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Service-Learning for Depth in a Fluid World

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Service-learning can be central to achieving great academic depth by extending the relevance of subject matter beyond the classroom and expectations of performance within it. The key term here is "relevance." I do not mean to denigrate the classroom as a learning environment, but subject matter must matter as more than satisfying conditions specific to the classroom if it is to engage concentration and endure in a person's perspective.


The posting below looks at the role of service learning in the academic environment. It is from Chapter Five:, Service-Learning and the Problem of Depth, by Jim Ostrow in Public Work and the Academy: An Academic Administrator's Guide to Civic Engagement and Service-Learning; Editors, Mark Langseth Minnesota Campus Compact and William M. Plater, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Ankler Publishing Company, Inc. 176 Ballville Road P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249 []. ISBN 1-882982-73-8 Copyright ? 2004 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved, Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Jim Ostrow


My purpose above has been to lay the primary educational context within which my interest in and advocacy for service-learning is situated. It may seem odd that I have not yet focused on issues more typically considered in discussions of service-learning-such as advancing habits of social responsibility and citizenship, or rendering higher education relevant to local and global social problems. There is no doubt that the social-developmental and direct social benefits of service-learning are fundamental to understanding its significance in higher education-indeed, for rendering higher education relevant to the advancement of fairness, justice, and citizenship in a democracy, as suggested by Battistoni (2002); Eyler and Giles (1999); Jacoby and Associates (1996); Kenny, Simon, Kiley-Brabeck, and Lerner (2001); Zlotkowski (1998); and others in this volume. My intention is to strengthen rather than diminish the importance of these issues in higher education by establishing t!

heir inseparability from the problem of academic depth. I also believe coupling these social-developmental and societal issues with the problem of depth has strategic benefits for the promotion of service-learning to faculty.

Service-learning can be central to achieving great academic depth by extending the relevance of subject matter beyond the classroom and expectations of performance within it. The key term here is "relevance." I do not mean to denigrate the classroom as a learning environment, but subject matter must matter as more than satisfying conditions specific to the classroom if it is to engage concentration and endure in a person's perspective. Dewey (1916) argues against the reduction of subject matter to a "record of knowledge, independent of its place as an outcome of inquiry and a resource in further inquiry" (p. 187). This means the value of subject matter must stretch beyond the calls of the classroom and beyond the perceived temporal confines of a course. The very existence of the classroom and its various learning requirements and measurements must, to a certain degree, become transparent in students' experience. An analogy is found in hi-fi audio. The degree to which m!

usic is heard purely as music has an inverse relationship to the degree to which the stereo equipment, and even the walls around the equipment, are visible in experience. Similarly, the degree to which subject matter exists in its original form as a field of inquiry and discovery is related inversely to the opacity of the classroom apparatus and the measurements students receive within it. Learning with depth is founded in principle, then, on its extension beyond the classroom.

Community service-learning projects are perfect vehicles for such an extension, rendering the educational apparatus transparent in favor of the discovering processes inherent in academic subjects. It is true that establishing the value and relevance of subject matter beyond the classroom is possible through other types of pedagogical methods as well. The difference with service-learning is the possibility of developing an active concern for the social problems of the day, as well as an enduring, habitual sense of effective positive change in the world, within the context of exercising an academic imagination. This distinction, it seems to me, gets to the heart of what academic leaders can advocate for their institutions-service-learning as an opportunity to perpetuate the value of academic subject matter for understanding and for improving the human environment.

In 1927, Dewey wrote that many Americans suffer from the social pathology of a "riotous glorification of things 'as they are,'" arising out of a fear of facing with creative reason a whirlwind-changing world, a pathology that "works powerfully against effective inquiry into social institutions and conditions" (p. 170). A test- or grade-driven, take-it-in, prove-you-know-it, and-move-on-to-something-else approach to subject matter is a key education building block for this pathology. When knowledge is framed as something one receives, holds, and then releases, the message to students is that all knowledge is preexisting. The world needing to be known is as it is, and no more. We thereby train a populace that could not be more ill-equipped for an active responsiveness to a fluid, constantly changing world.

Projects involving students in direct service to others or the improvement of communities, combines with rigorous processes of reflection, can be effective in generating students' sense of the power of disciplinary and interdisciplinary ideas and methods. Through this process, they can combat the pervasive, if unwitting, presupposition in contemporary education of a static, unchanging world. Eyler and Giles's (1999) study of the educative outcomes of service-learning is a good resource for making the argument for depth of contact with subject matter through service-learning. The authors make the crucial distinction between education understood as "acquiring factual information and demonstrating it on final exams [and the] deeper understanding and application" (p. 63) that occurs through service-learning. There are no grounds for claiming that service-learning has any advantage over didactic instruction in learning as measured by test results or course grades, but there i!

s plenty of evidence to suggest that students are more richly involved in subject matter as an active process of discovery through service-learning.

[Students] had a deeper, more complex understanding of the issues and felt more confident using what they were learning. Service made the subject matter come to life and put them inside the subject matter rather than outside, as abstract, disinterested observers. (Eyler & Giles, 1999, p. 70)

Another important point made by Eyler and Giles is the lasting power of subject matter, realized through the service-learning student's disposition to understand and solve real problems:

The student who is trying to solve a real problem with real consequences sees the need to look up one more case, to understand just how a similar policy failed elsewhere, to learn a new technique for dealing with a child's reading problem. Genuine problems provide the most powerful need to know and are thus motivating for many students. (p. 91)

These dispositions are not acquired through service alone, but through academically charged reflection induced through instructor intervention. Take the following example of anger and frustration expressed by one of my past sociology students serving dinner in a local church food program:

I heard one of the children say, "Mom, where are we going to sleep tonight?" The mother's voice was quiet, but as I walked I strained to hear her response, "We'll find somewhere, we always do." I clenched my grip around the apple carton. I became so angry, I felt like throwing the box on the floor?I wanted to invite all of these people back to [the college] and give them a place to stay. I wanted to do so much but in reality all I could do was pass out apples, and try to get to know and understand them. I was starting to understand.

While not in itself informed by sociological investigation and analysis, this written grasp of an emotionally intense moment provides the platform for investigating the meaning of this situation and employing the tools of sociology toward social change. The student's insight into the limits of volunteerism as a response to the problem of homelessness is perfect grounds for seeking to comprehend homelessness and its causes. It is also grounds for inquiry into the experience of homelessness and existing social attitudes. The student now perceives homeless individuals as being underserved, disadvantaged, as opposed to being necessarily lazy, or in some other way flawed in their character. What, then, leads to the latter opinions of the homeless, and what do these views mean for homeless persons in their everyday lives? There is, in short, more for the student to do than pass out apples: Sociology provides the vehicle for broader and deeper understanding, inquiries that mig!

ht lead to solutions.