Sitc Internship Paper | Service Learning | Experiential Education

Emi Ruff-Wilkinson Sociology Internship 26 August 2011 Bridging the Gap between Community Service and Service

Learning: A Case Study I: Introduction Over the past 20 years, service learning has become an increasingly popular educational trend (Eyler 2002:517). Courses are now broadly available at the college level, and more students are taking advantage of them (Eyler 2002:518). However, the research on service learning and its best implementation has not been as thorough or meticulous as necessary, leaving educators with an insufficient framework (Ash and Clayton 2004, Eyler 2002, Giles and Eyler 1994). The consequence, then, is that service learning may run the risk of becoming a buzzword rather than an accepted pedagogy. Perhaps the biggest question that remains is how to make service into a learning experience without sacrificing the quality of the service or the learning (Ash and Clayton 2004, Eyler 2002). For my summer internship, I worked at Summer in the City (SITC), a community service organization in Detroit. This summeer, SITC added a new component, Reflection and Dialogue (R&D), with the purpose of making SITC a service learning experience, rather than “just” volunteering. However, R&D ended up unintentionally demonstrating how difficult it is to bridge the gap between “service” and “service learning.” It showed how difficult reflection can be to implement, and how some service experiences, while valuable in other ways, may just not be conducive to service learning. This paper examines these problems, both in a theoretical context and the specific case of SITC.

further developing her hypothesis with new information and considering new links and pathways. thinking on social behaviorism. or a situation where the student must stop and think about what is happening here. experimenting and observing the solution to her problem.) . She then reasons. Symbolic Interactionism. defining and questioning it. building upon previous knowledge and to respond to the experience.Ruff-Wilkinson 2 II: The Theoretical Roots of Community Service Learning Although service-learning is a relatively new educational trend. as stated by Blumer 1 This paper works with Symbolic Interactionism as Blumer represented it. Dewey also believed that the inquiry that came from experiences was the means in which students could become informed and engaged citizens in their communities (Giles and Eyler 1994:81). Symbolic Interactionism has largely grown as a theory based on Blumer’s work. The model of experiential education is explained through Dewey’s Five Phases or Aspects of Reflective Thought. While there is a larger discussion of whether Blumer’s nominalist pragmatism (which he shared with Dewey) was in line with Mead’s original. An experience provides a suggestion. In addition to providing a better education on a theoretical level. She then tests the hypothesis in action. Very briefly. more realist. Combining these two aspects of Dewey’s work. Experiential learning is focused on making theory and abstract concepts into something tangible and exciting for students by basing education in experiences from which theory can be understood (Bringle and Hatcher 1999:112). Bringle and Hatcher 1999). see Lewis 1976. (Giles and Eyler 1994:80). Experiential education also draws important parallels to the sociological theory of Symbolic Interactionism1. The student then intellectualizes the problem. we find the roots of modern service learning (Giles and Eyler 1994:82). its roots are in John Dewey’s ideas on experiential education (Giles and Eyler 1994. She then develops a hypothesis. (For a further discussion of this.

where both the service and the lessons are tailored to an educational objective (Bringle and Hatcher 1999:111). also encompasses the process of thought) are also quite similar to Dewey’s Five Phases or Aspects. Meaning can only be discovered and defined through interacting with the object. Service learning is a very specific application of the experiential education model. is an important part of the process. students may come away from a service learning experience with the wrong ideas about a topic. and then action to respond to the initial problem (Ritzer 2008:220-2). they both follow the steps of suggestion by stimulation. . Rigorous guided reflection. The important question for service learning is how to bridge that gap between service and the educational objectives. Experiential education is based on the idea that ideas are not best learned in a lecture hall. which is an inherently social process (366). Without any guidance. perceiving and responding to the situation through thought.Ruff-Wilkinson 3 (1969) holds that objects (which can include ideas) do not have meaning for people until people assign meaning to them. gaining deeper knowledge of the issues as well as compassion for others than can make them more motivated to solve the problem of poverty (Yates and Youniss 1998:501). as a term. the students learn about the causes and effects of poverty through interactions with actual people. Mead’s four steps of “the act” (which. and their initial assumptions may go unchallenged (Ash and Clayton 2004:139). then. but instead through the grappling that comes from experiencing the idea in action. A classic service-learning experience is where students in a class on poverty volunteer at a homeless shelter.

