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Community: Service Learning or Community Service?

In exploring the Tamarack Learning Centre I came across Is Community Service a Waste of Time? The article explores the problems with involving students in community service activities and promotes the idea of service learning as a means to better integrate community-based experiences in education. Directions like this in education are examples of how schools are trying to increase the range of interaction that students experience. There are a number of interesting issues that arise in this discussion...

It is obvious to say that students, and corporations for that matter, need to become more closely integrated with community service and development. At the same time, it is not so obvious to describe precisely what the nature of that service should be or how it should occur.

One of the most important goals I had for the development and implementation of Connected Intelligence Learning Environments was to create a strategy and method for systematically increasing the range of interactivity students would experience. The Connected Intelligence Learning Framework articulated that strategy from the perspective of curriculum and the Connected Intelligence Network Learning Projects Instructional Design Framework translated the strategy into a systematic method.

The connection this has to ideas about community service or service learning are important. But before moving on to describe these connections, let me first tell the story of my son's experience in high school with community service.

In Ontario, high school students are now required by the government to complete 40 hours of community service before they can graduate. I would emphasize that while the government has made this a requirement, they also completely failed to address the key strategies and implementation issues around this mandate and placed students, teachers and school administrators in a precarious position. The idea of "community service" became closely aligned with ideas about forced volunteerism since the initiative was an add-on that was separate and distinct from anything else the students were doing in their classrooms.

As my son's experience revealed, the mandate did not inspire students to perform community service - instead it quickly became an annoyance. And to my thinking, this reaction is correct. The school system, since they were not provided with the necessary tools or time, could only leave students to fend for themselves, and aside from writing a report and having it verified by their sponsor the experience served to create a negative impression of community service. Many students, being creative and resourceful, invented documents describing community service experiences they never completed and also organized fictitious sponsors in the event the school called to verify. This, to the students' credit, is a sign of resourcefulness and creativity in the face of bad design. Do we really believe that students are so naive and malleable that they don't see through a facade like this? Of course, the answer is quite simple - yes, they see through this.

Is Community Service a Waste of Time? intelligently deals with issues like these, and although I do not subscribe to defining a notion of "service" learning as something distinct from community service, I can see precisely why the author chose to do so.

Laurel Singleton describes the differences in the following way:

"We define community service as volunteering in the community for some form of extrinsic reward, such as fulfilling a graduation requirement or obtaining class credit," Singleton told Education World. "Service learning, in contrast, is a teaching method that combines academic content with direct service experiences in which students provide genuine service to their school or community while extending or deepening their understanding of curricular content."

This is a sensible distinction with a key difference being "a teaching method that combines academic content with... genuine service." However, one of the problems in the distinction occurs near the end of the description: "deepening their understanding of curricular content." This brings us back full circle to the curriculum itself, which in my opinion is largely focused on abstraction and separation. A broad and sustainable approach to service learning, if we accept that term for the moment, cannot be effectively embraced without an evolution in curriculum design and implementation.

Perhaps the phrase community engagement more closely captures the essential elements. In the Virtual Community Project one of the most important changes I made in my own approaches to curriculum design and instructional delivery was to position ideas about interactivity as a source of design in learning, not merely an object - or activity - within a design. This meant that students needed to develop expertise in interacting with people, places and things as the initial strategy for gathering primary information resources (i.e. - information they create for themselves). Too much of the educational experience is focused on the use of secondary information resources. The focus on teaching students and teachers to create primary information resources became more formalized in the Connected Intelligence Learning framework.

In education, one of the greatest roadblocks to curriculum improvement is assessment. We can see that roadbloack appear in Is Community Service a Waste of Time? - IS TRUE ASSESSMENT POSSIBLE?. Unfortunately we read ideas such as these:

...a social studies teacher... takes a stricter view of service learning. "Service learning is a university term that implies that there is a grading rubric because the word learning is involved," ... "I don't know any classroom teachers who can create such an instrument and validate it for every project."

There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to be able to describe the results of this kind of learning. However, to say that learning is a university term [whether the word service is in front of it or not] that implies a grading rubric is a mistake. We simply do not know enough about the dimensions of learning to even begin imagining some kind of standardized rubric to describe it. Nor are learning and education synonomous. These kinds of unfortunate statements imprison ideas about learning within educational language and also carry the taint of cultural-centrism. The statement also points out the need to expand our strategies for assessment in education beyond the abstractions imposed by standardization.

So whether we call it community service, service learning - or just learning - the need to find strategies and concrete methods to better integrate school-based experiences with community engagement is clear. This cannot be effectively achieved by creating an add-on to or a separate strand within exisiting curriculum. What is required is an evolution of the assumptions currently embedded in curriculum development, instructional design, and assessment. This applies as much to the education system as it does for corporate training and development.

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