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Four Lenses of Service-Learning

There are four lenses from which to view service learning: Technical, Cultural, Political, and Post-Modern:

  • A technical conceptualization of service is focused on pedagogical effectiveness. Students can learn ideas, content, or skills more deeply through field observation or practical application. A technical perspective focuses on the innovation itself—the quality of placements, the amount of contact hours, and the frequency of reflections—rather than on the implicit implications of service. This perspective dominates service learning practice.
  • A cultural conceptualization is focused on meaning making for individual and institutional participants. Students can increase their social awareness, develop their civic responsibility, cultivate their tolerance of diversity, and enhance their sense of community. Institutions, in turn, can claim this growth as central to their liberal arts credo. A cultural perspective recognizes the formative capacity of service, especially its role in developing a tolerant, civic mindset. This perspective also is central to service learning.
  • A political conceptualization of service is focused on the empowerment of marginalized groups. Students undertake service as a means to understand, question, and (possibly) mediate inequity. A political perspective utilizes service as a means to invest university assets, including student assistance, in efforts for social change. This perspective is uncommon within service learning. In fact, practitioners can be uneasy about service as potentially repressive, as well as potentially transformative. Service is considered a loaded term that signifies a power imbalance between server and served.
  • A postmodern (or post-structuralist) perspective is focused on how service works to sustain or disrupt one’s view of self. Students examine the ways that service maintains or unsettles their assumptions about service, servers, knowledge, and community.

From Butin, D. W. (2003). “Of What Use Is It? Multiple Conceptualizations of Service Learning Within Education.” Teachers College Record 105(9): 1674.