is necessary for service learning (Eyler 2002:519). there are clear parallels to Dewey’s and Mead’s respective models of reflective thought and “the act”. There is no one accepted model of how to “do” reflection (Bringle and Hatcher 1999:113). and then attempt to put their solution into action. Again. Ash and Clayton (2004) identify a basic model in which students describe their experience objectively. is the “intentional consideration of an experience in light of particular learning objectives” (112). Bringle and Hatcher (1999) identify five criteria on which to judge reflective activity: (1) it must provide a clear link between the service and the learning objectives. (3) it must occur consistently so that students can deepen their ability to reflect.Ruff-Wilkinson 4 III: The Role of Reflection Reflection. (4) it must involve feedback from the instructor so that students can assess their abilities to critically analyze their experience. but we do know that reflection. Students must experience something that creates a problem or triggers a need for response. . (2) it must be structured in terms of description and expectations for the criteria. which is “to provide the materials and conditions by which organic curiosity will be directed into investigations that have an aim and produce results in the way of increase of knowledge” (qtd in Giles and Eyler 1994:79). then think through the situation in relation to their knowledge. It follows Dewey’s thoughts on what a teacher should do in experiential learning. according to Bringle and Hatcher (1999). analyze it in relation to their educational objectives and articulate what they have learned (140). and (5) it must allow students to explore and alter their values (114). when it works. The actual research on reflection is weaker than perhaps it should be.

and it had the unintended consequence of driving a wedge between those who supported it and those who found it useless. R&D was led by a woman named Miriam. it was not an effective use of reflection for the entire crew. SITC decided to incorporate a service learning component into the program through Reflection and Dialogue. in its tenth summer. and to use that purpose to make the crew members more engaged leaders. She created a curriculum based on social justice that would examine our experiences in terms of our own identity and how we relate to the communities in which we work. Reflection and service learning are more than catchphrases and buzzwords that can be thrown into any service experience. but there were also larger problems at play. Ash and Clayton (2004) identified that students can gain increased ability to think critically. Again. As shown above. When done properly. There were serious problems with how R&D was structured. The initial purpose was for SITC. However well-intentioned this curriculum may have been. who had extensive experience with intergroup dialogue. service learning is type of education with a legitimate theoretical and pedagogical background . IV: Summer in the City’s Reflection and Dialogue This summer. although she had never worked for SITC for any considerable period of time. these are the benefits that extend to reflective thinking in all experiential education (Giles and Eyler 1994:80). or R&D.Ruff-Wilkinson 5 Reflection can have benefits beyond the basic linking of service with learning. not just service learning. solve problems and challenge their own beliefs in subjects beyond the ones being studied in the service experience (140). to identify the larger purpose of our service.

V: The Problems of Making SITC into Service Learning a. It can be hard for meaningful conversations to come from groups that large because there isn’t an easy way to get a . how the service it does may not always be conducive to service learning. The group was too large. I will demonstrate how SITC’s methods of reflection did not create a service learning experience. sometimes between 30 and 40. If the role of reflection in service learning is to take an experience and guide ones thinking of it. Structural Problems The first problem of SITCs R&D was to assume that the entire crew had the same experience to reflect upon. Trying to bridge the gap between service and service learning requires that both the service and the learning be structured to play off each other. and as how the program may be able to glean a larger meaning from its work through different methods.Ruff-Wilkinson 6 and a growing body of research for how to best utilize it.” but we come away from each day with wildly different experiences. But R&D needs to reflect that diversity. This is not an inherent problem in the structure of SITC. because we can attract more volunteers than if we specialized in one type. then the experiences of a group in discussion must be at least somewhat similar. there is little common ground between us. Both in the types of labor used and the outcome of the project. The second problem was the structure of reflection. The crew may all be “doing Summer in the City. simply throwing learning on top of any service will not automatically create an enlightening experience. SITC benefits from having such a diverse selection of projects. but instead with R&D. so people had to wait for a long time to speak. In the next section. and many people took opportunity of the size to not talk at all.

paying close attention to the experience and the educational objectives and guiding a student’s thoughts on both (Ash and Clayton 2004. Reflection needs to be rigorous. we all had the opportunity to talk so we got to know each other by the end of the session. but instead on how our experiences fit into the larger issues at play in Detroit’s redevelopment. After doing whatever exercise Miriam had selected for the day. Asking about a student’s feelings doesn’t do much in terms of guidance. we would be asked to comment on it. The conversation also didn’t focus on personal topics. and even though I didn’t know everyone in my group. While some people may be willing to talk about their personal lives in this kind of setting. Miriam’s follow-up would more often than not be some variation on “how do you feel about that?” I was taken aback by this structure. identity and experiences.Ruff-Wilkinson 7 back and forth dialogue going between participants when so many others are waiting their turn to speak. Furthermore. Miriam structured R&D so that we often had to answer very personal questions about our past. whenever someone ventured an observation. However. the issue of trust was largely ignored. it was unwise to ask the crew to come forward in a large group where we were not particularly familiar with each other. others (myself included) are not. Using “Social Justice” as the Objective . Eyler 2002). but was smallgroup discussions led by other crew members. The best R&D that I experienced at SITC wasn’t led by Miriam. While these types of experiences are important to talk about in effective reflection. b. Another problem is the content of the reflection. Being in a smaller group allowed everyone to open up about their experiences.

