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Service learning and teacher education.


Service learning provides unique benefits to the community, the educational entity, and those performing the service. Although not new to education, service learning is emerging as a valid curricular tool that promotes authentic learning for pre service educators.


Imagine fifth graders working with pre-service elementary education majors developing math and science digital tutorials for third graders. Consider pre-service teachers providing after school science clubs to youth in the community. Visualize pre service teachers presenting educational and recreational activities for children attending a program sponsored by a nongovernmental organization (NGO). These three programs exemplify service learning in action--a method that connects meaningful community service with academic learning, personal growth, and civic responsibility (Kromer & Hitch, 1994). Service learning is gaining wide recognition as a valuable learning tool for students and educators at all levels. In fact, a 1998 survey by the National Learning in Teacher Education Partnership reported that nearly one-fifth of the teacher education programs in the nation offered service learning opportunities, and many others were interested in developing programs (Vaughn, Seifer & Vye Mihalynuk, 2004). This article will provide a background to service learning and describe how it can be integrated into teacher preparation programs.

Brief Historical Perspective

Although much of the research on service learning has been documented during the last decade, recommendations that service be a part of the school experience have appeared in cycles throughout this century (Conrad & Hedin, 1991). Early views of service learning which focused on volunteerism and community service can be traced back to the middle of the nineteenth century (Burrus-Bammel, Bammel, & Newhouse, 1993). In the early 1900s, teachers were urged by William Kilpatrick to adopt the project method to encourage students to continue learning outside of school while meeting community needs. Throughout the 1930s, the approach was supported by Progressives such as Jane Adams, John Dewey, and Dorothy Day. In the 1950s, the Citizen Education Project emphasized community participation and citizenship, and educational reports in the 1970s stressed the importance of involving young people in meaningful community experiences. Although community service was not emphasized much during the 1980s (Kromer & Hitch, 1994), possibly due to the back-to-basics movement, several reports on the state of education published in the 1980s such as A Place Called School by John Goodlad and Ernest Boyer's High School recommended service as an integral part of the K-12 curriculum (Conrad & Hedin, 1991).

More recently, President George H. W. Bush signed into law the National Community Service Act of 1990, which provides funding for community service-learning programs in schools and colleges and support for full-time service corps (Conrad & Hedin, 1991). This law also encourages community members to volunteer in schools, permits the Department of Education to make grants to states for elementary and secondary community service learning programs, and allows partial loan cancellation in Perkins and Stafford Loan Programs for those performing full-time community service (American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, 1989). This Act also encourages (a) institutions to make service a priority in daily life and work; (b) the media to identify service learning opportunities and spotlight successful service initiatives; (c) state and local education boards to uphold the value of service and encourage students, faculty, and other personnel to serve others; (d) college and university presidents to recognize the value of community service; and (e) not-for-profit service organizations to absorb increasing numbers of volunteers in purposeful roles (American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, 1989). Certainly, this Act provided the foundation for the integration of service learning in teacher education programs.

What is Service Learning?

But what exactly is service learning? One widely accepted definition comes from Bringle & Hatcher (1995) who noted that service-learning is a course-based, creditbearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the activity to understand the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. Similarly, the National Service Trust Act of 1993, which established the Federal Corporation for National Service, defines service learning as a method under which students learn and develop through active participation in thoughtfully organized service experiences that meet actual community needs, are integrated in the student's academic curriculum or provide structure for reflection, and enhance what is taught by extending learning into the community (Rhoads & Howard, 1998). Finally, Furco (1996) clarified that service learning intends to equally benefit the provider and the recipient of service as well as to ensure equal focus on both the service being provided and the learning that is occurring. These perspectives emphasize that service learning is based in a course of study, includes student reflection, and ties the student to identified community needs. In teacher education, some confuse student teaching with service learning. Student teaching in itself is not service learning because the service is being provided by the cooperating teacher and the host school to the profession to prepare new teachers. However, a student teaching special project or commitment that goes beyond the traditional classroom setting might be considered service learning.

