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Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning Spring 2008, pp.50-65

are dismantled. This article uses perspectives fromthe literature to uncover and explicate the meaning ofa critical service-learning view. In discussing each ofthe three distinguishing elements of the critical ser-vice-learning approach, I examine the classroom andcommunity components.

Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning

Community service learning serves as a vehiclefor connecting students and institutions to their com-munities and the larger social good, while at the sametime instilling in students the values of communityand social responsibility (Neururer & Rhoads, 1998,p. 321). Because service-learning as a pedagogy andpractice varies greatly across educators and institu-tions, it is difficult to create a definition that elicitsconsensus amongst practitioners (Bickford &Reynolds, 2002; Butin, 2005; Kendall, 1990; Liu,1995; Varlotta, 1997a). However, I use the terms ser-vice-learning and community service learning todefine a community service action tied to learninggoals and ongoing reflection about the experience(Jacoby, 1996). The learning in service-learningresults from the connections students make betweentheir community experiences and course themes(Zivi, 1997). Through their community service, stu-dents become active learners, bringing skills andinformation from community work and integratingthem with the theory and curriculum of the class-room to produce new knowledge. At the same time,students classroom learning informs their service inthe community.

Research heralds traditional service-learning pro-grams for their transformative natureproducingstudents who are more tolerant, altruistic, and cultur-ally aware; who have stronger leadership and com-munication skills; and who (albeit marginally) earnhigher grade point averages and have stronger crit-

Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning:Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models

Tania D. MitchellStanford University

There is an emerging body of literature advocating a critical approach to community service learningwith an explicit social justice aim. A social change orientation, working to redistribute power, and devel-oping authentic relationships are most often cited in the literature as points of departure from tradition-al service-learning. This literature review unpacks these distinguishing elements.

A growing segment of the service-learning litera-ture in higher education assumes that community ser-vice linked to classroom learning is inherently con-nected to concerns of social justice (Delve, Mintz, &Stewart, 1990; Jacoby, 1996; Rosenberger, 2000;Wade, 2000; 2001; Warren, 1998). At the same time,there is an emerging body of literature arguing thatthe traditional service-learning approach is notenough (Brown, 2001; Butin, 2005; Cipolle, 2004;Marullo, 1999; Robinson 2000a, 2000b; Walker,2000). This literature advocates a critical approachto community service learning with an explicit aimtoward social justice.

Referencing the service-learning literature, Iunpack the elements that distinguish a critical ser-vice-learning pedagogy. In reviewing the literature, Iwas challenged by an unspoken debate that seemedto divide service-learning into two campsa tradi-tional approach that emphasizes service withoutattention to systems of inequality, and a criticalapproach that is unapologetic in its aim to dismantlestructures of injustice. The three elements most oftencited in the literature as points of departure in the twoapproaches are working to redistribute poweramongst all participants in the service-learning rela-tionship, developing authentic relationships in theclassroom and in the community, and working froma social change perspective. I wanted to understandand make clear the differences in these approachesand what they might look like in practice. How mightthe curriculum, experiences, and outcomes of a criti-cal service-learning course differ from a traditionalservice-learning course?

The critical approach re-imagines the roles ofcommunity members, students, and faculty in theservice-learning experience. The goal, ultimately, isto deconstruct systems of power so the need for ser-vice and the inequalities that create and sustain them


ical thinking skills than their non-service-learningcounterparts (Astin & Sax, 1998; Densmore, 2000;Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kezar, 2002; Markus,Howard, & King, 1993). Due largely to this evi-dence, service-learning has emerged on college anduniversity campuses as an effective practice toenhance student learning and development. Butsome authors assert that, to suggest that all formsof community service equally develop an ethic ofcare, a flowering of a mature identity, and advanceour understanding of community is misleading(Neururer & Rhoads, 1998, p. 329).

