How Community Service Learning promotes learning

After working and talking with hundreds of students who were engaging in Community Service Learning (CSL) projects and placements, the Learning Exchange team came to believe that certain features of the way we implemented the CSL approach provided the foundation for the learning outcomes we were observing. We knew that our approach was similar to what other universities were doing. We were also aware that our particular context had some unique characteristics.

Forming relationships with “others”

The literature on CSL contains many valuable articles on the engagement with “the other” in CSL. This literature describes how the encounter with people who are significantly different from the student (e.g., members of different racial, ethnic, cultural, or socio-economic groups) provokes important learning when it is handled skillfully. Most students coming into the Downtown Eastside were getting to know marginalized people for the first time. Many students came to care deeply about the people they met. These empathic connections made it difficult for students to hold onto dehumanizing stereotypes about poor people.

Most students were also getting to know a marginalized community for the first time. Students were going to and from their placements in an area that is itself marginalized, even demonized. So students were not only encountering an individual other, they were encountering a collective other. The scale and complexity of the issues was glaringly obvious. In this context it was hard for students to maintain the stereotypical belief that being poor and marginalized is the result of a personal character flaw or some other individual failing. Seeing so many different people with such diverse stories made it more likely that students would seriously engage with the question, “What is going on here?” Students’ empathy for particular individuals often led to a more macro-level concern about social issues.

Janet Kidd

These effects were not transitory. Not long ago I interviewed several former students who first did CSL in the Downtown Eastside in the early years of the Trek Program. They reported that their CSL experiences profoundly shaped who they have become. To listen to Janet Kidd, one of these students, talk about how she came to understand that there are not sharp divisions between people who are “needy” and everyone else, click below.

“Anybody at anytime could need support”

Going to the edge of your comfort zone

The first time I heard Margery Fee, a UBC English professor, say, “If you are comfortable, you are not learning,” during a talk about the use of writing as a method for reflection, I thought, “That is brilliant!” This idea resonated with everything I was seeing in the students who were doing CSL in the Downtown Eastside.

TLN trainingJust signing up for the Trek Program represented a risky move for many students. Most students knew the Downtown Eastside’s reputation. It was part of the attraction. We were careful to reassure students during the Trek orientations that the neighbourhood was not as dangerous as they had been led to believe. But Margery’s comment made me realize that it was also important to explicitly acknowledge that the potential power of the CSL experience lay in students’ willingness to place themselves at the edge of their comfort zones. So we kept inviting Margery back to give talks at the Reading Week kick-off. And we quoted Margery at appropriate points in our discussions with students. We felt it was important to make students aware that our intention was that they be uncomfortable to a certain degree in order to stretch their minds and capabilities.

But we were careful to explain that we were not suggesting that students make themselves too uncomfortable. We acknowledged that if you are way outside your comfort zone you are going to run for the exit or shut yourself down, neither of which is conducive to learning. We acknowledged that finding the sweet spot on the edge was a tricky business. We pointed out to students that only they could monitor whether they were at risk for going too far. The size and shape of one’s comfort zone is an individual thing. Others cannot necessarily see the boundaries or recognize signs of distress. So we encouraged students to take responsibility for pushing when appropriate and backing off when necessary.

Having autonomy

When we started offering grants to enable students to do CSL projects in collaboration with an organization where they had been volunteering, we saw the value of supporting students to pursue their own ideas. What leads to important learning outcomes is the experience of designing a project in collaboration with others, pulling together the physical and human resources to implement the project, and making the effort at the end to evaluate the results critically and realistically. 

But this did not mean giving students carte blanche. Many students do not have the requisite experience or skill to bring a CSL project to completion without help. For some students, doing a CSL project is the first time they have been accountable for delivering a tangible product to an organization or a group of people they care about. It is a scary prospect. But if it works, the feeling of accomplishment can be profound. Being given the autonomy to succeed or fail is part of the learning experience. The role of the people in the community and the university who are supporting the student is to increase the likelihood of success.

