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Chapter 4: Understanding Community Through Critical Service-Learning: Preparing Future Teachers to Enact School Reform Principles that Empower Youth

by Alan Tinkler & Barri Tinkler - 2021

Background/Context: A number of states across the United States are seeking to implement school redesign efforts to support greater equity and to empower youth. Because these initiatives require teachers to implement strategies they typically have not experienced as learners, there is a need for models to prepare them to enact these innovations. Research has shown that service-learning can provide a view into educational experiences that are different from what teacher candidates experienced in their own schooling.

Purpose/Focus of Study: The state of Vermont recently legislated school reform that includes three elements: (1) proficiency-based learning, (2) personalized learning, and (3) flexible pathways to graduation. Enacting these mandates requires fostering youth voice. When redesigning our courses to model these principles, we added a critical service-learning experience to a content literacy course in our teacher education program, providing one-on-one academic support to resettled refugee youth. This qualitative study explores the learning outcomes of that service-learning experience. In addition, this study examines how these learning outcomes relate to the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to enact school reform efforts focused on empowering youth.

Research Design: This interpretive study examines the critical service-learning experience embedded in a content literacy course. Candidates provided weekly academic support to resettled refugee youth in one of three community centers. There were 18 participants in the study. Data collection included reflection papers, an anonymous questionnaire, and interviews with selected participants.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Data analysis demonstrates that the service-learning experience (1) cultivated an awareness of individual learners, (2) increased the understanding of pedagogical practices for diverse learners, (3) fostered a sense of cultural humility, and (4) broadened understanding of the community. Taken together, these impacts help prepare future teachers to enact school reform in ways that empower youth.  

The state of Vermont recently legislated a bold experiment, Act 77, that reorients secondary education (Grades 7–12) to advance three school-reform principles: (1) proficiency-based learning and assessment, (2) personalized learning, and (3) flexible pathways to graduation. The proficiency-based learning structure requires schools to identify a set of learning outcomes (proficiencies) that are required for graduation. Schools work with students to develop individualized plans to meet these outcomes using a variety of pathways. These pathways can include traditional courses and experiential activities that take place outside the school. Within individual classrooms, teacher focus on particular proficiencies, and students are required to identify and select evidence to demonstrate they have met these proficiencies. This process typically includes a cycle of feedback and revision until proficiencies are met.

The goal of the legislation is to promote education remodeling in order to support the needs of each learner while maintaining robust graduation requirements that are aligned to learning outcomes, not test scores. The remodeling asks districts to establish graduation expectations and to graduate students who meet those learning outcomes by demonstrating proficiency for the required learning outcomes, and students can meet these learning outcomes in a number of ways. This allows students to have flexible pathways, including community-based learning, to meet outcomes. Because high school students are moving toward graduation proficiencies using a variety of pathways, students work with teachers and advisors to develop personalized learning plans that recognize their individual interests and the way in which those interests can ground learning plans to meet graduation expectations.

This initiative requires that students have an active voice to ensure that personalized learning plans are established that meet their needs, including needs for postsecondary opportunities. The learning outcomes are fashioned by districts to ensure that students are prepared for their chosen postgraduation opportunities. To meaningfully enact these policy mandates, districts and individual high schools must actively engage youth voice and seek to empower young people to take ownership of their learning (Mitra, 2004).

As teacher educators, we have a goal to prepare teachers who can support equitable educational opportunities for all students. One of the strategies we have used to do this is to integrate critical service-learning experiences into our courses. This has been a focus of our work since we started in the field of higher education (Tinkler & Tinkler, 2015). While at the University of Vermont, we worked in a secondary education program that was committed to constructivist practices. In particular, the program is grounded in principles of social constructivism, with the belief that learners construct new knowledge through interactions with others (Vygostky, 1978).

