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Community-Based Experiential Learning in Teacher Education  

Gary Harfitt

Institutes of higher education around the world have increasingly adopted community-based experiential learning (EL) programs as pedagogy to equip their students with skills and values that make them more open to an increasingly unpredictable and ill-defined 21st-century world. Values of social justice, empathy, care, collaboration, creativity, and resilience have all been seen as potential benefits of community engagement through EL. In the field of teacher education, the goals of preparing teachers for the 21st century have undergone similar changes with the local community being positioned more and more as a knowledge space that is rich in learning opportunities for both preservice and in-service teachers. It is no longer enough for teacher educators to only focus on the teaching of classroom strategies and methods; beginning teachers’ must now move toward a critical interrogation of their role as a community-based teacher. Boundary-crossing projects established by teacher education institutes and that are embedded in local communities can complement more traditional pedagogies such as classroom-based lectures and teaching practicum. Such an approach to teacher education can allow for new teachers to draw on powerful community knowledge in order to become more inclusive and socially connected educators. In sum, community-based EL in teacher preparation programs can create a hybrid, nonhierarchical platform for academics, practitioners, and community partners who bring together different expertise that are all seen as being beneficial to teacher development in a rapidly changing and uncertain world. While research has shown that community-based EL projects can bring tangible benefits to students, universities, and community members, a number of contentious issues continue to surround the topic and need to be addressed. One concerns the very definition of community-based EL itself. There is still a need to better characterize what community-based EL is and what it involves, because too often it is seen in overly simplistic terms, such as voluntary work, or categorized loosely as another example of service-learning endeavors, including field studies and internship programs. There has also been a paucity of research on the degree to which community-based EL projects in teacher training actually help to promote subject matter teaching skills. Other ongoing issues about the case for community-based learning in teacher education today include the question of who the teacher educators are in today’s rapidly changing world and to what extent noneducation-related community partners should be positioned as co-creators of knowledge alongside teacher educators in the development of new teachers’ personal and professional development.