Benefits of Service Learning

The rise of service learning is no doubt tied to its many benefits to the community, the educational entity, and the students. First, service learning engages students of all ages in organized activities that meet community needs. Community residents benefit from direct assistance and personal empowerment generated from the involvement of the participants. Underfunded community agencies benefit from the enthusiasm and hard work of the students. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of service learning to the community is the change of attitude developed toward the participants, who are no longer perceived as potential community problems, but rather the community's greatest resource (Kromer & Hitch, 1994). Further, service learning has the potential to build partnerships among schools, community agencies, and nongovernmental organizations by infusing the expertise, increased resources, and manpower from schools and their students.

Educational entities also benefit from service learning. Many schools and universities are perceived to operate as islands, isolated from the community. Service learning projects promote greater school visibility and strengthen community relationships. Such projects also provide universities with opportunities to help test/redefine new ideas, concepts, theories and methodologies and enhance the curriculum with authentic experiences. Further, service learning provides a diverse context for course activities and a structured reflection piece.

Students also benefit from service learning. Service learning provides opportunities for students to broaden their perspectives and increase their expertise. Students become actively involved in their communities and gain a greater sense of civic engagement and responsibility. Additionally, students involved in service learning show significant positive attitudinal changes toward others and themselves (Bringle & Kremer, 1993), as well as significant gains in pro-social thinking and reasoning (Batchelder & Root, 1994). The uses and benefits of service learning are especially noteworthy in the area of positive youth development, which is a policy perspective that emphasizes providing services and opportunities to all young people in developing competence, usefulness, belonging, and empowerment (Administration for Children and Families, 2004). Service learning projects and teacher education programs are ideal agents for providing positive youth development opportunities that are beneficial to both youth and economically challenged communities.

Response From Teacher Preparation Programs

Teacher preparation programs that strive to meet the needs of their public school systems and communities face increased pressure by accrediting bodies to infuse multicultural, diverse, and practical experiences throughout the curriculum (Conderman, 2003). Incorporating such experiences requires a critical examination and alignment of field experiences, course assignments, and means of program evaluation. Clearly, no longer are grade transcripts, scores on national exams, and diplomas considered adequate for assuring that new teachers have the knowledge, skill, and leadership to prepare today's youth (Wiedmer, 1998). Service learning opportunities provide authentic learning experiences for pre-service teachers to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real life situations. Future teachers also experience the pedagogy of service-learning which may enable them to use service-learning in their future classrooms. These and other benefits are recognized by federal funding agencies such as the Corporation for National and Community Service Learning and Serve America, a program designed to enhance institutional capacity to incorporate service-learning in teacher education programs. (Vaughn, Seifer, & Vye Mihalynuk, 2004).

Before initiating a service learning component into the teacher education curriculum, however, faculty should study issues such as forming and sustaining the service-learning infrastructure, networking and training, time, funding, and linking service-learning to state and national teacher education accreditation standards (Vaughn, Seifer, & Vye Mihalynuk, 2004). Additionally, special challenges should be discussed such as the already overcrowded teacher education curriculum and the difficulties of arranging successful K-12 and community service-learning sites (Anderson, 1999). Bishop (1996) notes 4 steps of integrating service learning into the curriculum which include: 1) planning- looking over the curriculum goals and noting topics which can be related to a service learning project; 2) participating- clarifying the level and type of participation involved such as direct service, indirect service, or advocacy; 3) reflecting- observing, formulating questions, and synthesizing learning from the experience; and 4) celebrating-recognizing the efforts of all participants as well as the project. Probably the most crucial issue for service learning projects, however, is maintaining ongoing communication among and between the university and the community agencies, the students and professor, and the students and the agencies. Miscommunication in any of these channels can be detrimental to the project.

Illustrative Programs

Three examples of teacher education-based service learning programs are illustrated below. In each case, a single course or a set of courses provided the curricular structure while existing or newly developed school or community-based projects offered the service opportunity.

The Math and Science Problems compact disc service learning project paired junior and senior level undergraduate university students enrolled in their education math and science methods courses with local fifth graders from an elementary school to develop an interactive tutorial consisting of math and science problems for third graders. Two university students, one representing science and one math, were randomly matched with three to four fifth graders in an after school technology course which met in the computer lab at an urban elementary school. The fifth graders chose word problems or science activities from third grade textbooks and used software applications such as PowerPoint or KidPro to digitally demonstrate the problems with drawings and/or animations to teach third graders. The project occurred over the course of ten of weeks as the groups met for about an hour weekly.

