Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 32, (May, 2013), p. 87-97.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)
The purpose of this study is to examine how different projects influence students’ understanding of service learning.
This study was conducted during the 2011-2012 academic year in an undergraduate elementary teacher education program at a university located in an urban community in a city in Turkey.
The participants were elementary preservice teachers in their third year, who enrolled on a semester long Community Service Practice course.
Nineteen students volunteered for a project offered by Ministry of Education to coach students from different backgrounds;
nineteen students wanted to join a project developed to raise students’ consciousness of the conservation of nature and animals which took place at the zoo; and,
sixteen students wanted to develop a project for visually impaired students through a partnership with the White Cane Association for the Visually Handicapped.
All three projects were run by different instructors but they all worked collaboratively so that they had similar experiences across the sessions.
During the project students were required to submit course work and their weekly reflections in which they were asked to respond to several questions.
The study revealed that different service learning experiences in three different projects provided preservice teachers with different leaning opportunities and became an important facilitator of their conceptualization of service learning.
The preservice teachers’ concerns and their perceptions about their competencies were directly associated with the content of the work and the characteristics of the children with whom they interacted during the community service practice.
In addition, opinions on this subject are usually associated with personal and professional competencies.
Their conceptualization of the people that they were serving was revealed as somewhat deficient because the students who preferred to join a project instead of preparing one tended to think of the facilitators (i.e., project managers, institutions, staff in the associations) as the people they served.
The projects placed the priority on students’ evaluations of real community needs and social problems.
During the course, the project content led them think more specific toward the real needs and problems of the community they live in.
However, project goals have a potential to limit student thinking about community needs and social problems.
When the pre- and post-project evaluations about the effects of the activities on solving the community problems were compared, they revealed narrower opinions in their post-project discussions because they always tended to think about the project they had worked on in spite of the course instructors’ support for discussing the wider issues raised in their reflective papers.
On the other hand, the projects developed their understanding of what it means to develop a project, and this lead them propose more goal-oriented and comprehensive project proposals for meeting the community’s needs.
The preservice teachers’ ideas about the sources of the problems were mostly categorized as political and cultural, whereas their expectations and concerns were predominantly technical. In addition to this, students’ suggestions for solving the community problems associated with the causes of the problems they had talked about were not discussed.
In this paper, the potential effects of the type of project on the conceptualization of service learning have been presented.
Although not all the experiences created equal learning outcomes for each participant, the experiences provided by different projects had the potential to change their perceptions, understandings, and beliefs.
The course work and the project need to be well-designed and create opportunities to explore many issues reflecting technical, political, and cultural aspects of service learning, as well as service learning itself.
The partner organizations in the community service projects had an impact on students’ understanding of who is served, especially when they are the initiators of the projects.
The author suggests that the organization should keep the interests of the institution in second place when working with volunteers on a community service project.
The course instructors should think about this aspect carefully before selecting partner organizations and projects.
The characteristics of the groups taking part in the project are important, especially for individual work and working with the diverse groups such as children at risk, disabled community members, minorities, or disempowered groups.
When the diverse backgrounds are not visible enough to be observed easily the students do not develop such a strong cultural and political conceptualization of service learning.