Teaching and learning through civic engagement: Prospects for sustainability in teacher education
National University of Ireland, Galway
This paper considers the prospects for sustainable service/community based learning as an element of a civic engagement strategy within the context of teacher education. It draws on findings of a study of the policy, process and practice of embedding civic engagement in the higher education curriculum in Ireland and the author's experience implementing service learning in initial teacher education. The significance of underpinning rationale, as exemplified in academics' orientation to civic engagement, is explored. The benefits to be gained from strategic alignment with institutional and national policy developments are highlighted. A typology of organisational arrangements for service/community based learning is offered to help explore the relationship between complexity, sustainability and potential for reciprocity. Certain features of the context of teacher education - the focus on development of values and dispositions, the centrality of civic values to the profession and teacher educators' familiarity with the practice of reflection - bode well for the prospect of a sustainable pedagogy which reflects the values associated with reciprocity, diversity and social justice. The inherent challenges associated with developing and maintaining collaborative partnerships, however, may limit the potential for mainstreaming service/community based learning within the curriculum for all student teachers.
The concept of 'civic engagement' in higher education encompasses a wide range of approaches to developing the civic skills, interests and participation of students, staff and institutional management. Examples include community-based learning (or 'service learning'), volunteering, community-focussed research, participative and collaborative research and educational initiatives etc. ... and they most often reflect the norms of values and reciprocity and diversity tied to social inclusion (Gonzalez-Perez, Mac Labhrainn, & McIlrath, 2007, p.187).The centrality of certain values in the process and practice of civic engagement is of particular relevance to the context of teacher education and to the role which teacher educators might play. Watson (2003, p.25) provides a comprehensive and challenging vision, suggesting that civic engagement implies "strenuous, thoughtful, argumentative interaction with the non-university world in at least four spheres". He identifies these spheres as strategic planning; making teaching and learning relevant to the wider world; fostering dialogue between researchers and practitioners and taking on wider responsibilities as neighbours and as citizens. How such responsibilities might be fulfilled in the context of teacher education is of some interest. The range of conceptions of civic engagement and the diversity of activities that it comprehends reflect the multifaceted nature of the underlying rationale. This has implications for sustainability of the practice of civic engagement within a sector characterised by competing strategic imperatives and often overloaded curricula.
Amongst those advocating civic engagement in higher education, strategic alignment with institutional policy is frequently advocated as a means of achieving the goal of strengthening this 'third arm' (Votruba, 2005). A potentially more fruitful route, however, is to align with externally set public policy objectives - economic, social or political - which enjoy legitimacy, support and funding. 'Lifelong learning' policy features explicitly in the rationale for many university/community partnerships, where widening participation provides a strategic imperative (Annette, 2006). Examples can be found of civic engagement projects designed specifically to address issues of social exclusion (Banks & MacDonald, 2003). Civic engagement has also been strategically aligned with 'knowledge exchange' policy, securing funding on that basis from a funding council for 'third stream' activities (Whittmore, 2006). The impact of the prevailing policy framework is perhaps most apparent in the reorientation of civic engagement projects to align with new priorities in public policy e.g. from a focus on widening participation to a focus on diversity (Nursaw, 2006).
In Ireland, the emergent discourse of 'active citizenship' - as exemplified in the work of the Task Force on Active Citizenship (2007) - represents a potentially valuable policy with which to align a civic engagement strategy. In addition, a highly relevant and promising aspect of the Irish National Framework of Qualifications  has been the inclusion of the competence of 'Insight' as one of eight dimensions in terms of which all awards are described and placed on the framework.
Insight refers to ability to engage in increasingly complex understanding and consciousness, both internally and externally, through the process of reflection on experience. Insight involves the integration of the other strands of knowledge, skill and competence with the learner's attitudes, motivation, values, beliefs, cognitive style and personality. This integration is made clear in the learners' mode of interaction with social and cultural structures of his/her community and society, while also being an individual cognitive phenomenon (National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, 2003).Of particular significance in the context of teacher education in Ireland is the recent establishment of a Teaching Council , whose responsibilities includes regulation of the teaching profession and the accreditation of programs of teacher education. The Council has developed a Code of Professional Conduct for teachers which underpins the standards for the accreditation of teacher education programs. The emphasis placed on the formation and development of certain values and dispositions is of particular relevance.
