Academic journal article Journal of Human Services

Building Professional Understanding through Community-Based Learning

Academic journal article Journal of Human Services

Building Professional Understanding through Community-Based Learning

Article excerpt


Linking theory to practice through contextualized learning experiences is the essence of community-based learning (Burant & Kirby, 2002; Cooper, 2007; Sleeter, 2001; Zlotkowski & Duffy, 2010). According to Gamble and Bates (2011) community-based learning provides students with opportunities to learn about local organizations and how to work collaboratively to solve local problems. Yet engaging human services students in community-based learning experiences in addition to their professional internship experiences is rarely discussed in human services literature. In this article we present a community-based learning experience where human services students engage with three different community-based education projects. We explore learning themes that emerge as students participate in community-based projects with neighborhood members in urban, rural, and transitional agricultural community settings.

Community-based learning (CBL) is one of the many types of experiential learning methods used in higher education to provide students with hands-on learning experiences and a maturing understanding of concepts associated with diversity and social justice. CBL affords faculty a unique arena to explore specific academic content, while also having the potential to meet the needs of communities and nonprofit organizations (Dallimore, Rochefort, & Simonelli, 2010). Community-based learning is a form of service learning that is based on community organizing principles and involves learning and/or research projects designed collaboratively between community members and students. The emphasis, however, is not on service. Rather, projects emerge from community needs and community member's knowledge (Farnsworth, 2010). The goal is to stimulate critical inquiry between students, community members, faculty, and agencies that lead to reflection, analysis, and social change. At its best, CBL creates community partnerships founded on the concepts and practices of social justice. Methods of engagement are consistent with the values of the human services profession that promote working alongside clients and community members.

Zlotkowski and Duffy (2010) examined two decades of literature focusing on how CBL impacts students. They propose that when learning takes place in a variety of conditions it may be challenging for the students but the end result is better learning. Similarly, Owens and Wang (1996) suggest that community-based learning "engages both head and hand and requires both knowing and doing ... [and] ... decontextualized learning fails to enable students to examine the idea they bring to the learning situation, to learn from their errors, or to look for patterns" (p. 6). Including community-based learning experiences in human services classes provides numerous opportunities for students to think and act with a dexterity that cannot be simulated in the classroom setting (Zlotkowski & Duffy, 2010).

For human services pre-professionals understanding clients' lives outside of agency work can provide valuable insights. Beyond the internship experience, relatively few pre-professional programs describe intentional opportunities they provide for future human services professionals to situate learning within communities and to learn about the role that human services professionals play in the work of communities. Knowledge about clients' lives and their neighborhoods outside of the formal client/professional relationship receives little mention in the professional literature. Yet, it is argued that students become more effective professionals if they graduate with an understanding of the social, economic, and cultural strengths and challenges experienced by their clients (Ishisaka, Sohng, Farwell, & Uehara, 2004).

While human services students often work directly with clients during extensive internship placements, they may benefit from engaging directly with the communities where their clients live. …

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