Building for Hope: Progressive Service Learning Enhances Education
Kevin L. Burr
Brigham Young University
Years ago John Dewey observed what experience in real-life applications could do to enhance the quality of learning for his students (Lauderdale, 1981). Burr (2000) indicated that today we understand progressive learning methods require a departure from typical, set, preconceived objectives because the learning will be student directed. Progressive education occurs as real-life applications are joined with a self-directed series of experiences that create unlimited possibilities. Burr (1999) further suggested that increased motivation for learning could happen with the collaboration of progressive education principles and service learning, resulting in progressive service learning.
Dewey emphasized in his work that a student should be able to "work out something specifically his own, which he may contribute to the common stock, while he, in turn, participates in the production of others... The [student] is born with a natural desire to give out, to do, and that means to serve" (1964, pp. 118-120). Perkins and Miller (1999, p.3) stated, "Service gives [students] hope and optimism because it allows them to believe in something greater than themselves." Kinsley (1994) stressed that, as our educational goal, service learning is an education process - not a program - where the service experience is directly related to the academic subject matter while making positive contributions to individuals and community institutions. Kahne and Westheimer (1996) added:
Educators and legislators alike maintain that service-learning can improve the community and invigorate the classroom, providing rich educational experiences for students at all levels . . . Service learning makes students active participants in service projects that aim to respond to the needs of the community while furthering the academic goals of students. (p. 593)
With increasing amounts of convincing evidence lauding the benefits of service learning and experiential methods, why do a majority of teachers still rely almost exclusively on the traditional practice of lecture and teacher-directed educational techniques? Cohen and Brawer (1989) believe
It is reasonable to assume that in an institution dedicated since its inception to "good teaching," new instructional forms will be tried. However . . . traditional methods of instruction still flourish. Visitors to a campus might be shown mathematics laboratories, the media production facilities, and computer-assisted instruction programs. But on the way to those installations, they will pass dozens of classrooms with instructors lecturing and conducting discussions just the way they and their predecessors have been doing for decades. (p. 155)
While many universities are beginning to incorporate service-learning activities, the full potential of combining service and progressive experiential learning situations for a specific area of study lies, in most cases, still untapped. The distribution of effective examples can perhaps further the cause. This article depicts, then, not an entirely new theory for learning but a refreshing idea for the combining of progressive education principles with service learning.
During the winter semester 2000, I was scheduled to teach a group of technology teacher education undergraduate students. The class was TTE 120, Construction and Manufacturing Production Systems. The class structure provided an excellent environment to facilitate a progressive service learning activity project. Traditionally, in this class students would learn about the foundations and processes of typical construction and manufacturing environments. During the latter part of the semester, they would organize a mock production company and use the knowledge gained in the first part of the semester to produce and market an actual product. This semester I wanted to incorporate service learning or a service aspect into the class. I contacted the National Childhood Cancer Foundation (NCCF) to see if they would be interested in the proceeds of the class project. I wanted to see if the students might be more motivated to learn when the principles of progressive service learning were incorporated into the learning activity as compared to traditional hands-on group activities where typically students view the assignment as just a vehicle to a grade. The NCCF responded favorably to sponsoring the activity and the service aspect for this learning situation was established.
For an impetus into the progressive service learning project, I related the story of my own son, Brady, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of sixteen. On that day, I introduced the idea of a progressive service-learning project to the class and read an article written by my wife about our son's experience with cancer.
I could hardly read the words that were on the pages because I was overcome with emotion as the memories of the ordeal with our son's cancer came flooding back. I explained how Brady's outlook on life had changed because of his illness. His new chance at life was provided by the experimental therapy protocol he had received. Brady's treatment was part of a study to assess the effectiveness of certain chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatment on his type of cancer. It was Brady's choice to be part of that study. Research funding is one of the major goals of the NCCF. I explained that it was this study and those like it that had saved my son's life. The work that they, the students, would do in the class would have an effect upon the very lives of children with cancer.
The students were touched by this experience. Each one of them had been affected in one way or another by cancer, and they were determined to make a difference. The impetus, motivating the students to work and achieve their best, was in place.