Teachers in their professional role show a commitment to democracy, social justice, equality and inclusion. They encourage active citizenship and support teacher in thinking critically about significant social issues, in valuing and accommodating diversity and in responding appropriately (Teaching Council, 2007).In its strategy for the accreditation of programs of initial teacher education, the Teaching Council (2009) states that it expects that processes are in place to facilitate the development of the core values which are set out in the Codes. An international survey carried out by Conway et al (2009), suggests that approaches to program accreditation in teacher education generally display some balance of attention to inputs (e.g. selection process, content, resources, nature of practicum, qualifications of teacher staff) and outputs (in terms of the skills, knowledge and competences that graduates have). In Ireland, the relevant authority, the Teaching Council, is attempting to achieve a balance of attention to inputs, outputs and process. This paper is concerned with the potential contribution of a particular process to professional formation of teachers while realising a higher education institution's goals in respect of civic engagement.
It is valuable, perhaps, to consider some of the findings from research on the process of policy, process and practice of embedding a civic dimension within higher education in Ireland, and consider implications for the particular field of teacher education. To this end I draw upon findings of my doctoral study (Boland, 2008) and on my experience embedding a service learning initiative within an initial teaching education program in the National University of Ireland, Galway. This paper will outline the defining features of service/community based learning and consider how they might transfer to the context of teacher education as part of a civic engagement strategy, with the benefit of a specific initiative to illustrate this. The methodology for my research study and its limitations will be outlined. I will then explore how orientation to civic engagement and a range of other factors combine to influence the sustainability of service/community based learning as an academic practice. Finally, implications for the prospect of embedding service learning will be critically examined in light of the broader context within which teacher education is situated.
A number of conceptual models have been developed to distinguish between different approaches to the practice of S/CBL (Jacoby, 2003; Welch, 2006). 'Transactional' models are characterised by an exchange process, with the community conceived of as recipient of a service while students gain academic credit for experiential learning. Such exchanges leave underlying conditions unchanged at best or worse, in the wake of withdrawal of a needed service to the community. 'Transformative' potential may tend towards a focus on academic or civic outcomes. Transformative models - from the perspective of the student - aim to lead to greater understanding, appreciation, empathy and capacity for critique on the part of students. Transformative models - which focus on community or societal outcomes - seek to question and to change the circumstances, conditions, values or beliefs which are at the root of community's or society's need. This approach reflects the principles of emancipatory education as espoused by Habermas (1971) and Freire (1970) which are familiar to the community of teacher educators. In recent years the transformative potential which service learning offers in preparing teachers for working with diverse communities has been critically appraised (Boyle-Baise, 2002).
Proponents of service learning have highlighted the benefits to be gained by constructing it as a pedagogical tool, claiming that integration within the curriculum can lead to successful incorporation, to proliferation and to legitimacy as an academic practice (Zlotkowski, 1995). Pollack (2000) claims, however, that reconfiguring it as a pedagogical tool compounds the enduring challenge of differentiating service learning from internship or other forms of experiential learning. Service learning is often defined in contradistinction to volunteering, with which it is commonly conflated. The award of academic credit for learning connected to the discipline is a defining characteristic - such opportunities can be readily identified in a range of community settings in the context of teacher education. S/CBL is differentiated from conventional work placements and internships in terms of the emphasis on civic outcomes and the assessment of capacity for reflection as opposed to the assessment of students' academic performance. This distinction is more difficult to establish in the context of teacher education, especially when much teaching practice occurs within the not-for-profit sector i.e. publicly funded schools. The opportunities offered by S/CBL as a civic engagement strategy can best be illustrated with an example from within a program of initial teacher education in Ireland.
The S/CBL course is closely connected to the academic content of two core courses. In 'Education, Diversity and Social Justice', students are expected to critically appraise the relationship between education and important variables such as social class, 'race'/ethnicity and gender. In 'Catering for Diversity', students are encouraged to adopt a critical pedagogical stance and to consider how schools and teachers can implement intercultural and social justice educational philosophies and methodologies. The S/CBL unit offers them the opportunity to reflect critically on these issues and develop these skills, based on direct experience.
