Involving student teachers in the recovery of our elders’ memories: a service-learning project in higher education

From Section:
Programs & Practicum
Sep. 01, 2021
September 2021

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, 47:4, 531-547

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors aimed to explore the impact an innovative service-learning approach in initial teacher training could have on the students who took the course, combining intergenerational learning with an arts-based research project.
Childhood memories of the elderly people that regularly go to a memory workshop in a local community centre were discussed through a service-learning project embedded within a broader framework of arts-based research.
Students of the Master’s degree in Secondary Teacher Training designed and implemented artistic workshops and interviewed the elders of a small rural setting with the aim of producing a documentary that showed some of the most important issues of these people’s lives.
In this workshop the elders had to draw or create toys used in early childhood instead of creating a silhouette.
The course included as competencies the design and implementation of educational and research projects, in accordance with the degree’s blueprint.
Promoting meaningful learning resulted in a service to the community.
Service-learning can be defined as a planned activity that fulfils a community need while simultaneously offering students the opportunity ‘to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility’ (Bringle and Hatcher 1996, 222).

With the aim of answering the questions:
Did student teachers learn about service-learning and research?
Did the creation of a documentary related to elderly people’s childhood memories help the student teachers develop an understanding of the needs of elders?
the authors undertook a case study in order to analyse ‘the particularity and complexity of a single case, coming to understand its activity within important circumstances’ (Stake 1995, xi).

A total of 38 university students of the Master’s degree in Secondary Teacher Training took part in this study.
This group of students worked with 52 elders (from 66 to 89 years of age), who attended a memory workshop in a rural community centre.

The projects
The service learning projects developed aimed at recovering some of the historical memories of a group of elderly people in a rural context as well as offering students the possibility of getting to know first-hand how to undertake an art-based research project.
The projects were developed during the years 2018 and 2019.
This scenario took place before the onset of COVID-19.
For this reason, the interaction between the students and the elders suffered no type of restrictions: students were able to go to the community centres where the older adults attended the artistic workshops without any health risks or social distancing.
This participatory arts programme seeked to show student teachers the pedagogical opportunities of both service-learning and art-based research.
Combining active engagement and learning beyond the classroom in an intergenerational activity (the service learning project) with the design and implementation of an art-based research project allowed students to explore the elders’ childhood memories and ‘to build a shared and valued sense of cultural, historical, and personal knowledge within a community’ (Lawton and La Porte 2013, 316).
The creation of this documentary allowed a double educational goal: on the one hand, it offered a way to look closely at different realities in a poetic manner and at the memories of the elders who reveal their truth in a dialogue with the filmmaker, as the poetic quality of a film ‘is born of direct observation of life’ (Tarkovsky 2003, 67).
The elders could tell that the students were genuinely interested in their childhood memories.
The silhouettes and the toys helped create a warm atmosphere, made the elders feel comfortable, and facilitated the sharing of their lived experiences.
The documentary was a way to approach the human essence through a profound emotional and intellectual exploration and reflection.
On the other hand, film production processes allow active learning methodologies that help develop competencies and knowledge of students in any field, setting mechanisms of collaboration, group work, autonomy and responsibility.
By means of this documentary the student teachers recorded the artistic activities and the intergenerational dialogue that occurred during the workshops, meaning they were also the filmmakers.

Instruments and procedures
Multiple sources of evidence were reviewed and analysed with the aim of understanding the case (Woodside 2010) and to help triangulate the information (Yin 2003).
During the classroom sessions, the researchers took notes as well as photographs with the aim of analysing the students’ reaction to the project and guide the external process.
A questionnaire that included 14 items was filled out by student teachers.
The answers to this questionnaire allowed the researchers to collect information related to the degree of students’ involvement in the project and their awareness of the elders’ needs.
The students were given hard copies of the questionnaire when the classes finished and they were asked to complete it at home so as to have time to think over the answers.
Before the end of term, students were invited to take part in a group meeting to discuss the answers together.
Furthermore, feedback was provided by the representative of the community centres and the older people.
A thematic analysis was undertaken to identify, analyse and report findings, taking into account the guidelines outlined by Braun and Clarke (2006) and the step-by-step approach described by Nowell et al. (2017).

Findings and discussion
Students valued the interaction with the older people, which provided the opportunity to get to know first-hand the difficulties the elders had to reach things we nowadays see as natural and normal.
It prompted them to value even more the universal right to education, making them confront the fact that not so long ago girls had a hard time completing their education and had to cope with different difficulties related to the educational opportunities of the rural population in Galicia (De Gabriel 2013; Ruiz De Azúa 2000; Sixto Barcia 2007).
Arts pedagogy can help the transformation of educational methodologies using the processes of contemporary art creation as a means to acquire knowledge in any field.
In this sense, the documentary allowed the participants to re-educate their perspective of the elderly, creating a message filled with meaning that served also as a tribute to the elders’ lives.
Filming helped the students get to know the hardships the elders suffered during their childhood and to understand how the lack of resources, in particular, those related to education, impacts the needs that the elders have nowadays.
The intergenerational interaction makes it possible to understand different experiences, events or circumstances lived in the past.
Students highly valued this opportunity, highlighting the benefits of intergenerational contact.
Taking part in these projects implied being active learners and creating their own pathways to design the documentary. Getting to know first-hand different historic events related to education, allowed the students to compare their own realities with those lived by the elders.
The narrative material that was obtained during the interviews with the elders allowed student teachers to create the documentaries ‘Máis que mans’ and ‘A Cova’.
This project was a very enriching opportunity for all participants.
The elders were very touched when they saw themselves on screen.
The elders, seeing themselves on screen and understanding the extent that their contribution might have, felt that their participation was valued by the younger generation and were grateful for the initiative.
The students obtained, once more, another signal that sharing an artistic project with the elderly can make them understand more fully their needs.
Following Gerholz, Liszt and Klingsieck (2018, 57), it can be said say that ‘Overall, it could be demonstrated that service-learning has positive effects on students’ development and seems to be an adequate learning approach to foster students’ developments through combining civic engagement during study processes’.
To conclude, the authors highlight that the implementation of the project promoted collaborative and experiential learning of students as well as enhancing the personal and professional development of the teachers. By means of a service-learning project embedded within a broader framework of arts based research, long-term collaborative relationships between the community and the university can be enhanced.
It is an opportunity to connect two generations, the older adults and the younger student teachers, promoting awareness of educational and socioeconomic differences in past generations.

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Updated: Feb. 27, 2022
Art education | Experiential learning | Intergenerational programs | Service learning | Student teachers