When Act 77 was moving from concept to practice, we recognized the need to prepare future teachers who can support these innovative practices within their schools. Given that most teacher candidates do not have personal experience with proficiency-based learning models (Casey, 2018), we redesigned our courses to model these principles. In addition, the redesign also included the addition of critical service-learning experiences embedded throughout the program. One community-based learning experience, which is embedded in a content literacy course that candidates complete during their junior or senior year, provides teacher candidates with an opportunity to work one-on-one with resettled refugee youth at local community centers. The purpose of having the teacher candidates work with this population of learners was to better prepare them to support the literacy development of English learners and to better understand the diversity of learners within the community.

This qualitative study examines the impacts of that service-learning experience on teacher candidates as it relates to the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to support effective school reform. Two specific research questions guided our inquiry: (1) What were the learning outcomes from the service-learning experience? (2) Do these learning outcomes align with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to enact school reform initiatives?


A number of states across the United States are seeking to implement school redesign efforts in order to support greater equity and to empower youth (Casey, 2018). The range of initiatives includes the three elements of Act 77 implemented in the state of Vermont (proficiency-based learning, personalized learning, and flexible pathways). Though these initiatives are not unique to the state, that all three have been mandated together as part of a legislated policy initiative is unusual. The legislators recognized that the tripartite approach was important because they realized that focusing on one—say, proficiency-based learning—without the others would result in a lack of traction for the remodeling effort (Rickabaugh, 2013). The synergy of the remodeling effort required attention to all three aspects of remodeling.

Because these initiatives require teachers to implement strategies they have not experienced as learners, they need models to prepare them to enact these innovations (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019). According to Jenset et al. (2018), “Teacher educators should model practice to allow teacher candidates to witness and understand complex and ambitious teaching practices” (p. 186). Toward that end, our program has taken steps to redesign courses to model proficiency-based and personalized learning (Smith et al., 2017). In addition, we have been intentional about the field components of our program, particularly because expanding field components illuminates understanding around flexible pathways. Flexible pathways affirm that learning happens across the community, not just in the traditional school setting, by providing students with opportunities to showcase evidence of community-based learning to meet graduation expectations. Even as our program is advancing community-based experiences, all of our candidates also complete traditional clinical experiences; these include a full semester of student teaching in a local public school, where they have the opportunity to see the reform initiatives in practice. The clinical experiences also include an earlier practicum experience that supports student understanding of pedagogy and student engagement within the K–12 classroom.

Regarding community-engaged work, our program developed a sequence of community-based service-learning experiences, which starts with the introductory teacher education course, so that candidates have the chance to understand the community context of these initiatives from the program’s outset. We designed the service-learning experiences using a critical service-learning framework (Mitchell, 2008). According to Mitchell (2015), “Critical service-learning is an approach to civic learning that is attentive to social change, works to redistribute power, and strives to develop authentic relationships” (p. 20). We approached this work with the understanding that if we were not intentional about the design, we might reinforce stereotypes and deficit thinking (Boyle-Baise & Sleeter, 2000). Instead, we sought to support reciprocal learning based on mutual respect that prompted the preservice teachers to rethink previously held beliefs and to recognize the assets available within the community (Tinkler et al., 2014). Part of this design thinking, in other words, was to ensure a critical lens to try to mitigate a charity mindset (Mitchell, 2008)—a mindset that is problematic for teachers who are expected to foster personalized learning plans with students and to support the design of those plans to foster postsecondary opportunities.

When considering service-learning, research has shown that it can provide a view into educational experiences that are different from what teacher candidates experienced in their own schooling (Barnes, 2016). In addition, service-learning can improve pedagogical skills (Lake et al., 2015), enhance understanding of culturally responsive practice (Assaf & López, 2015), and foster cultural humility (Lund & Lee, 2015). Research conducted by Mergler et al. (2017) found that “pre-service teachers self-reported significantly higher levels of willingness to include diversity, confidence to support diversity, and preparedness to teach diverse students after service-learning than before” (p. 69). These service-learning outcomes align nicely with the intended learning outcomes of the Act 77 reform initiative, which aims to support equity and empower youth with an eye toward preparing youth for postsecondary opportunities and success. This is particularly important to ensure equitable outcomes, given that plans will be constructed in conversation with students, which heightens the importance of empowering student voice.


