Integrating a Structured Ethical Reflection Curriculum into High School Community Service Experiences: Impact on Students' Sociomoral Development

Article excerpt


It is widely accepted within the field of community service that reflection is an important factor in promoting personal and sociomoral development. The purpose of this research was to determine if a particular form of reflection--decision making with an emphasis on the ethical nature of community service--has special value in achieving service-learning goals. Three dimensions of adolescent identity development served as dependent variables: agency, social relatedness, and moral-political awareness. Four hundred seventy-six high school students were assessed on the dependent variables before and after experiencing one of three conditions: community service with an ethical reasoning component; community service with reflection, but without an ethical reasoning component; and no community service (control). After one semester, it was found that students in the first condition (ethical decision making curriculum integrated into the community service program) made greater advances on all three dimensions of ident ity formation when compared with students in the other two conditions. Specifically, it was found that they became more systematic in their ethical reasoning and more likely to consider situations and issues from an ethical point of view.

It is widely accepted among educators and researchers involved with community service programs that reflection is an important factor in promoting students' personal and sociomoral development (Billig, 2000; Waterman, 1997). The standard interpretation of the benefits of reflection is that academic goals are promoted through the acts of oral and written reflection, and that personal development is enhanced by drawing students' attention to the types of personal changes taking place and linking actions and effects. However, if the fields of community service and service-learning are to develop a body of "best practice" knowledge, the relationship between theory, research, and practice must be strengthened. One topic in need of attention is a more precise specification of varieties of student reflection within community service settings, and the relationship between the characteristics and quality of such reflection and students' personal and sociomoral development.

A useful and insightful theoretical perspective on how community service experiences promote personal and sociomoral development has been presented by Youniss and Yates (Yates & Youniss, 1996; Youniss & Yates, 1997). Building on the work of Erikson (1968), they suggest that adolescents struggle to understand themselves in relation to society. In the process of searching for an identity, adolescents attempt to identify with values and ideologies that transcend the immediate concerns of self and instead have historical continuity. Community service offers an opportunity for adolescents to form an identity with links to mature social membership.

According to Yates and Youniss, three developmental concepts are relevant for an understanding of adolescents' identity formation in community service settings. First is agency, which refers to personal directedness and self-understanding, personal competence and responsibility, and self-esteem. Second is social relatedness, which refers to the potential to fulfill adult roles responsibly and effectively. It includes a sense of the importance of community relationships and affiliations. Third is moral-political awareness, which refers to moral sensibilities and the propensity for civic connectedness and involvement. These are three important dimensions of adolescent identity development.

Youniss and Yates (1997) accord a critical role to reflection in the process of identity formation within the context of community service. They state that "when participation is encouraged by respected adults, youth begin to reflect on the political-moral ideologies used to understand society. It is this process of reflection, which takes place publicly with peers and adults, as well as privately, that allows youth to construct identities that are integrated with ideological stances and political-moral outlooks" (p. …