Magazine article Multicultural Education

Using Contact Theory to Examine a Service-Learning Experience in a Social Foundations Course

Magazine article Multicultural Education

Using Contact Theory to Examine a Service-Learning Experience in a Social Foundations Course

Article excerpt


Since research points to the impact of individual teachers on student performance (Irvine, 2003), it is crucial that teachers are prepared to work effectively with all students. This is particularly important given that teaching professionals continue to be predominantly White even as the percentage of students of color continues to increase (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011). The issue is even more acute since schools, according to a recent article in The Atlantic (Garland, 2012), are becoming increasingly segregated.

Recent research by Goldstein (2013) found that college students who did not have cross-racial friendships during high school were less likely to have cross-racial friendships during college. Thus the predominantly White preservice teachers who are entering the profession may do so with limited experiences with cultural groups different than their own.

It then becomes imperative for teacher education programs to provide preservice teachers with experiences with populations of students from different racial and ethnic groups so that they can move past potential bias and into a space of awareness (Coffey, 2010) and knowledge of life experiences that may be contrary to their own. Only then can they begin to recognize "the pervasive nature of social inequality woven throughout social institutions as well as embedded within individual consciousness" (Bell, 2007, p. 3).

The teacher education program described in this study is located in a small, Mid-Atlantic, public university. Like many teacher education programs located in rural areas, the program is challenged to find field placements that provide experiences with diverse populations.

In order to expand field options, the program embedded a service-learning field experience into the social foundations course using a tutoring partnership with the local, residential Job Corps Center, where preservice teachers tutor Job Corps students pursuing their high school diploma or GED. The teacher education program designed the experience to provide the preservice teachers with opportunities to interact with students whose schooling experience was likely different than their own in order to broaden their understanding of the schooling experience and to make real the topics studied in the foundations course, many of which relate to how different groups in our society experience education.

The Job Corps students are predominately African American males (78% of the student population of Job Corps) from regional urban areas, while our preservice teachers are predominately White (97% of the participants in this study), middle-class students from suburban or rural areas.

As the partnership progressed, we saw evidence that the experience seemed to have a greater impact on the preservice teachers' understanding of diversity than did the traditional field experiences they encountered in the program. This aligned with Sleeter's (2000) observation that multicultural service-learning experiences can support greater racial awareness than traditional practica.

Though some of the traditional field experiences embedded in our teacher education program provided opportunities to interact with diverse populations of students, these interactions were based on traditional power relationships between teacher and student. As we began to examine what it was about the Job Corps experience that had such an impact, we turned to Allport's Intergroup Contact Theory. Allport's Contact Theory (1954) arose during desegregation as a framework to support prejudice reduction between majority and minority groups (Murphy & Rasch, 2008). Allport hypothesized that prejudice was a result of inaccurate generalizations and stereotypes about different populations and could be reduced if individuals learned more about people different than themselves.

Allport recognized, however, that interactions between races would not necessarily lead to a reduction in prejudice. …

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