As the professor for the course I acted as a consultant and collaborated with the students, giving advice and consultation, but I was not "the teacher" in the traditional sense. I wanted to observe how students reacted to real situations and adapted to their challenges by creating their own solutions. The students were required to maintain a daily journal of their observations and give feedback about the project. Focus group sessions were held at the end of each week to discuss the progress of the project, the learning environment, and troubleshoot for potential problems. This information helped me understand the effectiveness of the learning environment.
According to progressive education principles, the students formulated and executed the project. At the first meeting they spent three hours discussing how they should organize their group to facilitate the project and also what kind of product would be best to produce. The atmosphere during their meeting was one of disorder and chaos. They didn't know where to begin, but finally one student got up and started to direct the discussion. They decided that they would need several departments in their mock company to be able to accomplish the many tasks to produce their product. They identified a need for a lead person. They called a CEO and an assistant, identified needs for a marketing department, a finances department, a research and design department, a production department, and a human resources department. At each point a team leader was elected to lead the different departments, and students volunteered to be placed in each department.
The CEO took charge of the meeting at that point, and they worked on determining what to produce. They wanted to create an item that met certain specific academic criteria related to the class and also one that could best benefit the chosen charity. They discussed several different possibilities and narrowed them down based upon their relationship to the perceived criteria. Finally they were down to two possibilities and took a vote. The students decided to produce wooden playhouses for children. They planned to seek donations of materials from companies around the area, design and produce the houses with internal labor, and sell the playhouses for approximately $250 each. They established a goal to produce ten or more of the playhouses and contribute all of the proceeds to the National Childhood Cancer Foundation. Progressive learning principles provided them with a real client in the NCCF and a real product to be produced. Now the learning truly began as they immersed themselves into the project. One of the students wrote:
Today was a very interesting day, a lot of people were talking at the same time in our meeting, but we were able to get organized a little bit. By electing people to be in charge and also coming up with ideas. We decided to build playhouses; I sure hope we can do it to get lots of money for these kids with cancer.
The students decided to hold meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays for team leaders only and set aside Fridays for the entire group. The project was officially launched the next week and students began to grow into their newly created roles in the production company. The marketing department came up with the slogan "Building for Hope," which became the official name of the project. Some students had trouble adjusting to the production environment. The research and design and marketing departments moved ahead full force, but some of the other departments failed to find significant things to do. In the beginning, some of these students felt frustration and disappointment even though they believed that what they were doing was for a good cause.
Paolo Freire (1971) noted that by grappling with topics and struggling in search of answers one conquers and gains greater knowledge. He stated, "Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other" (Freire, 1971, p. 58). The students began grappling with their production problems and made adjustments to the process in order to succeed. One student wrote:
I was really frustrated in the beginning because I felt like we were having major communication problems. It seemed like everyone had good ideas and good intentions but no one was working together to get anything done. Things are now starting to come together and my frustration level is diminishing quickly.
As each department caught the vision and scope of the project, the students gradually adjusted to their roles. This required constant change and adaptation depending on the needs of the project at any given time. The environment was typical for progressive education. Students were given an opportunity to indulge in the reality of business; however, they were also given the freedom to make mistakes and progressively work toward creating for themselves a successful experience.
Many of the students felt uncomfortable asking for donations for their project even though they were committed to the principle. They knew, however, that without donations the project would fail. One team leader wrote in her journal entry, "Feb. 23. I'm glad and relieved that we're finally getting somewhere with donations. I feel like now we can get going on our project." The eventual success of acquiring the needed donated materials lifted the spirits of the students. One student wrote:
Today was a really cool day; I went with ____ at the beginning of class (and) picked up 15 sheets of T1-11, and 8 sheets of plywood. That is enough to do 5 houses; wow it was really cool to actually see people donating. It was the first time that I actually was involved directly with someone outside of the class help us out. I felt really good about our project.
This success was partially due to some news coverage that the project received set up by the project's marketing department. The university newspaper and television channel did pieces on the project along with one of the local television news agencies. One student reflected on the television news group visit and stated:
(Feb. 25) Today we set up jigs to be able to construct the houses a lot faster. These will also be used Monday when we are filmed to be put on the news. They went together very well . . . (Feb. 28) Today the news people came. I thought it all went well. I thought it was funny how fast we had additional help when the camera came to our building site. People are camera hungry!