This interpretive study (Denzin, 2001) examines the critical service-learning experience embedded in a content literacy course. Candidates provided weekly academic support to resettled refugee youth in one of three community centers. All three community centers have programming that focuses attention on youth empowerment, with each center executing a range of programming, including academic support, to engage youth. Two of the sites have robust athletic programming, but all three sites have focused attention on ensuring time and space to value academic success. Two of the three sites are actively supporting students with postsecondary scholarships to local institutions of higher education, with one center providing supports for students attending a local community college. Two of the sites provide programming for youth from elementary through the age of 21, with one site focusing primarily on high school students. The teacher candidates were placed for the full semester at one of the three sites, and they tutored youth at the centers each week. The tutoring included providing academic support for school assignments as well as assistance with college and job applications. The service-learning was designed to extend the content of the course, which focuses on critical literacy practices across content disciplines, into the community through working with English learners.

A total of 18 participants were enrolled in the course, and the authors used a research consent process that allowed students to opt out of the study without the course instructor’s knowledge. The 18 participants were juniors or seniors pursuing secondary licensure from across all content areas. The participants were predominantly White and middle class; five participants identified as first-generation college students.

Two questions guided this study: (1) What were the learning outcomes from the service-learning experience? (2) Do these learning outcomes align with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions required to enact school reform initiatives? We drew from multiple data sources to understand what the teacher candidates took away from the experience. These sources included reflection portfolios for each participant; each portfolio included 12 reflection assignments that addressed a range of questions around personal perceptions and practice. Some entries were handwritten during class and transcribed verbatim. At the close of the course, we administered an anonymous questionnaire with open-ended response items that prompted participants to explore various facets of the experience, including defining their learning and making connections between course content and the service-learning experience. In addition, we collected observation data during the culminating service-learning reflection, and we collated course materials (syllabus, assignment guidelines, etc.).

Both authors coded the data from the reflection portfolios, questionnaires, observation notes, and course materials. Data were coded line by line using an open-coding approach (Creswell & Poth, 2018). A process of constant comparison was used (Mills, 2008), and emergent themes were then identified from the codes. To confirm or disconfirm our emergent themes, we interviewed a purposeful sample of six participants. We sought maximum variation (Suri, 2011) in our selection of participants, with representation from all three service-learning placement sites and by selecting teacher candidates from a range of content areas and perspectives. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded line by line. We then used a process of axial coding (Charmaz, 2006) to identify the themes described next.


The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of the critical service-learning experience on teacher candidates and their learning outcomes. In addition, we sought to examine how these impacts relate to the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed to enact school reform efforts focused on empowering youth.

The authors found that the experience (1) cultivated an awareness of the identity, motivations, and strengths of individual learners; (2) increased understanding of pedagogical practices specific to diverse learners; (3) fostered a sense of cultural humility; and (4) broadened understanding of the community and community-engaged practices. Woven throughout each of these themes is an exploration of the connection of that theme to the school reform efforts under way in the state.


The impact and knowledge gained from working with students one-on-one was one theme that emerged through data analysis. This theme explores how the service-learning experience fostered different perspectives when working with individuals, the realization of the individuality of learners and their identities, and the recognition of learner strengths and motivations. These impacts align with aspects of critical or social justice service-learning in relation to teacher candidates’ positive perspectives and beliefs about learners (Tinkler & Tinkler, 2013)

Working With Individuals

Many participants made comments comparing the service-learning experience with traditional classroom experiences. One participant said, “I think that working one-one-one with a student has really changed how I think about working with a group or classroom.” Another noted, “Working one-on-one with students while tutoring gives me a whole new perspective on what challenges/opportunities a teacher has when working with a whole classroom of students.” The service-learning experience helped the preservice teachers see the complexity of meeting the needs of individuals within a classroom, with one participant recognizing how these individual needs would be challenging to meet in their future classroom: “As a teacher in a classroom with 20 or more students, it must be really difficult to ensure everyone who needs extra help gets it.”

Participants also recognized that the service-learning gave them a chance to know the students in ways they might not within a classroom. One participant wrote, “The service-learning portion of this course gave me the chance to connect with students outside of the classroom and get to know them as individuals.”

Individuality of Learners

Through working with individuals, the preservice teachers became more aware of the individuality of learners. As stated by one participant, “No two students are the same, and it is so important to understand that going into teaching.” Some participants focused on differences in thinking. For example, one participant said, “When working with individuals, I find that students have so many different ways of thinking.” Other participants focused on differences in ability, with one stating, “It makes very obvious the differing levels of abilities found in a classroom when working one-on-one with a student.” These differences were manifested in students’ identities and motivations, with one participant noting, “Last week I helped a student with her Harlem Renaissance project. She was a very motivated student who had a lot of positive energy.” Though some participants noted challenges at times when working with learners, they framed these challenges around working to better understand individual learners. This perspective reflects an area of emphasis in the content literacy course about the need to truly know and understand your students.

Motivating Learners Through Acknowledging Strengths

Many participants realized that motivating learners was possible when they recognized their strengths. One participant said, “If we acknowledge all the literacies students already have, it can be more motivating than if we just acknowledge the ones that we might be looking for.” One participant noted that through the service-learning, “We get to observe firsthand the difficulties and trouble that students can have in traditional literacy, and then see their individual strengths in other forms of literacy.” This awareness of multiple literacies allowed some participants to refocus on student strengths, as noted by one participant: “It helped open my eyes to abilities that students had that I didn’t really think of as ‘academic’ before.”

This recognition of individual learners’ strengths and motivations is an important precursor to the development of personalized learning plans and proficiency-based learning and assessment that participants were learning about in the content literacy course. One participant made an explicit connection to personalized learning, noting, “Personalized-learning plans [for the tutoring sessions] definitely benefit the students.” Participants also connected what they learned through the service-learning experience to their future teaching practice. As stated by one participant, “To me, service-learning is like a step to being able to identify with every student in our class,” which leads to “differentiated instruction that is personalized to students.” By working with individuals in community-based settings, these teacher candidates are beginning to understand the value of individualized instruction and are beginning to recognize that students can demonstrate knowledge in multiple ways. This recognition aligns well with proficiency-based learning and assessment, in which students select evidence to demonstrate their attainment of a particular proficiency. Because students are allowed to build on their strengths to create, select, and make visible evidence of their learning, teachers need the flexibility of thinking to understand how different types of assessment evidence can demonstrate proficiency.


Another theme that emerged through data analysis was the importance of practice with diverse learners as valuable preparation for working with English learners and using culturally responsive practices. The content literacy course emphasized the need to foster student voice, and the teacher candidates had the chance to practice this with learners. The content literacy course was designed to provide a feedback loop between course content, the service-learning experience, and the teacher candidates’ reflections. Through this cycle, the service-learning affirmed course content focused on preparing future teachers to support the critical literacy development of all learners.

The Importance of Practice

Through the service-learning experience, the teacher candidates had the opportunity to improve their pedagogical skills in practice. As one participant noted, “Through service-learning you can get a different perspective on pedagogy than you can through just talking about it in class or even observing in a school.” Another participant said, “You don’t fully learn something until you have a chance to utilize and experience it in a real-life situation.” One participant described an experience using visual cues to reach a learner:

And he asked what a hawk was. And I was trying to explain that it was a type of bird. And I’m like, “You know what, it’s going to be easy if I show you a picture.” And then he told me the word in his language, and we were able to have a moment, and he also had a good understanding now that he was able to see and associate the word with something.

Though traditional clinical experiences can provide the opportunity for practice, it can be challenging to ensure that each teacher candidate has experiences with diverse learners (Tinkler et al., 2019). Most of the youth who use the academic services at the three community centers are resettled refugees who are identified as English learners. As one participant noted, “It was a great opportunity to gain experience working with ELL students.”

