Combatting Complacency

I spend most of my time selling the idea and training on service-learning. I rarely, however, get the chance to sit down with a group of folks committed to service-learning as a best-practice pedagogy and analyze the method. That is why some of my favorite service-learning discussions happen with members who work in higher ed settings. Although I am committed to training on service-learning in the K-12 education field, I find university faculty more willing to talk openly about its challenges and successes with a probing eye.

On Friday, April 5, I had the opportunity to attend a discussion titled “Combatting Complacency: Challenges of Advancing a Critical Service-Learning Pedagogy”, led by Professor Tania D. Mitchell from the University of Minnesota. Professor Mitchell shared some of her research on the difference between “traditional” and “critical” pedagogy within service-learning. Critical service-learning is focused on social change and redistribution of power, which causes service in the first place. This method is change driven, versus need driven, and sees community partners as teaching partners.

This made me think of the K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice, and how people use the eight standards for planning or to ”check off” their progress along the way. How many teachers have sat down and really studied the indicators for those standards to really assess whether or not they are truly meeting those teaching practice standards in their classroom?

In her many positions at a range of universities from Amherst to Stanford, Tania has served in many different roles related to service-learning and culture. She stressed that it is a hard to find a balance between encouraging teachers to integrate service-learning as a methodology, and to think beyond the “my students volunteered X amount of hours in the community resulting in $X contributed because of their service” mentality. I struggle with that same balancing act as a professional development manager; I want to encourage teachers to try, but I also want to give them the push to create real change.

Inevitably, these discussions led to the institutional barriers that higher ed schools face, including the integration of technology, which, to me, was not the intended focus of the discussion, but it was hard to ignore. Hurdles such as the school calendar, tenure procedures, job descriptions, ease of integration, the marginalization of serviced-learning, professional development, language and definition, humanities vs. science-based courses, and students not seeing the community around the university as their home were all mentioned as barriers that faculty in the room face. The answer to all of these seems to be a shift in culture, starting with the leadership.

In closing, I ask everyone reading this from any setting: Are you, or the teachers you work with, using a traditional or critical approach to service-learning? What are the hurdles you are facing institutionally to service-learning, and how can we work together around those?

To read more about critical pedagogy in service-learning, visit:
Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models
, Tania D. Mitchell
Critical Consciousness and Critical Service-Learning at the Intersection of the Personal and the Structural, Etsuko Kinefuchi

Originally posted and written for the National Youth Leadership Council’s blog

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