The consequence is that R&D felt as though it wanted the reflection to shape the experience. In six years with SITC. the experience can be “mis-educative” (qtd. c. The Applicability of our Service to Learning . in Giles and Eyler 1994:79).Ruff-Wilkinson 8 Part of service learning and reflection involves having a clear learning objective. without one. Ash and Clayton (2004) note that reflection that doesn’t take students experiences and challenge them in meaningful ways may end up creating students who are less likely to question their experience at all. has no inherent meaning. Or. Social justice is an abstract term that.” The first problem with this objective is that it was poorly-defined. The second problem with the objective is that it did not organically rise from our experience. I see it as more of an experience of community and civic engagement. the experience can be “haphazard” and “weak” (Ash and Clayton 2004:139). There may also be larger consequences.” Instead. I’ve never really considered what I do as “social justice. and instead become content with the status quo (139). to put it in Dewey’s terms. its meaning is instead created through interaction with the concept and others (Blumer 1969:312). The R&D curriculum seemed to start with the assumption that we not only had a definition of social justice. but that we all had the same one. in line with Symbolic Interactionist thinking. The learning objective for SITC’s reflection was “social justice. Not that social justice has been an irrelevant question. but it has been more of an element in the larger issues of community development. rather than the experience shaping the reflection. This is simply not an effective way to utilize service learning. and the questions I’ve come away with are more rooted in the problems of Detroit and what can be done to fix them.

one of the founders of SITC. made sure they knew where we were painting and why we were doing it—but at the end of the day. But overall. about our work and what we were doing.Ruff-Wilkinson 9 As Bringle and Hatcher (1999) note. but the ability to draw educational objectives from them may not be one (111). for instance. At the end of it. There is a larger issue at play in this divide. paint crew got into an argument with Ben. This divide became particularly apparent when SITC tried to fuse all three projects into one cohesive service learning experience. About halfway through the summer. Paint. For youth enrichment. These types of service may have other benefits. or the actual murals. the issues of social justice were easy to incorporate into their experience. They were constantly wrestling with the problems of inequality in Detroit’s education system. Many youth enrichment crew members I spoke to felt that R&D was worthwhile and meaningful for them. and the conversations we had amongst ourselves as paint crew about what we were doing for the community were far more meaningful than any conversation we had in R&D. is not really an exercise in social justice. not every type of service experience is necessarily conducive to service learning. however. the most . however. The biggest divide was between youth and paint. there are benefits to growing up in a neighborhood that’s aesthetically pleasing rather than run-down and covered in graffiti. There may be some vague connections. we came away with the understanding that Ben was focused on the process of volunteering. This isn’t to say that we didn’t care about the volunteers’ experience—we talked with them. paint is more about community development. while we were focused on the product that we created.

It would. VI: Conclusion To say that SITC is not necessarily an experience conducive to service learning is not to say that it has no higher value. I would probably not be as concerned for the city’s future. but instead an opportunity for the crew to talk about what we do and why we do it.Ruff-Wilkinson 10 important part was leaving with a mural that was beautiful and added something to the neighborhood. there may be potential for another type of R&D in SITC. and that without SITC. the act of creating something tangible and beneficial can leave volunteers with a sense of pride and fulfillment. or their sense of “social agency. This is not to say that what we were doing is any less valuable. and the overall benefit for the community should not be overlooked. not be a true “reflection” in the service learning sense of the word. albeit less specific. . paint may just not be the kind of volunteering experience that can easily be translated into service learning. If R&D was more focused on taking our experiences and fitting them into the larger. and political-moral awareness” (620). it is not the sort of experience that is focused on learning objectives and education. Rather than focusing on a curriculum-based reflection. of course. community service can play a significant role in establishing one’s civic identity. then it might prove to be more useful to the crew members. Consequentially. framework of Detroit’s reinvention. I know that volunteering with SITC for six summers has made me much more engaged in Detroit. However. As Youniss and McLellan (1997) identified. From my own experience. responsibility for society.

1976.” Pp. Robert and Julie Hatcher. “The Classic American Pragmatists as Forerunners to Symbolic Interactionism. Miranda Yates. 2004. and Janet Eyler. David J. 2008. “Symbolic Interactionism. Yates. “What We Know About Engendering Civic Identity. New York. James.” American Behavioral Scientist 40(5):620-631 . “Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning of an Experience. McLellan. Ritzer. 1997. 29(2):137-154 Blumer. “Symbolic Interactionism. 1994. George. “The Theoretical Roots of Service-Learning in John Dewey: Toward a Theory of Service-Learning. Clayton. 1969. Miranda and James Youniss. and Patti H. Dwight E.” Journal of Social Issues 54(3):495-512 Youniss.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning 1(1):77-85 Lewis. 1998. 304-321 Bringle.” Innovative Higher Education.Ruff-Wilkinson 11 VII: Works Cited Ash.” The Sociological Quarterly 17(3):347-359. “Community Service and Political Identity Development in Adolescence. NY:McGraw Hill. Jeffrey A. Herbert. 1999. “The Articulated Learning: An Approach to Guided Learning and Assessment.” Pp. Sarah L. 213-253 in Modern Sociological Theory 7th ed.” Introduction to Service-Learning Toolkit: 111-117 Giles.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful