Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Differences in Faculty and Community Partners' Theories of Learning

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Differences in Faculty and Community Partners' Theories of Learning

Article excerpt

When we speak of service-learning as building a bridge between the campus and the community, we invoke the image of two lands separated by a stream or river. The campus is here, the community there, and the bridge permits traffic between them.

Of course the campus and the community are seldom really so separate. Especially at metropolitan universities like the one where I teach, many students have grown up, live, work, and raise their own children in the very neighborhoods we hope to serve. One of my students remembers going to daycare at the community center where we've formed our service-learning partnership; another works for the center's principal corporate donor; the agency director is a graduate of our University whose last faculty partner was once her teacher.

And yet the bridge metaphor makes sense to us. We all feel that, whatever prior connections we may have had, the service-learning relationship does in fact represent a link between two worlds. For faculty, one of the most satisfying rewards of the Service-Learning partnership is the opportunity to glimpse a world of activities and ideas that lie outside our familiar professional realm. Both academia and the nonprofit sector are extremely complex and diverse but nevertheless identifiable subcultures characterized by distinctive values, goals, and worldviews. In the interest of maintaining respectful and productive service-learning partnerships, we continually seek to more deeply understand the two cultures, our common ground, and our differences.

This study addresses how selected members of the two cultures--a group of faculty and a group of staff members from community agencies--conceptualize the key constructs of "knowledge" and "learning." Participants in the study took part in focus group discussions during which they talked about their experiences with service-learning. The discussion transcripts were then analyzed to infer the theories of learning that informed their talk and to compare the theories across groups.

Theoretical Framework

I distinguish between two kinds of theories: one kind that operates as theory conventionally does, supplying a lens through which the data can be viewed, and the other kind the object of study.

"Capital-T Theories of Learning" are coherent, well-developed concepts that philosophers, educational theorists, and psychologists work out over their careers; in service-learning, we rely on Theories of Learning derived from John Dewey, Paulo Freire, William Perry, and David Kolb. These theories arise in the context of an ongoing discussion about what learning is and how it occurs. In recent years, the discussion has been enriched by exchanges between cognitive psychologists, who represent learning as, "the acquisition of structures that are stored in memory" (Greeno, 1997, p. 12), and situated-learning theorists, who define learning as improved participation in communities of practice. (For the situative perspective, see, e.g., Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 1990. For the cognitivist critique of this perspective, see Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996; 1997. A comparative overview appears in Greeno). Contrasts foregrounded in this discussion--especially between learning by means of symbolic representation and learning by means of activity, and between individual and collective learning--informed this analysis.

"Small-t working theories" are the clusters of ideas and beliefs that guide everyday behavior. It is commonplace to observe that every teacher is guided by theory, whether he or she knows it or not. When a community partner takes part in the educational enterprise, he or she too makes decisions and later can reflect on those decisions in light of a working theory of learning. The goal of the analysis was to uncover the participants' working theories of learning.

The analysis depends upon two assumptions about talk. One is that participants' talk offers a reliable basis for inferences about their ideas and beliefs. …

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