For the 'Learning to Teach for Social Justice' course, student teachers serve as tutors in a community-led homework club or other educational setting, providing academic support and mentoring to post-primary pupils from the Traveller community  many of whom experience discrimination and/or educational disadvantage. For many of the student teachers, the motivation to engage derives from a desire to remedy their limited experience of diversity during their own education and life experience. For some, it derives from an already well developed sense of social justice. The course is taken by a small minority of the program cohort.
Through a dialogic process, learning outcomes were drafted collaboratively by the participating academics, the partner community organisations and participating students. It was agreed that it was reasonable to expect that, on completion of the experience, student teachers should be able to adapt their pedagogic skills to a one-to-one teaching situation, implement a range of motivational strategies and use education technology as a creative and motivational resource. Student teachers are expected to critically reflect on issues of diversity, interculturalism and educational disadvantage and consider the impact of culture and tradition on expectations, experiences and perception of education. The course also requires them to engage professionally with a partner organisation, students and parents and to cope with the level of uncertainty that is a feature of an informal and relatively unstructured learning environment. They are expected to be able to review their own personal philosophy of teaching and, significantly, to communicate their individual and collective learning to others in an end of year presentation. Student teachers are assessed on the basis of (i) satisfactory and sufficient engagement in the community organisation and in the campus-based activities, (ii) completion of a reflective paper and (iii) participation in a group presentation.
What distinguishes this kind of initiative from volunteering or from teaching practice in schools? Student teachers work in the homework club alongside volunteers from other academic programs who gain recognition for their participation - an ALIVE certificate  - but no academic credit for their learning. LTSJ students, however, gain academic credit for their achievement in assessed learning, as part of their academic program. Many of the criteria for assessment are quite different from those used in other 'academic' courses and from those that apply to their classroom performance on teaching practice. The extent to which assessment of capacity for reflection features throughout the PGDE program, however, lessens the apparent distinctiveness of S/CBL within teacher education compared to other disciplines e.g. engineering, languages or law.
The service learning initiative is one of a number of collaborative activities between members of the School of Education and its community partners. These include teaching inputs by members of the community organisation to the PGDE, collaboration in diversity training workshops, provision of ICT training and resources, co-operation on advocacy work and joint conference presentations (Boland, Keane, & McGinley, 2009). Presentations by students and community partners offer an opportunity to develop the civic skills, interests and participation of students, staff and institutional management, by raising levels of awareness and challenging some of the stereotyping which minority communities still experience. The expectations of the community partners - which include benefiting from alliance with the university as they try to influence policy at local and national level - indicate the potential for reciprocity and for longer term systemic outcomes. In response to an external evaluation, members of the community organisation have expressed the view that:
The university has the potential to influence existing schools as they have a network of principals and contacts. The Department of Education and Science would be more open to an invitation from the university to discuss the issues, than an invitation from the Galway Traveller Movement (Keating, 2009).One of the goals of the pilot project has been to explore the potential for embedding S/CBL more widely in programs of teacher education - this work is ongoing. Within the already overloaded curriculum of a graduate program of initial teacher education, however, the logistics of extending access to a meaningful S/CBL experience for over 200 students are not inconsiderable. There are inherent tensions associated with any attempt to embed this elective course as a core or mandatory element of the program.
'Learning to Teach for Social Justice' is but one small-scale example of S/CBL within teacher education. It highlights some of the distinguishing features of the pedagogy and how it marries the enhancement of academic outcomes, professional competence and critical skills, while meeting a defined community need. The initiative can be broadly situated within a model of civic engagement with an explicit transformative purpose which is shared by the partners to the process. It is not the intention, in this paper, to offer an evaluation of this initiative but rather to consider the implications of findings from a wider study for the prospect of embedding initiatives such as this within the curriculum of teacher education.
