Emotion and Learning: Feeling Our Way toward a New Theory of Reflection in Service-Learning

By Felten, Peter; Gilchrist, Leigh Z. et al. | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Emotion and Learning: Feeling Our Way toward a New Theory of Reflection in Service-Learning


Felten, Peter, Gilchrist, Leigh Z., Darby, Alexa, Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


Service-learning researchers and practitioners agree that reflection is the essential link between community experience and academic learning: "reflection is the hyphen in service-learning" (Eyler, 2001, p. 35). The theoretical and pedagogical foundations for service-learning reflection pay scant attention to the emotional content and context of student service experience or to the positive role emotion may play in helping students connect experience with academic study. This neglect needs to end. Recent research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience reveals emotion's central role throughout the thinking and learning process. We explore how inattention to emotion has molded service-learning research and practice, and then suggest ways to reorient an approach to reflection to acknowledge the continuous interplay between the intellectual and the emotional throughout the reflective learning process.

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"I think therefore I am." Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

"The advantage of emotions is that they lead us astray." Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Giles and Eyler (1994), Furco (1996), Hatcher and Bringle (1997), and others trace the theoretical roots of service-learning from John Dewey's educational and social philosophy to David Kolb's conceptions of experiential education. Dewey and Kolb embrace a holistic view of learning as a life-long "process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience" (Kolb, 1984, p. 38). They further recognize that not all experiences are "genuinely or equally educative" (Dewey, 1938, p. 25). Instead, reflection acts as a bridge between conceptual understandings and concrete experiences. Service-learning proponents share this view, and research demonstrates that reflection is one of the core program characteristics necessary to effective practice in service-learning (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Eyler, Giles, & Schmiede, 1996; Hatcher & Bringle; Jacoby & Associates, 1996). Hatcher, Bringle, and Muthiah recently (2004) summarized the consensus among service-learning scholars:

   When reflection activities engage the learner in
   examining and analyzing the relationship
   between relevant, meaningful service and the
   interpretive template of a discipline, there is
   enormous potential for learning to broaden and
   deepen along academic, social, moral, personal,
   and civic dimensions. (p. 39)

Reflection and Learning

Dewey's central pillars of reflective thought and reflective activities serve as the foundation for contemporary service-learning practice, although the concept of service-learning had not been articulated when he wrote his philosophy of education. According to Giles and Eyler (1994), Dewey's explorations of "experience, inquiry, and reflection [are] the key elements of a theory of knowing in service-learning" (p. 79). In Dewey's scheme, reflection is a necessary connection between experience and theory. Experience alone does not produce learning; instead, as Bringle and Hatcher (1999) explain, "Experience becomes educative when critical reflective thought creates new meaning and leads to growth and the ability to take informed actions" (p. 180). Dewey posits that learners continuously construct new meanings based on experience and analysis, moving from action to reflection to new action. Dewey's influence is apparent in standard definitions of reflection in the service-learning literature; for example:

* Reflection is the "intentional consideration of an experience in light of particular learning objectives" (Hatcher & Bringle, 1997, p. 153).

* Reflection "is the process that helps students connect what they observe and experience in the community with their academic study" (Eyler, 2001, p. 35).

* Reflection is "the ability to step back and ponder one's own experience, to abstract from it some meaning or knowledge relevant to other experiences" (Hutchings & Wutzorff, 1988, p. …

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