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Fostering service-learning in teacher preparation.


Service-learning is often used as an instructional strategy in social studies methods courses at the university level. Teacher candidates engage in service-learning projects through community organizations working with children and families. In our program, teacher candidates engage in service-learning projects with the children in their field placement classroom as the teacher who facilitates learning. This article details our attempts to foster an experience that engages teacher candidates in bridging theory with practice in service-learning.


Service-learning is receiving national attention for its potential to foster civically engaged students in contexts from elementary schools to universities. The state of Utah has embedded objectives related to service-learning and the development of citizenship skills in the elementary core curriculum (Utah State Office of Education, 2000). The University of Utah has a nationally recognized service-learning center, encouraging service-learning through courses and additional scholarly and outreach programs. This paper describes one attempt to bridge the two populations of teacher candidates and schools, looking closely at the role of service-learning in teacher preparation for elementary social studies classrooms. Additional attention is paid to the impact of this experience on the individual teacher candidate as he/she prepares to teach in an increasingly diverse public school setting.

Service-learning in the Public Schools

Researchers advocate for the inclusion of service-learning into the public school curriculum (Wade, 1995). Public school students' experiences with service-learning show outcomes that include increased self-esteem and self-efficacy, stronger interest in school and a developing sense of social responsibility (Conrad & Hedin, 1991; Wade, 1995). These are fundamental goals of social studies education at the elementary level. However, there are parental concerns about the forced work with service-learning in schools and school or district-based issues of liability and expense (Wade, 1995). These issues challenge teachers who are invested in exposing children to social studies learning opportunities through civic and community engagement. Future teachers need experience with the service-learning model and the relevant concerns raised by parents and schools in order to effectively engage students in issues of social studies education through service-learning at the elementary level.

Service-learning in Teacher Education

At the university level, service-learning is a teaching method that allows for teacher candidates to use the information from their on-campus learning to bridge theory and practice in meeting a community need. Service-learning is a relevant and valuable instructional strategy for multiple areas of the university. However, for teacher education, there is a particular interest as teacher candidates who learn to do this at the university level may be more interested or invested in conducting service-learning projects as a part of their future teaching experiences. Service-learning helps teacher candidates to understand that teaching is both a moral and political act (Donahue, 1999) and thus, is potentially relevant to preparing them for the complexities of diverse classrooms and communities (Boyle-Baise, 1998; Buchanan, Baldwin & Rudisill, 2002; Donahue, 1999). Teacher educators must understand their own beliefs about the purpose, methods and meaning of service-learning (Donahue, 1998). Many teacher educators espouse culturally and socially responsive attitudes towards their practice in preservice teacher education programs. To that end, a common approach is to embed service-learning in the context of a methods course where the emphasis on a particular aspect or content of learning to teach provides a lens for teacher educators to demonstrate their stances about social critique or civic engagement through the service-learning project. One natural place for this is the social studies methods class, given that social studies is inherently a civically minded discipline.

Our work at the University of Utah moves beyond providing teacher candidates with opportunities to engage in personal service-learning projects as a part of their work in the elementary social studies methods course. Rather, we have invested our time in helping them to be the teacher of a service-learning project designed collaboratively with elementary school students in the context of their field placement classroom. Research has demonstrated that service-learning is a complex practice for a novice teacher to implement and that teacher educators must provide support and a realistic vision for implementing service-learning if we desire to see effective and consistent use in the future classroom (Cepello, Davis & Hill-Ward, 2003). Our goal was to support teacher candidates as they worked through the challenges of designing and implementing service-learning with children as a means of best moving from theory to practice with guidance available. The following sections detail the stance we advocate in the preparation of social studies teacher and describes the format, outcomes and continuing evolution of our service-learning experience.

Why Do This?

The National Council for the Social Studies (1994) defines the purpose of the field of social studies, in part, as "to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world." And, while there is debate as to the clear definition of service-learning, for the purpose of our study we look to Howard (2003) who defines this methodology as "a form of the broader model of experiential education with community service as the fulcrum" (p. 2). Howard describes academic service-learning as being "bound to the curriculum so that the service is connected to an academic course" and further, as having the potential to "intentionally integrate the learning from the community with the learning in the classroom" (p. 3).