Understanding English Learners

Through course content and applying this content with English learners, the teacher candidates gained an understanding of language acquisition and effective strategies for teaching English learners. One participant noted, “I learned how to rephrase and break down what I was saying.” Because the service-learning experience was embedded in a content literacy course, which included a focus on English learners within the context of teaching content-specific literacy skills, many of the participants made connections between language acquisition and content-specific vocabulary. One participant said, “The approach to English acquisition should be cross-content. It is the responsibility of all content areas to support students in understanding the content-specific language.” Though the teacher candidates learned about content-specific vocabulary in the literacy course, it was through the service-learning experience that they fully understood what that meant for students in practice.  

Culturally Responsive Practice

Across the data set, participants described using culturally responsive practices to engage learners, including one participant, who wrote, “I tried to have her provide examples of concepts using her own experience, placing value on her personal knowledge and creating relevancy to the material.” This example aligns with the work of Geneva Gay (2002), who wrote, “Culturally Responsive Teaching is defined as using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (p. 106). In the content literacy course, the instructor focused on preparing the preservice teachers to use “students’ experiences as a bridge to conventional content and literacy learning” (Moje & Hinchman, 2004, p. 323). One participant said, “Students have literacies outside just schoolwork, and it can be very meaningful to try to connect those other interests to their work.” The participants recognized that students could connect to the content when it was made relevant and meaningful; this was noted by one participant, who stated, “being able to connect with my students through strategies that not only include critical content but that they enjoy doing” was very valuable.

The recognition of the need to consider how best to connect to diverse learners is an important foundation in seeking to foster youth voice and empowerment. Effectively enacting the school reform initiatives required by Act 77 requires ongoing and authentic participation from students. These teacher candidates are developing strategies and skills for supporting student participation in their own learning, which not only affirms the social constructivist approach in our teacher education program, but also aligns with the way that theorists, such as John Dewey, recognize the importance of authentic learning. As Dewey stated (1958), “Education is not an affair of ‘telling’ and being told, but an active and constructive process” (p. 46).  


Another theme that emerged through data analysis was that many of the participants noted impacts and learning outcomes that aligned with concepts of cultural humility. Cultural humility “is a stance where critically-minded individuals are persistently self-aware and self-reflective when interacting with others in order to be attentive to culture, power, and privilege” (Tinkler & Tinkler, 2016, p. 193). This cultural humility was manifested in some participants through their openness to learning. One participant stated, “The service-learning experience taught me the importance of learning from students. Engaging with them to see what they had to offer, then going from there.” This openness also related to the preservice teachers being willing to speak about their own learning. One participant reflected, “I also try to connect myself with the students by describing my past difficulties and how I overcame them.” Though this statement reflects the participant’s desire to connect to students through shared experiences, it raises concerns as to whether the participant fully recognized how the challenges of the students they were working with might be different from their own academic challenges and not as simple to “overcome.” The instructor of the course worked to find a balance of helping the preservice teachers understand the experiences of the students they worked with, while not essentializing the students in ways that would foster stereotypes.

Participants also focused on the reciprocity of learning and the acknowledgement that students could know more than the teacher: “There was one student who showed up for help. She needed help with Spanish homework...In the end, I almost think it was more beneficial to the student that I didn’t know Spanish because she ‘had’ to teach me.” Several participants described experiences in which they realized that students had abilities that were more advanced than their own around a particular topic. One participant recognized the importance of “constantly reminding students what they are good at.” This recognition of the reciprocity of learning is an important aspect of critical service-learning (Barnes, 2016).

One important paradigmatic shift with the implementation of Act 77 is that it subverts traditional power dynamics within classrooms. Teachers have to be willing to become “students of our students” (Ayers, 2019, p. 10) and approach the process with humility. One participant fully grasped this and stated, “You get to hear so many different experiences, and it can really strengthen the power of what you’re teaching.” However, it is not enough to simply value students’ knowledge and skills—educators have to create space for students to have a voice to share their strengths and their needs. One participant described an interaction with a young person who was experiencing proficiency-based assessment in their school for the first time. The participant noted that the student “didn’t understand that and didn’t feel comfortable approaching the teacher.” If students do not understand the new practices being used under Act 77, it is less likely that these school remodeling efforts will work to empower youth.


