Volume 16 • Issue 3
Southwestern @ Georgetown

Community-Based Learning

— Suzy Pukys, Coordinator of Volunteer Resources and Community-Based Learning
Taking learning beyond the classroom

“Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of Life.”
— Francis Bacon

Does the University have a responsibility to address the greater community’s most pressing problems? How does work on real social issues add value to student learning?

Community-based learning, or service learning, is a teaching method that explicitly links community issues to formal education. Its advocates believe that, as the intellectual center of its community, the university inherently shoulders an obligation to those surrounding it. Advocates also argue that this obligation offers limitless opportunities for learning in new and creative ways via methods such as community-based learning. Through partnerships that ally faculty, students and local social service/non-profit agencies, community-based learning programs are developing innovative solutions to some of society’s most complex problems.

Definitions of community-based learning are as varied as the campus communities in which they are practiced. There are, however, several shared characteristics. According to Edward Zlotkowski, Ph.D., professor of English and founding director of the Service-Learning Project at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., community-based learning projects should always serve as a deepening of academic learning, involve reflection and analysis, mirror the mission of the institution and serve as a living text that strengthens student learning.

Zlotkowski, who has published extensively on the value of and best practices for community-based learning, cited several compelling reasons to practice this pedagogy during a faculty workshop at Southwestern University in September 2004. He explained that community-based learning requires students to act as public problem-solvers, gives students opportunities to produce knowledge, rather than simply consume it, and helps them to better appropriate subject matter. Community-based learning also encourages students to develop a sense of responsibility for their community and understand it within the context of their chosen discipline. Further, it serves as a powerful critical-thinking tool that challenges students’ cultural assumptions and stereotypes. Like a growing number of faculty in higher education across the country, Zlotkowski includes community-based learning components in every course he teaches.

Community-based learning, simply put, is another way to reinforce knowledge. As an experiential method, it puts theory into action, furthering students’ application of learning beyond the classroom. Deann Armstrong ’06, who majors in education, mentored a Georgetown public school student through the local non-profit Partners In Education as part of an education course requirement. She commented, “I’m a largely kinesthetic learner; I have to do things to understand them. We talk in my education classes about how to interact meaningfully with people who are different from ourselves, but until you meet a mother and see the look of pain on her face when someone doesn’t refer to her son using first-person language, you have no idea how important it is. Similar experiences allowed me to attach personal faces and experiences to theories and responsive pedagogies I learned.”

Because community-based learning involves students’ direct engagement with real people who have real problems, it allows students to build capacity as citizens. In so doing, students come to recognize the primary issues with which their communities are struggling, the systemic causes for social problems, and what they can do about them. Russell Bedard ’07 and his Intermediate Oral and Written Expression Spanish class created a training tool to help Georgetown police officers improve communication with the Spanish-speaking public. Reflecting on the project, he admitted that he “had never thought about how hard it would be to work with the public when you don’t share a common language with the citizens you serve.” Moreover, Bedard says, “I had never considered how intimidating it would be to have to deal with a police officer if I didn’t understand the language.” Through projects that raise questions and consciousness, community-based learning teaches students to maximize their contribution to the public good.

Community-based learning in action

Over the last year, the University has developed and implemented several courses with successful community-based learning components. Projects by students in these courses addressed a wide variety of issues and needs, while reinforcing and strengthening learning objectives.

In order to inform the theory they were learning in class, Sandi Nenga, instructor of sociology, required students in her Childhood and Adolescence class to spend two hours each week for 12 weeks immersing themselves in an environment where they could observe peer interaction. These observations took place at after-school programs for children and youth ages 4 to 18. Beyond mere observation, Southwestern students were expected to provide tutoring/mentoring assistance to the students at each site, thus setting up a reciprocal encounter in which SU students simultaneously supported the program and tied their experiences to classroom learning.