Robert Yaro reminds us that "stewardship arises out of connectedness" (Sobel, 1998, p. 9). To this end, in our course we advocate that the purpose of social studies is to provide students with opportunities to develop five specific outcomes as they move both vertically and horizontally through the ten broad curriculum themes as defined by the National Council for the Social Studies (1994). These five outcomes are" 1) to become actively involved citizens, 2) to develop personal voice and ownership, 3) to become consciously aware of the world around them, 4) to become empowered as agents of change, and 5) to develop a heightened sense of responsibility for their ideas and choices. We believe there is a strong reciprocal relationship between what is defined as service-learning and these five desired outcomes of social studies. As a methodology, service-learning opens the door for students across diverse settings to access engaging opportunities to build capacity in all five of the outcomes. Through the introduction of service-learning as one of the primary approaches to teaching social studies across all levels of elementary education we hope to first provide the candidates with engaging pedagogy for their students both now and in the future. Another purpose of introducing service-learning is the desire to move our teacher candidates towards an integrated approach to addressing curricular needs and increase their ability to bridge a strong connection between social studies as an isolated curriculum and the real life connections that can be made with other curricular areas. Beyond these two motives, our hope is to move the candidates to consider service-learning as a powerful tool to affect change in their students' lives and the ability to view themselves and their students as agents of positive change in their community and the world around them.

The History of Service-learning in Our Courses

Our department's involvement with service-learning has developed and evolved over the past ten years. It began with a group of teacher candidates in an elementary social studies course who, while studying about the community's history, became aware of a neighborhood's dream to build a pocket park commemorating a historical event that took place approximately 150 years ago. The first service-learning project sprang out of the idea of helping this neighborhood research more details of the historical event, meet with the community council and, ultimately, work with the city council to plan the logistics of building a pocket park. At the end of the quarter, a pocket park was approved by the city council and three months later the park was built and dedicated by the city mayor. It was impressive to see how excited the teacher candidates were about this project, what they learned about the history of our community, what they learned about the way government works, and what they learned about working with people in the community. One of the objectives of teaching elementary social studies methods is to have "social studies come alive." This project made that possible for the teacher candidates. After much reflection with the teacher candidates about this initial project came the realization that the teacher candidates would have more ownership in a service-learning project if they each worked on a project they were personally passionate about.

From this serendipitous project, the beginning of a more formalized way of incorporating service-learning into the elementary social studies methods course began. At the University of Utah, we are lucky to have the support of the Bennion Service-Learning Center on campus which supports courses that emphasize demonstrating newly gained knowledge and skills into action through a community need. The social studies methods course is now designated as a service-learning course through the center and receives additional support and guidance in enacting this component of the course.

Project Implementation

During the semester our elementary teacher candidates take their social studies methods course, they learn what service-learning is and, in turn, design and implement a service-learning project with the elementary-aged students they are working with in local public schools. Our teacher candidates now have ownership and responsibility for their own service-learning project. They also have the opportunity to experience and witness first-hand the incredible benefits (e.g. real-life connections) of what it is like to implement a service-learning project with their elementary-aged students.

Teacher candidates develop the project based on their students' expressed interests and concerns about the community. Building off of these ideas, teacher candidates collaborate design and implement a project with their students that focuses on addressing these concerns while teaching the core curriculum of the grade level. The final project due for class involves three pieces of evidence. The teacher candidates, even if they've worked in a group, write an individual final report detailing their experiences with the project. They focus on what they believe their students have learned from the project, how they were able to teach the core curriculum through this project and what they have learned about service-learning as a pedagogy and themselves as a teacher. Secondly, the teacher candidates present their service-learning project to their peers. They provide concrete evidence of the project's outcomes for student learning and the types of activities they engaged in to implement the project. During the presentation, each group hands out a brochure which they created explaining their project so that others can use their example in the future.

Outcomes of the Service-Learning Experience

Evidence from final papers, project presentations, observations in the schools, and course evaluations indicate that the experience of service-learning projects is valuable to foster the sense of self and place advocated in the methods course. Without the opportunity to engage in leading projects with elementary students, teacher candidates would have difficulty in coming to the realizations that they did, primarily because they were able to see students in action and realize the power of the learning that could occur.

Teacher candidates recognize that their students have learned valuable lessons about the community and the needs of a society. A teacher candidate commented, "Through our service-learning project, the students learned that each person in a community has responsibility to help and work together and to be an active citizen." This achieves multiple goals we have as instructors for our methods course--that teacher candidates learn how to make the most of the social studies curriculum to promote long-term development of attitudes that recognize the individual's power and choices as a member of society. A teacher candidate understood the personal connection that service-learning provides for students to feel saying, "Service-learning provides students with an opportunity to acquire knowledge and ownership about a particular problem or situation that affects their community or personal lives." One future teacher realized, "We have become role models for our children on how to be involved in the community." Further, they recognized ways to connect service-learning with multiple areas of the curriculum and as one teacher candidate said, "Service-learning is a wonderful vehicle for integration with many subject areas." Teacher candidates were able to see that service-learning provided a rationale for making learning real and accessible to students, "By using service-learning in the classroom, the students were able to establish connections to the community and solve real world problems. They did this by applying the knowledge they were gaining in the classroom to real life. This project helped the students see that the things they are learning in the classroom are relevant to real life." Another teacher candidate recognized the power of the project to be a means to an end, "The project opened doors for me to be able to authentically teach valuable skills to my students."