The final theme that emerged was a broadened understanding of the community and community-engaged practices. For some of the participants, the service-learning component opened the door to the community. One stated, “Service-learning pedagogy has served me well. It has gotten me involved in the community when I wouldn’t have otherwise.” Participants began to see the community as a site of learning. One noted, “Students realize that not only do they have the power to make an impact in their community, but their community also has something to offer them. Community dynamics are rich.” Participants began to see the possibilities of teachers working in concert with communities to support youth. This realization is an important outcome of a critical service-learning approach in that working with communities is more likely to lead to a better balance of power between schools and communities.

As schools work to fully implement Act 77, an important element of this initiative is flexible pathways to graduation, which include opportunities for community-based learning as part of meeting graduation requirements. It is important that future teachers recognize these opportunities and the supports that communities can provide. The data show that 14 (78%) of the participants gained this awareness through the service-learning experience. One participant noted, “If teachers were more closely involved in these community resources, more students would perhaps go to places like [the community center]. As a future educator, I will try my best that my students know where their supports are and how to access them.” In other words, students may feel more comfortable in different spaces, and teachers need to be mindful and respectful of those and find ways to approach students with humility.

Because the participants were in the community, they had access to seeing students expressing knowledge and understanding in ways they may not have witnessed before, such as students engaging in dance, or other modes of artistic expression. Increased awareness of the community and the blending of community knowledge with traditional academics can be an important element in seeking to enact culturally responsive teaching practices (Coffey, 2011).


This study demonstrates that community-based service-learning experiences can expand teacher candidates’ knowledge and skills. For the teacher candidates in our program, the identified impacts are particularly important, because, taken together, these skills help support the implementation of Act 77 in ways that can empower youth. This service-learning experience helps to supplement traditional clinical experiences to fully realize innovative practices within and across the community.

This study also shows the ways in which teacher education programs might adapt to support policy initiatives, particularly those policy initiatives that are putting student learning outcomes at the center of practice. When aligned to such initiatives, teacher education programs can be attentive to issues of equity that result from the implementation of policy. The teacher candidates are able to witness the way in which practice matters at the level of individual learning, which emphasizes the importance of practice that enhances equity across the community.

Attention to equity across the community requires that paradigmatic shifts occur to heighten K–12 student voice to empower learning, particularly given the inequality that results when learning is judged by high-stakes standardized tests. Graduation expectations that are determined by the community ensure that education meets the complicated needs of K–12 students. Students who are involved with their personalized learning plans and have flexible opportunities to demonstrate learning are able to be successful both during and following school.

By locating learning across the community, teacher education programs have an opportunity to support efforts that heighten attention to learning plans to meet individualized needs while being attentive to community-determined graduation expectations. Education is about (1) understanding who you are, (2) advancing discipline-specific knowledge and understanding, and (3) engaging in lifelong learning and reflection. Teacher education programs should embrace these ideals to ensure that school remodeling advances equitable opportunities for students. Given that a critical service-learning approach is “attentive to social change, works to redistribute power, and strives to develop authentic relationships” (Mitchell, 2015, p. 20), critical service-learning can be very effective in supporting an understanding of school reform initiatives that seek to subvert traditional hierarchies in education.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 13, 2021, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23739, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:11:08 AM

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About the Author
  • Alan Tinkler
    Missouri State University
    E-mail Author
    ALAN TINKLER, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Missouri State University and chair of the board of governors for the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty. His research focuses on community engagement, with particular attention to the way such activities support learning and reflective practices to advance social justice. A recent publication reflecting this focus is titled “Critical Service-Learning: Learning Through Experience to Advance Teacher Education,” published in the Journal of Experiential Education.
  • Barri Tinkler
    Missouri State University
    E-mail Author
    BARRI TINKLER, Ph.D., is an associate dean and professor at Missouri State University. Her research examines teacher education policy and practice through an equity lens. She recently published a journal article in Education Policy Analysis Archives titled “Building a Dangerous Outpost in the Green Mountain State: A Case Study of Educator Preparation Policymaking.”
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