Students Faculty & Staff Teaching & Learning Administration Alumni, Parents & Donors Business, Community, & Government News and Events The California State University Home Page
 
RESOURCES
   
What resources are available to support community service learning?
     
 
Introduction
    »
Academic Service Learning
    »
Community Service
    »
National Service
    »
CSU Impact
     
» 
    »
Affinity Groups
    »
Research Conference 2006
CSU Impact

Volume II, No. 3; November 5, 2004

Reflections
By Mary Kirlin


I recently had the opportunity to attend the International Civic Education Research Conference in Reno Nevada. Those attending come from disciplines that do not often communicate directly (education, political science and developmental psychology) but share an interest in understanding and promoting civic education in a more comprehensive fashion. Although the focus was on civic education, several panels focused on service learning.

I was struck by two observations during the conference. The first is the important role of individual development for thinking about how we approach civic education and service learning. Developmental readiness for the social and intellectual challenges posed by engaging in public life evolves over the period from what developmentalists call middle childhood (ages 5-12) through adolescence (12-19) and into young adulthood (19-23). As students tackle service learning projects, we should consider a developmental framework. For college students, it would appear we are appropriately focusing our service learning on efforts that can be brought back to the academic setting and explored from a more “intellectual” frame. This is in large part because it is in young adulthood that most individuals develop the more robust capacity to understand not just the rational sequential nature of problem solving but the ability to look abstractly at the “whole” of a problem.

Service learning can provide unique foils for unpacking complex social problems. However, we need to consider not just an intellectual readiness but the social and emotional readiness as well. Specifically we should be incorporating more sophisticated understandings of democratic decision making processes. Developmentally speaking, students are ready to pair their increasingly sophisticated intellectual understanding with their emerging capacity to approach social interactions in a more sophisticated manner; specifically collective decision making. This leads directly to my second observation.

The second theme from the conference was the commonalities in the way service learning providers think about connecting service learning to political and civic participation. Most people who discussed the issue of political engagement explicitly seemed to focus on an activist approach to civic engagement. In other words, a “civic service learning effort” would have students conduct their service, learn about the root causes of the problem and then organize to protest the injustice. My work trying to understand civic skills has led me to understand two distinct sets of civic skills, one related to collective action, the other to collective decision making. Collective action includes the civic skills of planning and organizing, critical steps in gaining the support of others to take meaningful action. Collective action is an important skill set, but I would suggest that the other skill set is equally important and woefully neglected in service learning (as well as civic education for the record).

The collective decision making skill set includes understanding others opinions (not just other peoples plights) about important issues of the day. But that is only the first skill, after that one must learn to work collectively with others to achieve consensus. In most real life situations, whether it involves the choice of dinner location for a group or a city land use problem, decisions will involve a number of people compromising on their original position, trading off items important to them individually in order to achieve a collective or common good. This process of trading off something personally important for the benefit of the group is a different sort of participation/engagement than volunteering where time is often the principal individual contribution. I was struck by the virtual absence of discussions about civic or political service learning efforts that nurtured collective decision making skills.

As scholars and practitioners of service learning, we are being increasingly called to assist in reversing the decline in civic and political participation of young people. If our programs are going to have a meaningful impact, it seems to me that we should pay attention to both developmental influences and explicitly political collective decision-making skills.

Mary Kirlin, professor of Public Policy & Administration at CSU Sacramento and has done extensive research on civic skills.

Content Contact:
Judy Botelho
(562) 951-4749
Technical Contact:
webmaster@calstate.edu

Last Updated: May 06, 2016


Last Updated: May 06, 2016

Error processing SSI file