This project was beneficial on several levels. First, all participants learned new computer skills. The university pre service teachers gained a better understanding of how fifth graders conceptualized science and math problems through their individual reflections of their observations as well as through university-based course reflective discussions. The fifth graders benefited from integrating math, science, and technology while learning civic responsibility. They also benefited from interacting with an older and positive role model. Even future students benefited as copies of the discs were placed in local libraries to serve as third grade tutorials.

Science seekers was a once a week after school science program that combined service learning, teacher education, and positive youth development to provide hands-on science activities for children (Woods, 2001). The multi-site program paired elementary education students enrolled in a junior-level elementary science methods course with a community member such as a parent, a civic leader or a person from a NGO, to offer after school science clubs to youth in various community settings such as schools, congregations, and civic and ethnic associations. This project was set in an ethnically diverse urban area. The ethnically diverse youth, who were not considered at risk, were members of various NGOs. Due to their size, the NGOs were unable to offer the science programs independently due to budget constraints.

The science clubs completed various hands-on activities around themes selected by the youth such as light color and sound, electricity, astronomy, and health. The science methods professor and community members collaboratively developed the curriculum. One curricular goal was to make use of community sources, so that youth could see the impact science had on their communities. The youth benefited from having hands-on science activities that supplemented their regular science curriculum in a fun nonschool setting, and the college students benefited by gaining practical experience working with diverse youth, viewing the youth in community settings rather than in the traditional classroom, and learning about community resources available to youth. In class, the college students reflected on their experiences and shared how they related the content of their science methods course to their science club. Science Seekers promoted positive youth development and leadership by focusing on the strengths and interests of youth by honoring their input in the curriculum and promoting their visibility in the community.

The After School Fun Days program was a once-a-week 9 month after school event designed to connect children representing diverse cultures and socio-economic levels in a rural community with positive role models through educational, social, recreational, and spiritual activities (Conderman & Patryla, 1992). The event took place in a building owned by a nongovernmental organization which frequently offered free communitybased educational, recreational, and spiritual programs. Typically over 100 children attended the event in addition to three organizational employees, 15-20 university students, and the university methods professor. Elementary education, secondary education, and special education majors from the nearby university applied the knowledge and skills from their introductory educational methods courses to teach a new hobby, lead a book discussion, or teach a new game to groups of children in grades K-12.

The nongovernmental organization was primarily responsible for leading the beginning activity which often included an educational video, a community guest speaker, or a performance by a local choir, dance troop, or drama group. During the middle half hour of 90 minute program, each college student was assigned an individual or a small group of children to teach a specific skill or complete a particular activity. College students were responsible for developing a lesson plan, implementing appropriate behavior management techniques, and communicating with the children at an appropriate level while respecting diverse learning and cultural styles. The program concluded with a snack and a short spiritual lesson led by members of the nongovernmental agency. Following their lesson, college students completed a written reflection and dialogued with other teachers as well as their university professor. Children and youth involved in the program benefited from small group and individualized attention from a college student mentor while learning or reviewing skills they could apply at home, at school, or in the community. The program, coordinated almost entirely by community volunteers, benefited from a large group of interested and enthusiastic college students who desired to invest themselves in the helping profession.

Final Thoughts

These three successful programs provided practical, diverse, community-based learning opportunities for pre service educators. The opportunities for structured reflection, under the guidance of a university professor, helped university students connect theory with practice while causing them to refine personalized views on instruction and diversity. The programs also met critical needs for mentoring community youth within the context of meaningful educational activities. Powerful partnerships emerged involving children, adults, university personnel, community members, and nongovernmental agencies. With some purposeful planning, we believe that the possibilities are endless for service learning programs--such as these--in teacher education curriculum.


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Woods, C. S. (2001). Community based science: A service learning model. International Journal of Learning, 8, np.

C. Sheldon Woods, Northern Illinois University

Greg Conderman, Northern Illinois University

Woods, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Elementary Education, and Conderman, Ed. D. is an Associate Professor of Special Education in the College of Education.
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Author:Conderman, Greg
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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