The research was conducted using a multi-site case study methodology, in the spirit of naturalistic inquiry and within the interpretative paradigm. Four cases of community-based/service learning were studied in depth, over a three year period. Using an approach which combined purposeful sampling and theoretical replication (Yin, 2003), four projects were selected in four different higher education institutions which provided a basis for comparison and contrast in terms of potentially relevant features. These included institution type (within a binary system of higher education), level of institutional support for the initiative, nature of the project design, tenure of the relevant academic and the disciplinary context. The four cases (one of which was interdisciplinary) were drawn from the disciplines of psychology, engineering, art, languages, intercultural studies and education.
Participants were selected on the basis of their relationship to the S/CBL project and their position within the institution e.g. 'embedders', 'co-operating-colleagues', 'project facilitators', 'enablers', 'link persons' and 'strategists'. The central actor in each case was the embedder - the person responsible for designing and implementing a curriculum initiative which bore the characteristics of service/community-based learning. Participants could be categorised according to these and other attributes e.g. position within the institution, discipline, seniority, gender and prior experience in civic engagement. Unstructured interviews and documents served as the main sources of primary data. Forty one interviews were conducted with 31 participants within the institutions and with four external actors from the national or international policy context, totalling forty six hours and over 450,000 words.
One of the outcomes of the data analysis process was the derivation of a typology of 'orientations' to civic engagement which reflected the respective influence of various sets of conceptions, practices and values. Once these conceptual categories were created, it was possible to explore the prevalence of these orientations among participants, with reference to the various attributes by which they could be described. With the caveat that, in the context of a multi-site case study, the number in each category was small, some key findings are relevant to the issue of sustainability.
While the 'civic' orientation is most closely identifiable with the institutional perspective (e.g. the strategists), it also features in academics from disciplines where civic values are core (e.g. education, intercultural studies). While the concept of 'community' featured strongly for those articulating a civic orientation, it was commonly constructed as local in nature and as an entity with needs and problems. This phenomenon was evident amongst all categories of participants, from embedders to institutional leaders. 'Community' as an element of a civic rationale was most apparent within institutions located in close proximity to areas of disadvantage e.g. where homelessness or poverty was visible 'on the doorstep'. Concepts such as citizenship, democracy and civil society rarely featured in the discourse of those concerned with embedding or supporting the pedagogy, other than for those with a strong civic orientation or those for whom it is a central tenet of their discipline, such as in teacher education.
People almost see something sinister in that - that the government comes out with a Task Force on Active Citizenship and they'll identify with certain dimensions of it [in higher education]. Often academics will see that as interfering with academic freedom. Now all of a sudden we all have to be altruistic and we all have to have our students volunteering... People can be quite cynical when something comes as an edict almost, and often our 'edicts' are not explicit edicts but they're strategised or incentivised through funding (Educational developer).As noted earlier, a potentially relevant aspect of the new National Framework of Qualifications has been the inclusion of the competence of 'Insight' as one of eight dimensions by which all awards are described. Neither the existence nor the nature of the 'insight' dimension, however, registered with participants as an incentive for embedding S/CBL within the curriculum or indeed as a possible means of legitimising these counter-normative practices. Indeed few were even conscious of it. The extent to which participants - academics in particular - were unaware of or impervious to opportunities for alignment with institutional and national strategic priorities was striking. While reflecting a degree of disenchantment and some cynicism, it also represented a lost opportunity to gain recognition and legitimisation for practices which resonated strongly with their personal beliefs about education.
To me [civic engagement] is part of the students' education, its part of their learning, that they understand that they're part of a society. I teach accountants, potential accountants, so my whole philosophy with them is that they are members of a society ....So we look at their political perspective - and some of them are not even sure what it is - but what do they see as their responsibility to society? (Enabler).Where 'preparing good citizens' was regarded as a valid educational goal the inherent challenge in attempting to determine the extent to which such goals have been achieved was recognised. Reference was made to a need "to track some of the ones who have left, down the line, and see ... does it lead to better citizens, if you can say that, in a judgemental sense when they leave" (Key agent). Fears were also voiced however, about the risk of 'imposing one's own views' and the prospect of 'civic education' was eschewed.
Civic engagement, I'd see that as being more of a philosophy of trying to produce, in inverted commas ... 'better citizens'. I don't believe that is my role as an educator (Embedder).The issue of academic rewards and workload featured throughout, in one way or another. A range of contrasting attitudes to the question of recognition for academic staff could be discerned. The association with volunteering was regarded as a problem.
