Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Toward a Social Approach to Learning in Community Service Learning

Academic journal article Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning

Toward a Social Approach to Learning in Community Service Learning

Article excerpt

Education reformers, policy makers, teachers, scholars, and citizens have become concerned about what they perceive to be the disconnection between schools and society. Recent efforts to bridge the chasms between academe and community, students and schooling, and citizens and government (among other social, cultural, and economic chasms) have begun to look closely at efforts to engage students as citizens and leaders in a democratic community. At the forefront of these efforts in systems of higher education is community service learning (CSL), or learning that combines service to the community with classroom or academic learning.

Scholars in economics, nursing, and communication have put forward designs for teaching and learning with/in a CSL format. Civic engagement is a central theme among several CSL scholars, who argue that CSL should promote and extend students' participation in democracy and community. Common among these discussions of engagement is the notion of CSL as the acquisition of skill sets that will help students participate, problem solve, and become civic-minded leaders. Battistoni (1997), for example, attempting to summarize most of his and others' efforts to develop students as "engaged citizens," identifies three essential areas that should guide practical skill development of service-learners: intellectual understanding, communication and problem-solving, and public judgment and imagination. Intellectual understanding develops students' cognitive abilities to make connections between theories and application, and think critically about their experiences and assumptions about people and society. Communication and problem-solving skills allow people to participate productively in any civil society. Battistoni identifies speech, argument, listening, and persuasive communication as skills essential to problem-solving in a democracy. Public judgment and imagination acts as a kind of moral compass, helping students to locate themselves and reposition their understandings of others. Service-learning can also encourage creativity through working cooperatively with members of the community toward new solutions.

Battistoni's (1997) framework importantly brings communication into the mix. Other scholars emphasize engagement in their research, such as Schensul, Berg and Brase (2002), and Toole (2002). Specifically, the role of communication in establishing the basis for learning all skills for engagement in society is emphasized in this paper. Yet, as the authors increasingly acknowledge a world where cultures and identities are constantly in a state of encounter, negotiation, and flux, we also must recognize the very situatedness of learning itself. As service-learning educators attempt to understand how, when, what, and where students learn, we must also account for the ever-shifting social, relational, and cultural meanings which construct our own (as pedagogues, practitioners, and scholars), our students', and our communities' frames for making meaning of education and the educational process.

Following from this point and important for the purposes in this paper, the authors posit the idea that communication is not only the outcome of learning an individual skill (through which one's competence in society can be measured) but is also central to the process of learning, and key to constructing engaged participation in a civil society. If individuals make meaning of themselves and society through communicative processes, then participation is itself defined in and through communication; without communication, participation in society would be impossible. As scholars who focus primarily on communicative processes, we are interested in a learning approach that embraces skill sets as important to competent communication, but situates those skills within their cultural and relational frameworks; in other words, as skills which have a variety of meanings, occasioned in specific circumstances and contexts, and assessed accordingly. …

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