problem as the need for a bridge, the teacher also eliminated the importance of student research of the problem (Have any youngsters actually been injured? How many close calls? How much time is actually wasted in the process of crossing the street?). By defining the problem as the need for a bridge, the teacher also eliminated alternative solutions to the actual problem, such as the erection of traffic lights, the building of a tunnel, or the purchase/reallocation of land so that the fields could be built on the classroom side of the road. This limits the divergent thinking opportunities afforded to students. Granted, the teacher's solution may end up being the best of the alternatives, but starting with it as the chosen solution denies students the opportunity to calculate costs and benefits that would come with different solutions. Genuine problem-solving doesn't presuppose a particular solution. These, therefore, are among the habits of inquiry that service learning must incorporate.
Resist the Rush to Judgment
Our justice system cautions us against a rash to judgment without careful consideration of the evidence in a case and serious deliberation about the facts and arguments. Yet KAT's research demonstrates that this is not the way our students have been trained to act. KAT presents students with an open-ended scenario of a public policy problem (such as a community debate about expanding the local library or firehouse) as a pre-test and post-test exercise. We have seen that the first thing students do on the pre-tests--and this is equally true even of the older students--is express their opinion on the "right" solution to the problem, rather than suggest the need to obtain more information. Similarly, when we ask educators what issues they think their students might be interested in examining for a service learning project, we notice that the majority merely pose a convenient service activity rather than identify an underlying community problem.
For example, most of us are aware that hunger and nutrition problems afflict individuals and families in and around our neighborhoods. A typical classroom response is: "We can either help out at the local soup kitchen, or we can collect money for Thanksgiving baskets. Let's vote on which one our class wants to do." KAT suggests that there is a more effective way to approach service learning that involves students from the start in substantive inquiry and research.
Rather than rush students into a pre-determined action intended to remediate a problem they have yet to study, KAT urges that we start them out asking questions about the problematic situation of interest. Any number of questions can serve as the initial prompts:
* Schools in our County provide free and discounted lunches to [40 percent] (or whatever the figure is) of our students. What are some reasons that families in this community might not be able to pay for their children's lunches?
* Have you ever heard of Meals on Wheels'? Let's find out why this organization exists and what sorts of situations the people are in who need its services.
* Here's an article from the local paper that talks about malnutrition. What are some causes of malnutrition? Why aren't people eating foods that are good for them? What is the role of income? What about time to shop and prepare food?
Throughout its staff development sessions, KAT tries to sensitize teachers to opportunities for such prompts by providing practice with framing and researching issues. Exercises in the KAT Manual and in the supplement, KAT Talk, focus students on "Asking Good Questions" and "What Questions Need to be Asked About These Statements?"
Research and Analysis
In raising such questions, KAT isn't recommending that we limit discussion to the go-around-the-room opinion poll of our students. Instead, we're seeking how students' reflex responses often point in productive directions for further examination. These questions, along with student reactions, are intended to focus students on hands-on data-gathering and nudge them into research about the causes, history, and nature of the problem at hand.
Our job as educators is in part to train students in methodologies of inquiry. Students need to learn how to learn by focusing on questions like "What questions need to be asked?" "How do we pose these questions in ways that will help us find answers and learn more?" "How can we go about finding relevant information?"
So, following up on the same example above regarding hunger, here are some sample questions KAT would encourage students to raise, once they have identified this public policy issue to examine. These questions are not speculative, but are specific and empirical, geared to authentic data-gathering and measurement. Notice that although these questions have a "civics" ring to them, they are in fact multidisciplinary.
* How many people does this soup kitchen serve each year? (This is not the same as the number of meals served.). What percentage of our population does this represent?
* What is the average income for college graduates and how does that compare with the average income for high school graduates?
* What are the five or ten most common disabilities that prevent or limit adults from participating in the workforce? From shopping for and cooking their own food?
Note also that these questions solicit thought and research about the causes of the problem, thus opening up a range of potential areas for improvement, rather than simplistically addressing only standardized, popularized, quick-fix remediation of the problem.
KAT experience suggests that, too often, when educators aren't sure where to find the answers, they hesitate to even ask the questions, which does not serve learning. To be a good educator, one need not have all the answers, but can, instead, be one who models the learning process (AASA, 1999). Every community has resources and experts who can help us access answers to tough questions. We need to help Our students discover where these resources are.
We also must remind students to think about the answers and the data they do collect. Throughout staff development training and in our materials, KAT urges teachers to have students consider:
* What patterns, if any, stand out in the data you've assembled?
* Has this situation changed over time? Does this situation occur in some places more than in others?
* What bias, if any, does that source have?
Appearances aren't the same as evidence, and correlations aren't the same as causation. Most teachers think they are teaching this point in math class, in science experiments, or in history or literature. But if students are going to satisfactorily transfer this lesson from one context to another, they must be reminded of it in the context of community service as well. By emphasizing multidisciplinary thinking in the setting of authentic community problems, KAT reminds students to apply the analytical tools they've practiced in one subject into another area of problem-solving.
Problem Solving and Community Action
We can all recount cases in which the cure was worse than the ailment or where an attempt to solve a problem actually made matters worse. Service learning is an opportunity to teach students how to examine potential solutions before they make such mistakes.
Service learning can and should help students connect their research with their service recommendations by developing the service activity to actually meet the needs and address the problems they've identified earlier in the research process. Let's return to the example of the "need for a bridge." Student research may indeed discover that the school district owns plenty of property adjacent to the school building, and that only historical circumstances, rather than sound reasons, continue to have them crossing the busy highway. The students may determine that the school district could profitably sell the land currently accommodating the fields, and use that money to reconstruct the playing fields on the side of the classroom buildings. Their service might take the form of presenting this information in the form of a proposal to the school board. Alternatively, student research may determine that a bridge is a logistically and economically effective solution to the problem. In this latter case, the solution is derived out of inquiry and analysis, not merely imposed by conventional 'wisdom' or by the teacher suggesting this solution as a service learning project.