There are examples in the literature where com-munity service learning is criticized, labeled ascharity or forced volunteerism, critiqued for rein-forcing established hierarchies, and deemed pater-nalistic (Boyle-Baise, 1998; Cooks, Scharrer &Paredes, 2004; Cruz, 1990; Forbes, Garber,Kensinger, & Slagter, 1999; Ginwright &Cammarota, 2002; Levinson, 1990; McBride, Brav,Menon, & Sherraden, 2006; Pompa, 2002; Sleeter,2000). Pompa (2002) explains her reservation:

Unless facilitated with great care and con-sciousness, service can unwittingly becomean exercise in patronization. In a societyreplete with hierarchical structures and patriar-chal philosophies, service-learnings potentialdanger is for it to become the very thing itseeks to eschew. (p. 68)

Robinson (2000a) concurs, boldly stating that ser-vice-learning as a depoliticized practice becomes aglorified welfare system (p. 607). Without theexercise of care and consciousness, drawing atten-tion to root causes of social problems, and involv-ing students in actions and initiatives addressingroot causes, service-learning may have no impactbeyond students good feelings. In fact, a service-learning experience that does not pay attention tothose issues and concerns may involve students inthe community in a way that perpetuates inequali-ty and reinforces an us-them dichotomy. Further,such interpretations of service-learning (ironically)serve to mobilize and bolster privileged students toparticipate in and embrace systems of privilege(Brown, 2001), preserve already unjust socialstructures (Roschelle, Turpin, & Elias, 2000), andmay act to normalize and civilize the radical ten-dencies of our constituent communities, students,and ourselves (Robinson, 2000b, p.146).

Ginwright and Cammarota (2002) critique ser-vice-learning, advocating a social justice approachinstead:

Unlike service learning, where youth learnthrough participation in community service pro-jects, social awareness places an emphasis on

community problem solving through criticalthinking that raises questions about the roots ofsocial inequality. For example, a service learningapproach might encourage youth to participatein a service activity that provides homeless fam-ilies with food, while social awareness encour-ages youth to examine and influence politicaland economic decisions that make homelessnesspossible in the first place. Reflected in thisexample is a critical understanding of how sys-tems and institutions sustain homelessness.Through an analysis of their communities, youthdevelop a deep sense of how institutions couldbetter serve their own communities and initiatestrategies to make these institutions responsiveto their needs. (p. 90)

While I agree with Neururer and Rhoads (1998) thatit would be misleading to suggest that all service-learning experiences encourage the type of criticalanalysis suggested by Ginwright and Cammarota, Ibelieve it is equally misleading to suggest that no ser-vice-learning class or program encourages the in-depth analysis or approach to community problem-solving that Ginwright and Cammarota name socialawareness. In the service-learning field, theapproaches labeled as service learning and socialawareness by Ginwright and Cammarota might belabeled as traditional and critical service-learning.

The concept of critical service-learning firstappears in Robert Rhoadss (1997) exploration ofcritical community service. Rice and Pollack(2000) and Rosenberger (2000) employed the termcritical service learning to describe academic ser-vice-learning experiences with a social justice orien-tation. This explicit aim toward social justice chal-lenges traditional perceptions of service as meetingindividual needs but not usually as political actionintended to transform structural inequalities(Rosenberger, p. 29). A recent study by Wang andRodgers (2006) shows that a social justice approachto service-learning results in more complex thinkingand reasoning skills than traditional service-learningcourses. A critical approach embraces the politicalnature of service and seeks social justice over moretraditional views of citizenship. This progressivepedagogical orientation requires educators to focuson social responsibility and critical communityissues. Service-learning, then, becomes a problem-solving instrument of social and political reform(Fenwick, 2001, p. 6).

Critical service-learning programs encourage stu-dents to see themselves as agents of social change,and use the experience of service to address andrespond to injustice in communities. Rahima Wade(2000) terms this perspective service for an ideal asopposed to service to an individual (p. 97). Boyle-Baise (2007) labels this service for critical con-

Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning



sciousness. Marullo (1999) considers service-learn-ing a revolutionary pedagogy because of its potentialfor social change. Service-learning, he suggests: