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Serve to learn, learn to serve May 6, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Dr Loshini Naidoo

By experiencing service learning, pre-service teachers develop pedagogical and professional skills as they teach, and learn from, transnational and Aboriginal high school students. This strengthens their insight and appreciation for their own lives, and the diversity of of the lives of others, and gives them a desire to continue serving and making a difference.

Many definitions have been offered for service learning but the most fitting definition is provided by Bringle and Hatcher (1995, p.112), who state that service learning is “a credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organised service activity that meets identified community needs”. The value of service learning is aptly described by Eyler and Giles (1999, p. 8), who point out that

experience enhances understanding; understanding leads to more effective action. Both learning and service gain value and are transformed when combined in the specific types of activities we call service-learning”.

The ability to fully promote civic responsibility and build on the academic course content is integral to service learning activities ( for example, through the Crossing Borders, Refugee Action Support (RAS) and Community Action Support (CAS) programs offered in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney). Service learning is also embedded in the formal teaching unit (subject) “Diversity, Social Justice and Equity” in the Secondary program, where pre-service teachers are given an opportunity to develop the inter-relationship between theory and praxis (click here to access an overview of these programs).

As a result of globalization, an increasing number of transnational students in Australia face the challenge of learning English as well as acquiring an understanding of how Australian institutions work socially and academically: i.e. how to behave in formal and informal settings, what the rules are, and how to relate to peers and lecturers. Therefore increased acculturation to the university as a social setting is essential for students who are attempting to understand how to negotiate their transitions from university to work, especially for those who are seeking to explore the options available in terms of teaching in Australia.

The Crossing Borders peer mentoring strand is offered to any Master of Teaching student who was trained overseas, whose previous degrees were obtained overseas and who is expecting to work in education in NSW. The program is intended to support the development of critical thinking skills; raise self awareness and understanding of others; provide opportunities for refining a wide range of interpersonal skills; help define the elements of effective group interactions and encourage transnational students to reflect on aspects of their own culture and those of others.

In the Refugee Action Support (RAS) program, which involves tutoring newly-arrived high school refugee students, pre-service teachers learn about the individual histories and backgrounds of their students, about cultural differences, and about gaps between what students know and what schools expect of them. This type of interaction leads to a personalisation of the refugee students by the tutors, imparting a lesson of needing to know your students in order to teach them. For pre-service teachers, diverse service learning experiences like tutoring refugee students and mentoring transnational pre-service teachers can be useful in moving prospective teachers toward greater cultural sensitivity.

Finally, the Community Action Support (CAS) service learning program involves mentoring high school Aboriginal youth in a variety of literacy and communication areas. This service learning program occurs in a remote area of the Northern Territory, Australia, and allows pre-service teachers to experience life in an Aboriginal community from an Aboriginal perspective. Pre-service teachers see the experience as an opportunity to adapt their knowledge and skills to this unique context and challenge pre-conceived notions around Aboriginal education.

It is evident that pre-service teachers who have engaged in these service learning activities learn how to connect educational values with community action in a relationship that benefits everyone involved. In so doing, they have learned to serve in ways that bridge the gap between service learning experiences and classroom processes. Through the lens of reflection, those involved in these service learning experiences discover its very essence. As a pre-service teacher stated on completion of their service learning activity, “I am now ready to teach”.

References:  Bringle, R.G., & Hatcher, J.A. (1995). A service-learning curriculum for faculty.  Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 2, 112-122.   Eyler, J., & Giles, D. E. (1999). Where’s the learning in service-learning? San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publications.

Loshini Naidoo is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She is highly experienced in the design and delivery of, and research and scholarship around, academic service learning for teacher education students. Loshini was recently announced as a recipient of the International Centre for Service-Learning in Teacher Education’s Outstanding Individual Educator Award for Outstanding Contributions to Service-Learning in Teacher Education for an educator outside of the United States, and receives this award at Duke University in North Carolina in June, 2012. The School of Education at UWS is fortunate to have a group of highly accomplished academics in the area of service learning, and together they have gained national and international recognition for the quality of the programs they offer and the positive impact they have on outcomes for school and teacher education students, and on community agencies and their clients.

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