Details of Thesis

TitleAn Exploration of Participant Experience of the Service Learning Program at an Australian Catholic Boys’ Secondary School
Author Price, Damien Faust
Institution Australian Catholic University
Date 2008
Abstract This research explores participant experience of the Service Learning Program in the context of an Australian Catholic Boys’ Secondary School. The research aims to explore what is happening as adolescent participants engage in working and relating with homeless people over an extended period of time. What are they learning? What sense or meaning are they making of their experiences, and are they deepening their value and belief system towards existential change? Service Learning is a curriculum initiative that Australian Secondary Schools are implementing to assist in the development of both the ethos of schools and in attempts to meet the needs of Twenty-first Century youth for a relevant education. While the benefits for participants in Service Learning are well documented, the effects upon recipients of the services provided, and whether the benefits for participants are the result of prior learning, family factors, or predispositions to this type of experiential learning, remain unclear. While Service Learning Programs are proving to be increasingly popular for school administrators, there appears to be a lack of clear models for Service Learning, its links to academic curriculum, or clearly articulated goals to assess success and achievement. A real danger of an adhoc approach to Service Learning in schools exists. The discussion of benefits to participants has not clearly identified links between program elements and hoped for benefits, nor has it examined the process or journey that participants have engaged in. Critical reflection on these issues has informed the purpose of this research and helped to shape the following research questions that focus the conduct of the study: Research Question One What features of the Service Learning Program at Holy Family College impact on participant experience? Research Question Two What changes are there in the meanings participants give to their experiences in the Service Learning Program over time? Research Question Three  How do participants perceive their Service Learning experience in terms of their personal world view and the world view promoted by the school? The theoretical framework for this study was that of Constructionism as the criteria for judging that neither ‘reality’ nor ‘validity’ are absolute; rather they are derived from community consensus of what is ‘real’, what is useful, and what has meaning. In exploring participants’ experience as they served and related with homeless people ‘reality’, ‘usefulness’ and ‘meaning’ were derived from the student’s reflection upon their experience and their communal dialogue. Hence this study used Symbolic Interactionism as the perspective to explore experience. An interpretive approach was utilised, as humans interpret their environment, evaluate beliefs in terms of their usefulness in situations, select what they notice in every situation and focus on human action and interaction. A case study approach was used as it acknowledged the unique setting of a ‘van site’ for homeless people. Using personal journaling and focus groups data was collected from fifty-three Year 11 students who had volunteered to participate on the van for a period of six months. All fifty-three participants in the Service Learning Program experienced particular phases regardless of prior service experience, variables linked to family or personality type. These phases were: Expectations, Exposure, Reframing, Disillusionment, Awareness and Agency. This study concluded that within these phases, participant experience was influenced by the length of time of the program, the presence of active mentors facilitating the experience, ongoing reflection upon experience and situating the experience in a clear ideological framework. While each participant experienced the phases mentioned above no two students derived the same meaning or level of meaning from their experiences. The research concluded that each participant will exit a Service Learning Program with varying levels of internalisation of the core values of the program. Some will exit with a surface appreciation of what the program was about; others deeper, others tacit; some will arrive at a point of existential change. While acknowledging the influence of family and personality factors in this journey, this research shows that the presence of active mentors, reflection upon experience, a clear ideological framework and a significant length of time to allow for the maturation of both reflection and experience will move participants further along towards existential change than would otherwise have occurred. A model; the Spiral Model of Service Learning is proposed to support these findings.
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