Teacher candidates have developed richer understandings of diverse student populations through this project. In several projects, teacher candidates helped their elementary students to do outreach to other student populations considered to be high need. One teacher candidate recognized that her own ideas of learning and students were inaccurate,
 I was hoping to learn a great deal about children who are at risk
 for failure in school, but my experience has been different from
 the stereotypical child I imagined. These students are not below
 average in ability. In fact, they are extremely intelligent and

This understanding will hopefully broaden the future teacher's ideas about what a student might be able to do. Similar attitudes prevailed in another teacher candidate's case,
 I had assumed that these children were going to be behavior
 problems because of their broken homes. I expected them to be out
 of control and bouncing off the walls. I don't think there was one
 child that fit that stereotype. They were very well behaved and
 actually very enthusiastic.

Both teacher candidates demonstrate that not only students learn from the experiences of service-learning. These are valuable lessons that prepare teacher candidates to deal positively and proactively with the diversity of public schools. In sum, teacher candidates realized that they have the power to affect the lives of others and that service-learning provides an avenue for students to experience that power. As a teacher candidate commented, "As silly as it may sound, planning and implementing this project made me feel important. It made me feel that I have the power to influence my community."

Challenges to the Model

While we are pleased with the outcomes of this project for our teacher candidates, as is often the case when one begins a critical look at one's own practice, challenges to the model have surfaced. While none of the challenges have become critical at this point, one in particular has drawn attention. Presently, the social studies course instructors must first introduce teacher candidates to the methodology of service-learning and its key components. The instructors are then required to not only mentor the candidates in a working understanding of service-learning, but they must also facilitate the candidates' ability to immediately transition to the active role as service-learning facilitator. While it is hoped that a majority of candidates will successfully make this transition, there is evidence that candidates do not initially possess the "passion" associated with personal participation in service-learning. Many seem to acquire this passion through the process described earlier, but there still seems to be the presence of some disconnect especially when candidates face challenges within the context of their own classroom projects.

Future consideration to address this issue is leading to several possible options. One being given serious contemplation at this time is stepping back to provide a more traditional service-learning experience within the social studies methods course where students would be facilitated through the self-selection, implementation and celebration of an individual or class project during fall semester. Then, in conjunction with the candidates' full-time student teaching experience in the spring, they would be required to take their own students through the service-learning process, making strong connections to appropriate social studies content as well as other content areas. We continue to believe in the power of the opportunity to engage in service-learning with children in the schools and must find ways to ensure that teacher candidates experience the most powerful possible vision of this instructional approach. Regardless of the future decisions made about the scope and direction of the service-learning component of the methods course, we remain committed to the power of the project to help teacher candidates understand the larger, and critical, goals of social studies education.


Boyle-Baise, M. (1998). Community service-learning for multicultural education: An exploratory study with preservice teachers. Equity & Excellence in Education, 31(2), 52-60.

Buchanan, A.M., Baldwin, S.C., & Rudisill, M.E. (2002). Service-learning as scholarship in teacher education. Educational Researcher, November, 30-36.

Cepello, M.R., Davis, T.M., & Hill-Ward, L. (2003). Beginning teachers and service-learning: Lessons learned. Academic Exchange, Summer, 91-96.

Conrad, D. & Hedin, D. (1991). School-based community service: What we know from research and theory. Phi Delta Kappan, 72(10), 754-75.

Donahue, D.M. (1999). Service-learning for preservice teachers: Ethical dilemmas for practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 15, 685-695.

Howard, J. (2003). Service-learning research: Foundational issues. In Billig, S. and Waterman, A.S. (Eds.), Studying service-learning: Innovations in education research methodology (p. I -13). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

National Council for the Social Studies. (1994). Expectations of excellence: curriculum standards for social studies, Bulletin 89. Washington, DC: NCSS.

Sobel, D. (1998). Mapmaking with children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Utah State Office of Education. (2000). Core curriculum standards.

Wade, R.C. (1995). Developing active citizens: community service learning in social studies teacher education. The Social Studies, 86(3), 122-129.

Alisa J. Bates, University of Utah

Cathi Allen, University of Utah

Peggy McCandless, University of Utah

Bates, Ph.D., is assistant professor of teacher education, and Allen and McCandless are clinical faculty in the Department of Teaching and Learning.
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Author:McCandless, Peggy
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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