Matt Barnes ’06, felt that his experiences with the After-School Action Program, which targets middle school students, elucidated course readings and in-class discussions. He noted, “It’s easy to sit around and talk about how children think, but seeing it in action strengthens those theories. Everything’s not textbook crystal clear, because children are such unpredictable subjects.” When asked about the value of his volunteer work as it related to the course, he stated, “You won’t understand the theories until you see how things actually work. It also reaffirmed my enthusiasm for volunteering.” Barnes’ responses reflect the primary aims of community-based learning: his work in the community reinforced the learning taking place in class and gave him new understanding of the need for caring adults to support community programs for youth and children.

In Instructor Richard Osbaldiston’s Psychology Research Methods I course, students created, administered and analyzed results of a survey that evaluated the psychological health and overall well-being of elderly citizens in Georgetown. Georgetown Caregivers–Faith In Action, an organization that supports seniors—primarily through transportation and meal delivery services—requested the needs assessment to determine whether they should expand their existing programs. Osbaldiston was unequivocally positive about having his students develop and implement the survey. “This project really cranked up the critical thinking that we were trying to develop. At the theoretical level, we had to design a structured interview that would really get to the heart of the issue, and we had to prepare the results so that the community group would find them useful. There was a lot of high-end thinking done to achieve these goals. At the practical level, we had to think deeply about the needs of elderly people. The students had to put themselves in the shoes of elderly people and really think about what life would be like and what their needs would be. We also had to think about the special needs of elderly people who participated in the interview. It was a very expansive learning experience,” he said.

His students concurred. In their course evaluations, Osbaldiston’s class overwhelmingly reported that the project helped them understand how their coursework applied to the outside world. Collaborating with a community partner was also rewarding in other, less expected ways. Psychology major Lauren Sekel ’07, for example, was surprised to discover that her “opinion as an undergraduate was listened to and appreciated by important members of the community.” Sekel, who is an active community volunteer, felt that the project “represents not only what is at the core of psychology but also what is at the core of my desire to be as great a benefit to the community as possible.”

Don Collier, member of the Caregivers Task Force, said the data gathered and presented by the class “has helped tremendously in initiating the strategic planning process.” Collier requested that Osbaldiston’s students continue to be involved. He noted that their expertise and perspective “gives us an objective look at what young people see when they interview seniors, and will help us keep the Caregivers on track.” Here, the trilateral partnership of students, faculty and community has taken on a life of its own. Moreover, Southwestern University students will have the opportunity to substantively contribute to the strategic planning process of an organization that is addressing fundamental needs of an ever-growing population in the Georgetown area.

For their final project, students in Instructor Erika Zettl’s Intermediate Oral & Written Expression class further honed their Spanish speaking and writing skills by creating a PowerPoint training tool for police officers. They designed the tool to teach officers the basic words and phrases that would be used in traffic stops, domestic disturbances and other common scenarios in which police and citizens interact. Using creative visual and audio cues, students developed an interactive, fun, online study guide that maximizes language learning.

“At first, it seemed simple—create a program that walked an officer through the language used in a routine traffic stop,” Bedard explained. “But it became challenging once I asked myself, ‘How do I learn?’ and ‘What works best for me?’” Bedard continued, “As I started to understand the methods that are most effective in helping me learn language, I had to modify what I was doing for the officers so that it would be more interesting and helpful to them.”

Student evaluations of the project echoed Bedard’s thoughts and indicated the satisfaction they found in knowing they worked on something that helps others. Zettl agreed, saying, “It was so much more meaningful to create something for someone, rather than just completing the project as a course requirement.”

Her sentiments resonate with the most basic rationale for community-based learning: knowledge deserves to be shared, to be disseminated among those who will benefit from it most. Through community-based learning, Southwestern students are being asked to work not in static environments, but out in the world in ways that impact a rapidly growing and changing community. Learning and knowing then become more fluid, more dynamic, and more relevant to the creation of a just and equitable world.