Students began to expand their contributions to the project as they became more familiar with their roles. After struggling, the marketing department expanded its role significantly and organized publicity, sought out consulting help, created a marketing plan, and then carried out its plan according to a specified time schedule. The marketing leader said:
It has been really hard for me doing this . . . marketing director (or whatever it is called). I've never built a marketing strategy from the ground up. I've always been told what to do and it has been hard for me to try to figure out what needs to be done so that others can help out. But, I guess that through trial and error things are starting to work out. I wish that we had started attacking this thing before we did. I guess the entire group was stuck in the brainstorming stage.
Another student wrote:
Things are going well with the marketing part of the cancer fund raising. Yesterday I spent 3 hours preparing and then setting up a station in the WILK where we passed out flyers and talked with students about our class' project. This was a good experience, as many students who have been affected by cancer, either personally or knew of someone who had been involved with it, stopped and shared stories and expressed their thanks for our efforts.
The human resources staff tried to move people around in several areas to satisfy the workload and also work out personality problems. It was common for a student to be working in finance at the beginning of the week but finish it on the production crew. The group included 23 students with varying schedules, abilities, and attitudes. This was not an easy job, but the results were positive as students adjusted. One student said:
I am much happier in production. _____ is pretty efficient at keeping all of us busy. We usually only have about 5 minutes of organizational time in production before we get started. I helped in various aspects of cutting, measuring, etc. On March 13, I painted the entire time.
The students in this class progressively learned how to organize and run a production company. They were not only required to administer their company but to perform all of the labor functions as well. When the time came to shift as many people as possible to production, there were feelings of inadequacy among some students. Many, however, found ways they could contribute to the process. One student wrote,
I was kind of skeptical about my abilities to "help" in production since I have absolutely NO idea what the heck I am doing, I wouldn't know a nail gun from a staple gun and I don't even know what the different parts of the playhouse are called. I am glad that I am needed... I did paint a little today. Painting is always good.
The industrious atmosphere caught on as the end of the project neared and the delivery dates for the playhouses approached. Students wrote of their excitement with the project and expressed openly to each other their satisfaction with the product. One student wrote, "(March 8) Boy did we get a lot done today! We framed enough roofs for 7 houses and they all went together really well. After class, we had an additional lab for one hour and _____, _____, and _____ came to help. It was great. I'm not on the paint crew but it sure is looking good!"
One day my son Brady visited the class to talk about his ordeal, answer some of the student's questions, and play and sing some songs that he had written about his experience with cancer. After his visit a student wrote:
Brady came today. It was a neat experience to hear a person who had cancer talk about it... I am glad we get to help make a difference in people's lives. I am glad he was able to come... I am glad we were able to do this project. I have learned a lot and I am really happy that I was able to help others in the process. That is what life is all about - learning and helping people along the way. I am glad we put things we were learning into a practical form. This is one class I will look back on and say that I actually took something away from it. It is more than just a grade I am working for. I am working to make a difference.
The opportunity for these students to apply an educational learning experience toward a service provided them with an optimal environment to learn. They were motivated to learn all that they could in order to apply that knowledge to ensure the project's success. With students in that mode, a better learning environment naturally existed.
As the end of the project drew near, the students began to feel some time pressures. They were all excited about finishing the project and culminating this experience. Some of the comments in student journals were: "Wow! I think we are going to finish on time! We put on a bunch of trim today and plenty of panels. It was great. We will have them done next week." "Thursday we painted some more during seminar. We actually kept everyone busy, but we were quickly going through everything we have left to paint. Friday we ran out of trim so we just worked upstairs, but man we were pumping out those sides. We really were just flying through them." "Spent the period in production. I put paneling on, siding, and block supports to the walls. I think we are going to make it! Now all we need to do is wrap this whole thing up and get these puppies delivered!"
I observed that the deliveries were fun and exciting for all of the students and especially for those who actually set up the playhouses for the people who had ordered them. The students were affected in two ways: first, by seeing the happiness in children's eyes as they set up the playhouses, and second, as they realized that a semester-long project was now drawing to a close. The money they had worked so hard to earn (nearly $2,000) was now collected and donated to the National Childhood Cancer Foundation.
