Teaching Family Systems Theory through Service-Learning

Article excerpt

The authors present a rationale for incorporating service-learning projects into courses that teach family systems theory. A model program is presented to provide an example of the objectives, practical considerations, and student responses to such a project. Recommendations for counselor educators are made based on experience with the model program and student feedback.


The theoretical foundations of family counseling practice lie in family systems theory (Becvar & Becvar, 2000; Nichols & Schwartz, 2004). For family counselor trainees, learning to think systemically represents a radical departure from the traditional linear and intrapsychic epistemologies ingrained in Western cultures (Becvar & Becvar, 2000). Family systems theory moves away from individual psychology to a focus on the interconnectedness of systems and relationships (Becvar & Becvar, 2000). Family counselor trainees, therefore, face the dual challenges of learning to attend to systemic processes while unlearning exclusively individual-focused approaches to counseling. Because of the radical shifts involved in understanding family systems theory, several scholars advocate for the use of experiential exercises in the training of family counselors (Helmeke & Prouty, 2001; Liddle, 1991; Sprenkle & Wilkie, 1996). The purpose of this article is to describe the use of service-learning as an experiential methodology for teaching family systems theory to family counseling students.

Service-learning is a category of experiential learning used to foster practical application of academic training (Jacoby, 2003). We propose that service-learning activities, when integrated into an introductory family counseling course, offer rich opportunities for students to apply family systems theory to real-life situations. Such application helps students experience firsthand the principles of family systems theory while they assimilate theoretical concepts into their conceptual and practical frameworks. The definition of service-learning is the following:

   Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which
   students engage in activities that address human and community
   needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed
   to promote student learning and development. Reflection and
   reciprocity are key concepts of service-learning. (Jacoby, 1996,
   p. 5)

The remainder of this article (a) describes the rationale for incorporating experiential training into family counseling courses, (b) presents a brief review of research examining the benefits of service-learning, (c) describes a model service-learning project used in an introductory family counseling course, (d) provides examples of other family counseling-related service-learning projects, and (e) outlines practical recommendations for counselor educators who use service-learning activities to enhance students' understanding of family systems theory. Student feedback to the project described herein is presented to highlight potential student responses to service-learning activities.

Experiential learning exercises have been incorporated into many family counseling courses (Liddle, 1991; Sprenkle & Wilkie, 1996). Experiential learning exercises help students move from cognitive understanding to affective engagement of theoretical concepts (Sprenkle & Wilkie, 1996). Experience-based methods more closely resemble the practice of family counseling as compared with more traditional forms of course work, such as exams and term papers (Sprenkle & Wilkie, 1996), and can enhance students' understanding of family counseling processes (Helmeke & Prouty, 2001).

Service-learning is an educational pedagogy that is grounded in experiential methodology, especially related to the work of John Dewey (1938). Service-learning involves overlapping clinical experience and education through volunteering (Long, Larsen, Hussey, & Travis, 2001). …