Here again, the KAT program offers strategies and exercises for raising relevant questions before launching into solutions. Service learning educators should help their students practice asking:
* What are the anticipated costs and benefits from a given proposal?
* Who stands to benefit from this solution, and who doesn't?
* According to what criteria is the proposed solution the best one?
* Are there other ways to approach the problem that might be better, faster, cheaper, while simultaneously serving future generations, disrupting the environment less, etc?
* How does this solution address the cause of the problem?
No service activity should be implemented prior to asking such questions because effective citizenship and effective scholarship are built by such inquiry. Students are taught to ask questions by teachers who expect and demand to hear them. Effective service learning asks students to consult their research, to draw on their findings to inform their civic action. In the case of hunger, it is possible that their research will indicate a link between education level, unemployment, and participation in services provided by a food bank. It is also possible that the soup kitchen already has enough volunteers, and that the time of students interested in serving their community could be better spent tutoring students at risk of dropping out of school.
Similarly, it is possible that their research--perhaps through an informative visit to a homeless shelter conducted by its director or through an interview with a social worker in the local Department of Human Resources--would show that mental illness is a surprisingly significant source of disability in the community, and a prominent correlate with homelessness and hunger. As students conduct research, they discover information and perceive questions that might not have occurred to them if they had merely engaged in service solutions imposed a priori by convenience. Perhaps these students have also learned from their questions and reading that medical insurance does not cover many services relating directly to treating mental illness. In their problem-solving analysis, they may decide that there are enough groups working on feeding these individuals, and that it is more important in the long run to share information about mental health insurance coverage with the public by writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper.
Reflection and Assessment
Service learning assessments should be ongoing--they don't all need to wait chronologically until the end of the service. They should reflect concrete and abstract learning, and both process and content. They should tap the caliber and growth of the students' skills in observation and inquiry.
But service learning does involve students in inquiry after the completion of their service. Students consider their impressions of the institutions and people they encountered, recount personal anecdotes, and construct meaning from their service. Frequently a log book or portfolio is used as part of this process.
The KAT approach contributes to the substance of the questions being posed at this stage, as well.
Since inquiry prompted the research and service, it's important for students to return to their original questions, to determine if they were satisfactorily addressed and what holes, if any, remain.
In addition, it's important for students to re-consider their research:
* Did they consult a variety of sources, and types of sources?
* Did they include a variety of disciplines and obtain a variety of viewpoints?
* Were they surprised by any of their findings? If so, why?
Community service should itself raise many questions. When students are involved in real community work, they see economic, political, scientific and social systems in action. This should raise more inquiries about the public policy context in which the service took place:
* Is there waste? Where? Why? How could this be improved?
* What training and skills would I need if I wanted to pursue this work? what training and skills would enhance the work of those already involved?
* Are we reaching the people most in need, or only those most accessible?
Too often, the standard service learning "reflections" ask students to reflect too narrowly on how the service experience affected them as learners or changed their view of the "client" or "service recipient" group. On the other hand, the KAT approach urges teachers to help students conceptualize the service in the broader civic context. When students are trained to see how service activities relate to political and public policy systems in which they are embedded, students gain better understanding and feel more efficacious.
With better understanding, more authentic practice, and stronger analytical skills, students are more empowered to participate in civic life. Thus, KAT-equipped students have taken their concerns about abandoned housing in Philadelphia to the Department of Licenses and Inspections and produced visible change. They have taken concerns about school facilities in Pittsburgh to their superintendent. They have instituted peer mediation programs to counter school violence and they have achieved a Resolution passed by the Pennsylvania State Assembly on violence prevention. KAT students have proposed a skateboard park to one township's commissioners to help get youngsters off the streets and congested sidewalks, and KAT students have led a community to compost yard waste in order to prolong the life of the area's landfill. When service learning comes out of genuine inquiry and research, students no longer doubt--as they did in the survey reported by The New York Times--that political life and public policy are irrelevant to community service. Strong and appropriate service learning nurtures strong academic skills as well as strong citizenship.
Inquiry is the engine of learning, and as such, should never cease. KAT teaches us to ask, "What further questions should service learning raise?"
(The Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies also named KAT its 1995 Outstanding Program of Excellence. The LWVPA-CEF has received funding for KAT from The Annenberg Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Grable Foundation, Pennsylvania Power & Light, The Prudential, and The William Penn Foundation, among others.)
American Association of School Administrators. Preparing Schools and School Systems for the 21st Century. Arlington, VA 1999. http://civnet.org/news/aasa.htm
Clymer, A. (2000). College Students Not Drawn to Voting or Politics, Poll Shows. The New York Times, January 11.
Eisner, J. (1999). One Lesson of Service Learning Is that it Must Be Done Correctly. The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 10, 1999: D-7.
Rappoport, A. L. (1999). Kids Around Town. Teaching K-12, 30(2): 50-51.
Rappoport, A. L. & Kletzien, S. (1996). Kids Around Town: Civics Lessons Leave Impressions. Educational Leadership, 53(8): 26-29.
Riley, R. and Wofford, H. (1999). Press Conference at Simon Gratz High School. Philadelphia: September 29.
Ann L. Rappoport received her Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 1978 in Political Science. For the past 18 years, she has been an Independent Consultant. She is currently the Director of Kids Around Town, Wyncote, PA. <firstname.lastname@example.org>.