Service-Learning Across Cultures: Promise and Achievement

Service-Learning Across Cultures: Promise and Achievement

O’Steen, Billy

Service-Learning Across Cultures: Promise and Achievement Tonkin, H., ed. (2004). Service-learning across cultures: Promise and achievement. New York: International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership. 440 pages. ISBN: 0-9701984-8-5.

In Zimbabwe, I have also become accustomed to being motionless. Being motionless feels good, as when I sat with Amai Kyandere on the kitchen hut floor waiting for the water to boil. Sometimes even waiting for a bus that may never come can feel good. It has to do with acceptance, allowing for a slower pace, and understanding that nothing is really predictable.

Perrin Clark, US undergraduate

Contemporary life for many people has little to do with allowing for a slower pace or embracing uncertainty described by Perrin Clark in the quote above from the beginning of Service-Learning Across Cultures. This is particularly true for the overriding atmosphere present in undergraduate and graduate education. Consistent increases in tuition coupled with a decrease in opportunities to study full-time have led many students to view their time at a university more in terms of completion, not contemplation. While many of us in experiential education intuitively and analytically know that effective teaching and learning requires space and time to connect experience and reflection, it is often challenging to do so during a semester, regardless of subject matter. Fortunately, this book, in the form of a report to the Ford Foundation, provides some thoughts about how to connect academic and civic experience with reflection through service-learning.

The intentions of this report are just that-a reporting of data collected by the International Partnership for Service-Learning. However, when read with an eye toward transforming didactic instruction into experiential education, it is a body of reputable research supporting such a transformation with leads on how to do it. At the outset, the relationship between service-learning and experiential education is made clear with the following: “Dewey’s emphasis on the importance of learning through reflection on experience is central to the pedagogy of service-learning” (p. 4). The pedagogy of service-learning is defined in this introductory chapter as, “… rooted in the belief that students learn best (or learn certain subjects best) when they can link direct experience to classroom learning-when they can check theory against practice, and when they can analyze practice to formulate theory” (p. 4). Service-learning advocates would point out that this definition excludes some practices often referred to as service learning, but those tend to consist of service experiences unconnected to any academic content (e.g., required community service which occurs independently from curricula). Experiential education advocates can see the parallel here-the focus of service-learning is as much about (and maybe more so) process as it is about product.

With the theory of service-learning described rather thoroughly in the opening chapters, the bulk of the report is devoted to enumerating, in both qualitative and quantitative terms, data collected on international service-learning programs from 2001-2004. Much of the data is reported in a cross-case study format and is particularly engaging to read and interesting to those of us involved in service-learning at an international level. Additionally, the researchers draw a number of conclusions that can map directly onto the pursuits of all experiential educators. These overarching conclusions may sound familiar, but data from multiple sources is helpful in seeing that many of us are engaged in similar work, albeit in different fields.

Selected Conclusions from Service-Learning Across Cultures:

* An institution desirous of adopting service-learning as a pedagogy must be able to cope with the notion that through this pedagogy student learning takes place not in the classroom alone but at the point of intersection of experience and theory-and that both experience and theory are part of the learning.

* Strong faculty development programs are essential to develop skills and also an understanding of how quality is established and maintained in service-learning.

* Educational customs vary from culture to culture, and strictly U.S.-oriented approaches to service-learning, or even to the process of reflection at its heart, may be culturally biased. There is a need to be adaptable to local mores and customs.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly in the current educational/political climate, the editor of the report, Humphrey Tonkin, President Emeritus of the University of Hartford, makes the case for experiential education in general with,

We must remind our more conservative colleagues that practical experience is not necessarily a challenge to objectivity – indeed that it is possible to have students engage in community service without advancing a specific political agenda, especially if… emphasis falls on raising the right questions, rather than providing the right answers – on opening, rather than closing, minds (p. 21).

Circling back to Perrin Clark’s observation in Zimbabwe, those right questions can only be raised if space and time are provided.

Billy O’Steen is Lecturer of Staff Development at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. E-mail:

Copyright Association for Experiential Education 2006

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