But for some I think you don't get them away from the idea that it's not volunteering; the vice president for research would think this is totally minor, nice stuff but not, not the real business (Strategist).Inevitably, the issue of academic reward of recognition was an important theme. Absence of 'official recognition' was a source of some grievance. Where academics' endeavours in this domain were valued and valorised, it was generally acknowledged that such achievement were never 'on a par with peer reviewed journal articles'. The tendency to conceive of S/CBL 'merely' as a pedagogy - rather than as a civic engagement strategy - contributed to its diminished standing in the academic reward structure. The significance of this phenomenon, however, varied amongst individuals.
I have never been rewarded for any of the things that I have done, that I would regard as civic engagement. I would not wish to be, I think it's completely different to teaching, which is part of my job. Civic engagement is not part of my job. It will inform my job, it will make me do my job better (Enabler).
S/CBL provided obvious opportunities for students to demonstrate application of their academic knowledge and skills - assessment in this domain presented few challenges. The vexed issue of assessing 'good' values or dispositions in a curricular context recurred. This dilemma was most apparent in how - over a couple of iterations of some projects - there had been a drift away from assessing 'civic outcomes' towards a focus on the 'purely academic' outcomes. Assessment of capacity to reflect was the most challenging aspect of the assessment process for many academics, resulting in its marginalisation or elimination from the formal assessment process, especially in disciplines where it did not feature as a routine practice.
The new pedagogy was generally introduced into pre-existing academic programs and consequently embedders talked freely of finding, making or borrowing time on the timetable. With the advent of modularisation and the tying of contact time more closely to European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) credits, time - as represented on the timetable - becomes a negotiable and tradeable commodity. Often incorporation in the curriculum was achieved through skilful negotiation and creative timetabling with the support of an enabler within the institution. Such arrangements represented a significant achievement given the politics of curriculum and the harsh realities of trading subjects.
If something goes in, something goes out... [but] nobody wants to give in. Everybody wants to keep loading up the curriculum, but nobody wants to take anything out (Academic leader).
On the strength of the case study data it was possible to establish a composite measure of 'level of complexity' with 'collaborative/partnership' projects positioned as the most complex and solo/student-sourced as the least complex in organisational terms, on a continuum, illustrated in Figure 1.
Figure 1: A typology of projects based on level of complexity
(combination of internal organisation and external relationships)
Not surprisingly, incidence of challenges (such as organisational issues, disconnectedness, problems with internal relationships, - 'meetings more meetings' - funding, resources and ethical issues) was directly associated with the level of complexity of a project. While organisational issues outweighed all other types of challenges for all types of project, they were at their most acute in complex projects. Problems associated with expectations (unclear or unfulfilled) were apparent only in collaborative, partnership relationships. Ethical issues, including that of intellectual property, raised wider questions about the values underpinning civic engagement and the institutions' traditional proprietorial position in relation to IP.
The likelihood of an imbalance in the benefits accruing to students and to the community partners was widely acknowledged. Ironically, embedders were more likely to be aware of this in collaborative or partnership models where efforts were made to promote reciprocity. Arising from her experience embedding a S/CBL project with art students, for example, an embedder reflects:
And I've a feeling it's the students [that benefit] because they walk away after six weeks having had this big flashy show, which really hasn't got a lot to do with the community that they're in. . . . and I would hate to think the communities have been used like paint, a medium. That is always a problem on the mind and you're also attracting different type of students because now it's getting real sexy (Embedder).
There was universal acknowledgment that embedding S/CBL was and would remain entirely dependent on the initiative of individual enthusiastic, innovative academics. There was an implicit acknowledgment that no one should be expected to introduce S/CBL to their academic practice unless they regarded it as appropriate, viable and compatible with their values and belief about teaching and learning. Key agents were more likely to advocate an experimental approach in favour of 'mainstreaming' by decree.
But it's like everything else... you have to 'suck it and see' with enthusiastic champions before you can start embedding; you have to show that it will work (Key agent).
