Experiential Learning & Teaching in Higher Education


The COVID-19 pandemic—coupled with ongoing prominent injustice related to race, poverty, healthcare, and education—has highlighted the interlocking and reinforcing nature of systemic oppression. Now more than ever, facilitators of experiential learning are galvanized to explore and deepen their understanding of systemic change and to enhance their teaching of justice concepts, perspectives, and skills.

Advancing social justice was a part of the original vision for service-learning (Stanton et al., 1999). However, scholars have long identified the ways in which service-learning can perpetuate inequitable social hierarchies, be miseducative in teaching simplistic understandings of solutions to social problems, and not equip students to participate in social movements for justice (Eby, 1998; Mitchell and Latta, 2020). By incorporating critical pedagogy, action, and reflection in and beyond the classroom, “critical service-learning” seeks to increase understanding of oppression, redistribute power, and find solutions to social issues through community-campus partnerships (Mitchell, 2008; Santiago-Ortiz, 2019). However, many service-learning practitioners report uncertainty about how to take concrete steps to align their courses with justice orientated techniques and pedagogy.

In order to address this need, students, staff, and faculty in Duke Service-Learning began creating a tool to support the implementation of critical pedagogy and justice in service-learning courses in 2016 (Stith et al., 2018). For the past 8 months an expanded group has worked to update that original tool. The resulting tool organizes course design choices into five themes: reckoning with systems, authentic relationships, redistribution of power, equitable classrooms & cognitive justice, and social change skills. The resulting tool generates concrete, actionable questions for service-learning and experiential learning to interrogate how their pedagogy and practices incorporate social, economic, environmental, and racial justice.

Our article summarizes the advances in our understanding and of the literature on implementing justice aligned experiential education and links to the current version of our tool. Further, our article will summarize lessons learned from conversations with practitioners who use and reflect on the implications of the tool for their own pedagogy. We will also reflect on holding the tensions in balancing the various aspects of course designs and our commitments to anti-oppressive practices. Finally, we will reflect on further implications for service-learning and experiential education that the process of creating this tool has surfaced.

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