This is one way in which CSL projects where students take the initiative are radically different from traditional classroom learning. The paradox is that the risk of failure is high (which provides the condition for profound learning) but failure is not an option. You want students to make the effort to do something they have never done before, to rise to new challenges. But failing in the CSL context costs too much. It is not just that the individual student might feel bad. There is another entity in the equation, i.e., the community.

Every CSL project is embedded in a web of relationships. The student is in relationship with the organization and its clients. Professionals from the community organization and the university have a relationship. The student and his/her mentors in the university and the community have a relationship. Outright failure of a CSL project would put too much of a strain on those relationships. An infrastructure needs to be in place that allows students to take initiative, be responsible for making key decisions (using collaborative methods when appropriate) and accountable for delivering useful results. This infrastructure also needs to make sure the appropriate people are alerted when the student might need some guidance and support.

This is quite a balancing act. Decisions about when and how to intervene are highly context-specific. Different students need different kinds of support at different times for different reasons. Different community settings need to be approached differently. Sometimes the success of a project is determined by the strength of the relationships among the individuals involved. I became acutely aware that relationships are the core of CSL when a project was at risk for going off the rails. The more mutual trust and familiarity, the greater the chances that difficult conversations could be held, tough decisions made, and mishaps prevented. The great thing was that in such circumstances, getting through the difficulties usually strengthened the relationships even more. Often these situations were the ones where students learned the most. And it was uncomfortable!

To hear one student talking about how she developed the courage to take on something new, click on the audio clips below. These excerpts are from my interview with Jacqui Ferraby, a student who took part in the first Reading Week project. Then she became one of the first members of the Trek Leadership Network and through her volunteer work developed a long-standing friendship with Dennis, a resident of the Downtown Eastside. Then she became a student staff member at the Learning Exchange.

“You’re in this little bubble.”

“I felt more comfortable trying new experiences.”

Engaging the body

There is another way that CSL is different from classroom learning. It usually entails physical activity. Whether the CSL project involves building a compost box, playing sports with children, or chopping vegetables in a community kitchen, students are thinking, talking, problem-solving, and adapting to changing circumstances while their bodies are moving. Students are not sitting still, focusing on words and ideas. Their minds are not all that matters. What their body is doing matters. Students’ facial expressions and body language facilitate or disrupt their attempts to build relationships. Their hands grip a hammer or saw with awkwardness or ease. Their ability to dribble a basketball determines their degree of coolness in the eyes of the kids they hope to mentor. Students are exposed as whole human beings rather than being hidden behind the mask of being “a brain.”

The engagement of students’ physicality in CSL means that learning is happening kinaesthetically as well as intellectually. Research from a variety of fields confirms the direct observations we heard from students themselves that learning by doing is different from learning by listening, reading or thinking.

Being immersed in the context

My staff team and I observed that the Reading Week projects and summer projects had more noticeable effects than ongoing weekly Trek Program placements. The conclusion we came to was that immersion in the community context made a difference. In Reading Week projects students spend three days in a row working on the project. In the summer projects, students spend several weeks in the community setting. Not everyone works all day every day during this time but still the degree of engagement is intense.

It seems there is something about students being removed from their ordinary lives that enhances their openness to new experiences and new ideas. It is analogous to learning a new language through immersion in a new cultural and linguistic environment. In fact, students are learning the culture and language of a new environment—the community. Immersion over several days or weeks allows students to relax into this new environment without constantly having to cross the borders between their lives as UBC students and their lives as volunteers in a marginalized community. This immersion is how students develop deeper sensitivities to issues like social marginalization and new understandings of concepts like global citizenship.

Getting real

Doing CSL through the Learning Exchange had profound effects on students partly because of our location in the Downtown Eastside. It is not the environment most students are used to. It certainly feels, looks, smells, sounds, and sometimes even tastes different from the UBC campus. From my point of view the Downtown Eastside is a luminal space that is similar to other such spaces where taken-for-granted roles, assumptions, and norms are suspended. The area exists on the margins of the mainstream but it is not clear what lies on the other side of the margin.

Students can get disoriented when they realize the Downtown Eastside and its residents are not what the media or their parents or peers told them it was. They are also affected by how close they are to the boundaries between life and death, between order and mayhem. For example, the cry of ambulance sirens is an almost constant backdrop. Police officers are ubiquitous. These features of the environment highlight the differences between the mainstream and the margins.

But the nature of the boundaries is usually not what students expected. They meet people who are penniless, homeless, physically or mentally ill and/or living in desperate circumstances. But some of these individuals may be more enthusiastic about life and learning than anyone the student has met in years of being surrounded by people who are well-off and well-educated. Or some individuals may be hanging onto their lives and their sanity by the slimmest of threads.

copyright Margo FryerWhatever the variation in people’s circumstances, students tend to be impressed by how real people in the Downtown Eastside are. They tend not to be preoccupied with image; their concerns are more down-to-earth. This does not mean they only care about meeting basic needs. I remember being asked to provide advice to a graduate student who wanted to do her thesis research on something related to sustainability. She dismissed the idea of doing something in the Downtown Eastside asserting that people there were only concerned with meeting their needs for food and shelter (no doubt drawing on ideas about the hierarchy of human needs first proposed by Abraham Maslow). I laughed and said, “You need to meet some binners.” This student subsequently connected with United We Can, the social enterprise in the Downtown Eastside that recycles cans and bottles and other items. She discovered that many binners care deeply about sustainability. They have a unique and worthwhile perspective that comes from the pivotal role they play in the circulation of society’s waste stream. Sustainability moved from the realm of theory into the realm of an unexpectedly vibrant reality. (For more on the Downtown Eastside and the dynamics of social marginalization, see Being on the outside.)

Reflecting on experience

The literature on CSL emphasizes the importance of getting students to reflect critically on their experiences in the community through group discussions, journal writing, and other forms of creative expression. Reflection encourages students to make connections between what they are experiencing in the community and what they are studying in the classroom. It is the bridge between service and learning. Reflection links theory with practice, personal values with ethical or moral questions, and emotions with ideas. The CSL field offers many valuable resources to guide instructors and CSL practitioners in the organization and facilitation of structured reflection activities.

Our experiences at the Learning Exchange confirm that reflection is the key to achieving powerful learning outcomes in CSL. But as noted elsewhere, it was sometimes challenging to get students to settle into reflective activities. Nevertheless we continued to strive to get students doing reflection because we observed such a difference between students who did not tend to engage in reflection (the bulk of students who did ongoing placements in the Trek Program) and those who did (students who did Reading Week projects or summer projects and students who were part of the Trek Leadership Network).

As we talked with students about the practice of reflection we realized it was not a mode of thinking most students were familiar with. When we encouraged students to write about their thoughts and experiences in a journal, they often asked, “You mean it’s okay to use the word ‘I’?” They had obviously taken to heart their professors’ directive that only rational, objective analysis was permitted. Students had difficulty grasping what reflection was.

Eventually I developed a way to explain reflection by making distinctions among three modes of thinking and talking.

  1. Debate: where the merits of two or more competing ideas are argued about and the goal is to persuade others that your perspective is correct.
  2. Discussion: where different ideas are explored and information is shared and the goal is to expand your understanding of particular topics.
  3. Reflection: where you wonder about the connections between your own personal experiences, values, ideas, fears, hopes, and beliefs and those of others, where you allow ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox to rub up against each other without needing to reconcile them and where the goal is to open yourself to confusion in the interests of allowing insights to appear.

This juxtaposition of reflection with more familiar modes of engaging with ideas seemed to help students “get it.” But it wasn’t easy to convey what reflection was about nor was it easy for students to learn how to do it.

To listen to me talking with Janet Kidd about her experience with reflection, click below. 

“While writing . . there were aha moments I had”

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to UBC’s vision.

For more on how CSL promotes learning the qualities and skills of global citizenship, see my archived University Affairs blog posts on Educating global citizens through community engagement and Valuing practical wisdom.