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The importance of writing in service-learning and student development

Reflection is key

BY WILLIAM JOHNSON | APR 24 2015

The most effective community service-learning programs are based on theories of experiential education and student development. They connect experiences outside the classroom to academic study. Fundamental to these activities is the incorporated post-service activity reflection — for it is in these structured deliberations that students may make meaning of their experiences, clarify values, form identity, consider their own conceptions of leadership and social responsibility and, as a result, enrich their learning and enhance their civic engagement. Like watching a controversial film or reading a thought-provoking book, the decision to engage in this critical and at times difficult reflection is a summons to think deeply, and reflection must both precede and succeed action.

Reflection is best done with a community
If we consider the complexity of issues students may explore, the world in which we are investigating them and the many viewpoints through which we may interpret an issue, the idea of action, or service, without reflection seems inadequate. As writer Kate Murphy once noted: it is impossible “to solve or let go of problems if you don’t allow yourself time to think about them. It’s an imperative ignored by our culture which values doing more than thinking and believes answers are in the palm of your hand rather than in your own head.” To add precision to Ms. Murphy’s observation, research suggests that answers are often found inside multiple minds and in the sharing of ideas, which can lead to multidisciplinary perspectives, better decisions, and more innovative outcomes. Reflection as an element of service-learning must then necessarily be a group affair.

Students need to share their thoughts in writing
One way to multiply experiences is through the sharing of words via letters or on the Internet, specifically, through writing. Writing is an essential element of reflection. Unfortunately, the mental processes involved in producing those arrangements of words we call sentences can be hard, and at times can evoke a range of emotions from elation to absolute frustration and even panic. David McCullogh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, explained this simply in an interview with Bruce Coleman (a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities):  “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” Writing is the most painstaking form of thinking because it reifies our reflections and feelings into language. It is a brutal transcendence of the abstract into syntax.

In the context of groups engaging in community-service-learning, writing ideas down allows participants to benefit richly. Janet Emig and Toby Fulwiler, both writing-process scholars, have explained that “the act of writing … allows the writer to manipulate thought in unique ways because writing makes our thoughts visible and concrete and allows us to interact with and modify them.” Not only do we inspect our ideas more intensely, but our ideas may be perceived disparately; they may be more fully questioned, dissected, tested, researched and rethought. As a result of this intense examination of our conceptions, we gain still other benefits.

For example, students build their confidence by having to think critically before they type and having to stand by the things they said. Secondly, publishing personal thoughts can be cathartic and liberating. Thirdly, writing more leads to better writing. Finally, if student affairs professionals take proactive steps to organize the online platforms where students can share their thoughts, we would be facilitating the development of a catalogue of experiences that other students could use to discover new opportunities and ideas. We would be helping students chronicle their skill and knowledge development. Ultimately, the catalogue could serve as an “insights bank” that we could use to evaluate the intended and emergent learning outcomes of our programs and our pedagogy.

William Johnson is the student engagement and transition support coordinator in the student experience office at Carleton University.

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