At the end of the project I was faced with the challenge of how to assess grades for the students. After some discussion with them I decided to organize a sequence of peer-related evaluations, with the final assessment being my responsibility. Each peer within the sub-groups did the first evaluations, and then the team leaders did an assessment of each member of their teams. The CEO also did an evaluation of each student. I compiled these evaluations and then assigned the final grades for the project. The process worked well and the students seemed satisfied with the results.
I asked the students at the end of the semester to reflect on the progressive service-learning experience and comment upon their thoughts. Some of the students were amazed when they considered the project's successes. The student comments concerning the learning gained during the project support the theory that service does indeed produce higher levels of motivation for students to learn. Comments from all students were similar to this statement:
I didn't realize that I could learn so much in a class. The opportunity to work out our own company and battle through its completion made us all really understand how it all works. This combined with how we were able to help the cancer research efforts for kids just motivated me to do the best I could. Thanks for the opportunity.
Another student wrote,
My heart was pounding; I had goose bumps; I was really nervous as I approached Children's Hospital in Salt Lake. I had never seen someone with cancer! How should I act? What should I do? Thursday, March 9th, I spent the afternoon visiting with several children suffering with cancer; I was benefited from this experience . . . As I sat at (our) booth in the Wilk, I often had the opportunity to speak with students and faculty who had been affected by cancer in one way or another. There was this one young man who I remember. He came up to me with tears in his eyes and said, "Thank you! You are helping a cause that is so special to me. My niece has cancer and is terminally ill. I do not know if you understand the magnitude of your efforts, but they do not go unnoticed. I appreciate all you are doing and wish you the best." He then walked off, leaving me with a sense of guilt. Up to this point I had not realized how service learning could benefit others; but by talking with this young man, and visiting the Children's Hospital, I decided I would continue my service-learning by promising to always look for opportunities to serve . . . I believe my motivation to learn about construction and manufacturing principles augmented in result of the "Building for Hope" project. Experiencing first hand how a construction and manufacturing project works, and being involved in a service learning environment helped me understand the power and influence education can have on someone. As a future teacher of technology I will always remember this experience and the principles it taught me concerning construction, manufacturing and true education: service learning.
These students were all enrolled in a technology teacher education program. As prospective teachers, many noted the possibility of using service learning in the future. One student summed up the experience this way, "I really enjoyed working with the Building for Hope Campaign and I hope I can take the same kind of positive experiences into my own classrooms." Another student stated,
Being provided with the ability to do good through a service venture, meanwhile learning about a particular subject matter, is what I think service learning is all about. Combining service with the curriculum provides that little extra that can make all the difference. I'm excited to see how I can incorporate it into my classes when I get out into the schools.
The knowledge gained, emotions raised, and motivation experienced during Building for Hope captured the essence of progressive learning environments laced with a service motive to create learning that is nurtured and grown progressively. I realized from this experience how my understanding of the potential of progressive service learning evolved. I saw the project as a success, but also recognized that it left lasting impressions upon the students and instilled deeper understanding of the concepts to be learned. I believe that all fields of study could adopt a similar learning experience and reap the benefits. As one student put it,
The idea that we were doing a service for others, a child suffering in need of research for a cure, gave us a better goal to aim for than could ever be accomplished by greed or money. We saw its inspiration and inside we knew that it was a righteous cause. It gave us the intrinsic motivation to reach our goal. This intrinsic motivation to serve allowed us to perform at our top level to produce a better product. Last year for this class they produced sheds. Yet they felt no great loss or need to accomplish the task because it was just money. It was just a grade. While we never gave up! All of this because we knew if we failed we would be disappointing children suffering from cancer. In this motivation we also found the encouragement to learn to produce a better product, to study how a company actually functions to achieve that goal, to help children. Without the basic skills and knowledge that we learned, we would not have been able to create or construct nearly as many playhouses with anywhere close to the quality we had. We learned self-reliance and how to run a company, all because we were given the chance to do things on our own and for a good purpose.
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Kinsley, C. (1994). What is community service learning? Vital speeches, LXI 2.
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Burr is an Associate Professor in the School of Technology at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. He can be reached at email@example.com