Findings from this study suggest that the nature of the rationale for service/community based learning has implications for its sustainability. The decision to embed the practice represents an individual response to a range of context-contingent factors and the academic's orientation to civic engagement plays an important part in that decision. The negative impact of factors which arise from complex projects or challenging contexts can be ameliorated by strong personal conviction regarding the potential for enhanced student learning. The transformative potential of more complex projects is an important incentivising factor for those with a strong civic orientation, such as for those working in teacher education. Organisational design also impacts on sustainability - collaborative/partnership projects are more challenging and have less certain futures. The study suggests, however, that where projects are complex, sustainability is enhanced if civic values (e.g. diversity, citizenship or social justice) are central to the parent discipline. These findings would suggest that the prospect of embedding collaborative, partnership models of S/CBL in the context of teacher education is promising.
These nascent developments in Irish higher education provide further evidence to support Zlotkowski's (1995) contention that legitimacy can be gained from constructing service learning as a pedagogy that enhances academic outcomes for students. The experience of the sustainable projects in this study, however, also lends support to Lounsbury and Pollack's (2001) assertion that reorientation of service learning (in the USA), with a greater emphasis on measurable, cognitive outcomes, has diminished its ability to legitimately pursue other civic outcomes originally associated with the pedagogy. There is evidence in my study that, in some disciplines, embeddedness within the curriculum was achieved by marginalising the more challenging assessment methodologies e.g. assessment of reflection. The capacity of teacher educators to promote and to assess reflection, however, augurs well for the successful incorporation of this defining characteristic of S/CBL.
The enduring challenge to which Pollack (1997) alludes to - of differentiating service learning from work placements or other forms of experiential learning - is heightened in fields such as teacher education. One way of conceiving of the distinction between this form of experiential learning and the practicum is that S/CBL initiatives - such as 'Learning to Teach for Social Justice' - can provide students with time and a safe space within the curriculum to engage in a personal journey of discovery, outside of the confines of a high-stakes practicum focussed on performativity. At the same time, S/CBL offers students the opportunity to contextualise learning from their academic courses.
A number of features of teacher education bode well for the prospects of a sustainable pedagogy which reflects the values of reciprocity, diversity and social inclusion associated with civic engagement. It is perhaps reasonable to speculate that teacher educators are less likely to express the level of ambivalence about the role of values in education shared by many of the academics in this study. Nonetheless, the design of learning opportunities for students to interrogate values and develop dispositions such as a commitment to social justice - in a manner that is consistent with those same values - remains challenging. Building and maintaining respectful, reciprocal and mutually beneficial partnerships with community remains the most challenging and most rewarding aspect of the civic engagement project. The emphasis on professional formation and the development of values and dispositions sets teacher education apart from many other disciplines in higher education in another respect. The endorsement of strategies which assist these processes - by key statutory bodies such as the Teaching Council - provides alignment opportunities for those seeking legitimisation and critically, seeking space within a curriculum.
Collectively, these factors suggest that teaching and learning through civic engagement offers genuine potential within teacher education as a pedagogy and as a civic engagement strategy. The irony is that in order to develop S/CBL as a civic engagement strategy which enhances learning, offers benefits for community, develops the civic skills, interest and participation of students, staff and institutional management while fostering strenuous, thoughtful, argumentative, interaction with the wider world - it may prove necessary to forfeit ambitious goals about universality. Embedding S/CBL as a sustainable practice in a manner consistent with its principles and values, may not be compatible with the ambitious goal of mainstreaming it within the curriculum for all. Such is the choice facing teacher educators, confirming yet again that a range of curriculum strategies is required to provide opportunities for the development of the core values of the teaching profession, while also attempting to realise the wider goals of civic engagement.
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|Author: Dr Josephine A. Boland is Senior Lecturer in the School of Education, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland. Curriculum studies is her specialist field in teacher education and her research interests have centred on higher education policy and practice, with a particular focus on civic engagement and community based learning. In association with Campus Engage, she provides seminars and workshops in support of academics embedding a civic engagement dimension in the curriculum. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Boland, J. A. (2010). Teaching and learning through civic engagement: Prospects for sustainability in teacher education. In A. Power (Ed.), Special Edition on service learning. Issues In Educational Research, 20(1), 1-20. http://www.iier.org.au/iier20/boland.html