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June 17, 2008

why study service-learning?

I'm at Brandeis for a meeting of "emerging scholars" who study service-learning. They are paired with established mentors who advise them, and they enter a network of other new scholars in the field. This is a project (which we are helping to run) that is part of a larger effort to build the field of service-learning. I also participate in the "emerging leaders" part of the effort, which supports younger managers and organizers. Both aspects are funded by the Kellogg Foundation.

This seems an appropriate moment to ask why anyone should study service-learning (the combination of community service with academic study). I would say:

1. Because studying young people who are asked to work on a community problem or issue is a great opportunity to investigate large issues about human development, the reproduction or reform of institutions and cultures, learning, deliberation, racial conflict, and many other issues. In other words, service-learning is an opportunity for social science.

2. Because service-learning is common--present in about half of American high schools--yet the quality is very uneven. Research can identify what aspects of service-learning generate good results in various contexts. Once we know that makes service-learning succeed, we can inform future teachers in their education courses, explain the criteria in program guidelines, and so on.

3. Because there is an opening for new policies that involve service. Senators McCain and Obama both favor service-learning, and there is an effective nonpartisan advocacy campaign for national and community service programs. It is fairly straightforward to design new policies for Americorps. But it's not so easy to say what a good service-learning policy should be for k-12 schools. Policies cannot automatically create high-quality educational experiences. They always operate through rather crude incentives or rules--for instance, grant opportunities, mandates, course requirements, standards, or state-sponsored exams. We need research about the likely impact of policies before we can tell friendly politicians which policies they should promote.

Note that even a friendly politician must make choices--must decide how much resources to put into service-learning compared to other activities, including other forms of experiential civic education. Responsible advice to policymakers thus depends upon careful and rigorous comparative research. It's not enough to say that service-learning is good; we have to know whether each marginal dollar is better spent on it or something else.

4. Because a lot of adults are involved in a field called service-learning, and it's a good group--diverse in goals and ideologies but idealistic and fairly coherent. To use an over-used term, it's a "community." Communities can deserve loyalty even if one doesn't believe that they are objectively better or more important than other communities. I'm not sure that I believe service-learning is a better, or even a more promising, intervention than some others. I am sure that the community that supports it is a good one. According to the great work of Albert O. Hirschman, when one wants to change a group, the two choices are "exit" and "voice." Exit is the main mechanism in a market, and it is a good one. We use "voice" when we cannot exit a group (e.g., a family or a nation), or when we are loyal. I think the service-learning world merits some loyalty, and that means using our voice to improve it. For those of us who are scholars, the best form of voice is research.

June 17, 2008 7:18 AM | category: none


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December 2, 2008 1:54 PM | Comments (2) | posted by lesbian pink

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December 2, 2008 1:54 PM | Comments (2) | posted by lesbian pink

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