Examining Group Dynamics in Service Learning
Group dynamics are often discussed in regards to both service-learning and community development. In a broader sense, and they relate to the subjective spaces in which students, faculty, and community members engage in shared spaces to signify a collective (or community) approach to the processing of ideas.
This communal approach is akin to building relationships, and in the context of service-learning is an important focus for both student learning and community development. Facilitator strategies for group engagement within the service-learning environment include a range of activities and exercises that seek to build a more cohesive group experience. The entirety of this experience can be better understood by breaking down and examining both the individual and the collective nature of group dynamics, the effect of dialogue on enhancing group communication, and the strategies of group management qualified facilitators can hone.
Further Reading: Community Building and Service Learning: 4 Key Questions to Consider
Individual and Collective
To some extent, the dynamics of group engagement can be seen every day, as a variety of human interactions. Life itself is a process of confronting newness and repositioning our individual experience within the existence of a group’s (e.g. at work, in politics, classroom dynamics, personal relationships, family, etc). Service-learning, as a branch of experiential education, seeks to create meaningful learning and meaningful action to bridge the individual and the collective experience.
This can be examined on a large-scale (i.e. in an entire university) or small-scale (i.e. classroom settings via group dynamics). In regards to group dynamics, the individual/collective balance is influenced by the psychological and emotional weight of the dialogues that occur between individuals occupying the space. It is also a shared involvement of both facilitators and students in deciphering what the learning environment represents for the group.
A way in which this shared management of a space can be conducted is through open and honest lines of communication. The facilitation space is a nonjudgmental place for authentic sharing that requires intentional maintenance. The purpose of the space is providing students with a means to share stories, thoughts, journal entries, and opinions as it relates to their academic and service experiences. Group dialogue in this sense offers students a creative freedom within set boundaries for measured expression. It attempts to allow simultaneously for students to express creatively as well as to think critically. One way of managing this freedom is by using overarching goals in classroom sessions along with clearly communicated, purposeful objectives.
Engaging students on a vulnerable level presents certain risks and challenges, which can be exacerbated by drawing out conflict as it arises. The parallels between the risks of peace-building and in the making and sustaining of relationships are seen in the inevitability of conflict arising. When values, beliefs, and other personal processes are consistently questioned and challenged by different viewpoints, the risk of combustible group tension tends to increase. The goal of group dialogue in service-learning is to guide students in identifying the inherent processes that connect them with others in their group, so that they can find a shared understanding.
Further Reading: Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part III: Relational Learning
A significant part of managing group dynamics within the service-learning space is through observing and analyzing relational dynamics between students. Oftentimes a group curriculum will emerge from the way in which students relate to each other and the material, so part of the experiential learning is knowing how to maximize those unexpected group learning moments.
A goal of service-learning is to create a true learning community where individuals can feel safe to collaborate and share their diversity of experiences. Part of creating this safety and trust is through student participation and investment in group dialogue and accepting a co-ownership of the space itself. This responsibility can also be understood as a shared commitment to engaging with the space in an intentional way, one that encourages openness and respect of all members involved.
Further Reading: Enhancing Democratic Engagement in Service Learning Courses
The importance of group dynamics in service-learning, while not everything, is nonetheless an important factor to consider. As a microcosm of community development, service-learning programs strive to better incorporate an individual’s experience – via student learning – for a collective good, through community-building that is takes place both within and without the classroom setting.
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