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    Enhancing Democratic Engagement in Service Learning Courses

    Posted: December 13, 2016

    Educational theories on experiential, integrative, and transformative learning rely on students developing critical thought and a dynamic worldview. These forms of learning also tend to break away from more traditional teaching and learning structures.

          Further Reading: Understanding David Kolb’s Experiential Theory of Learning

    Service-learning courses provide an opportunity for students to immerse in their learning and become transformed by it. This dynamic raises questions concerning student responsibility in classroom management. Just as community organizations and academic institutions seek to foster a collaborative relationship, so too should student-facilitator interactions mirror a partnership that is rooted in reciprocity and collaboration.

    As a pedagogy, service-learning is inclusive and democratic in the ways in which it seeks to incorporate student voice into course design. Educators can create this inclusive atmosphere in three principle ways: through fluid instructional methods; through the art of conversation; and by making space for reflection.


    1. Fluid instructional methods

    Service-learning practitioners are open-minded and flexible in the way they approach course content. We understand much of the lesson is rooted in the experience itself, and so the concept of lesson planning may not always work. Lesson framing may be a more effective way of putting it! There are also different learning styles to consider. When choosing course content, keep in mind that the more flexible you make your syllabus, the more likely it can be adapted to current events or other relevant, unanticipated topics that may provide an opportunity to more deeply engage your students.

    Tip: Have specific topics or areas you want your students to consider (for example, civil rights), along with some prepared materials for your students to read, while leaving class time open for a current events discussion on any pertinent news. 

          Further Reading: 4 Outcomes of Transformative Learning and How to Achieve Them


    2. Art of conversation

    Both the learning facilitator and her/his students must consistently engage in an open dialogue on class content and direction. This could resemble periodic check-ins with the class ( e.g. “is what you’re learning interesting to you?” or “do you feel engaged enough with the material so far?”), or, for more bashful classrooms, you could incorporate bi-weekly reviews, or utilize a comment box. Ideally though, there will be an opportunity to do this in the class space, and students will feel comfortable having that dialogue verbally and collectively.

    Tip: Have students initially work through this in small groups. Some students may be confused as to what to suggest because they are used to a more lecture-based teaching style, and so may find it difficult to think of independent comments at the beginning. 

          Further Reading: How to Promote Global Leadership in the Classroom 


    3. Space for reflection

    This consists of a mutual and critical consideration of the learning process, and a wider consideration of service-learning, community engagement, and academic motivations. It also includes the questioning and creation of individual and collective learning objectives, goals, and desired outcomes.

    Tip: Have designated times for student contemplation throughout your course. If possible, also provide students with an assignment to complete the same guided questions, at the beginning, middle, and end of the course, so they can see the results of their perspective-shifts at each stage of the course. 

          Further Reading: The 5 Cs for Structuring Reflection Activities

    Active reflection and critical thought tie each of these principles together. The role of the learner in this type of learning environment is significant, as students partially assume responsibility for their learning. As practitioners, we can enhance the democratic qualities of our classrooms with these practices.

    Sharing classroom space and management with students allows their voices to help direct the class, which makes learning more enriching. It also represents a broader goal of motivating their future civic engagement. By making the educational process more democratic, educators can facilitate the development of life-long, civic learners.

    For even further reading, please see:

    Cress, C. M., & Donahue, D. M. (2011). Democratic dilemmas of teaching service-learning: Curricular strategies for success. Virginia: Stylus Publishing LLC.

    Harrison, B., & Clayton, P.H. (2012). Reciprocity as a threshold concept for faculty who are learning to teach with service-learning. The Journal of Faculty Development, 26(3), 29-33.

    Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.