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Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning Fall 2005, pp.


A Transformative Learning Model for Service-Learning:

A Longitudinal Case Study
Richard Kiely
University of Georgia

This article presents a longitudinal research study that led to the development of a theoretical framework for
explaining how students experience the process of transformational learning in service-learning. The article
describes nonreflective and reflective dimensions of the process of transformational learning. The author rec-
ommends that future research focus on supporting the transformative potential of service-learning.

For more than a decade, service-learning educa- ing in service-learning have focused primarily on
tors have been voicing their concerns about the need measuring the impact of service-learning on stu-
to develop a more systematic and rigorous research dents’ personal, civic, and cognitive development
process and agenda to better understand, improve, (Astin, Vogelgesang, Ikeda, & Yee; Eyler, 2000;
and substantiate the theory, practice, and value of ser- Eyler, Giles, Stenson, & Gray, 2001; Steinke &
vice-learning in K-12 and higher education (Billig & Buresh, 2002). While much of this research on “out-
Eyler, 2003; Giles, Honnet, & Migliore, 1991; Furco, comes” is useful, it often stems from institutional
2000; Furco & Billig, 2002; Howard, Gelmon, & pressure to prove that service-learning is more than
Giles, 2000; Welch & Billig, 2004). More recent curricular fluff. Measuring students’ acquisition of
increases in volume and attention to rigor in research disciplinary knowledge means service-learning
have led some educators to conclude that the service- research tends to neglect important community and
learning field is at a “methodological crossroads” institutional impacts (Jacoby & Associates, 2003;
(Ziegert & McGoldrick, 2004). If this is an important Strand, Marullo, Cutforth, Stoecker, & Donohue,
methodological turn in the history of the service- 2003), learning processes (Kiely, 2002, 2005), theo-
learning movement, it is important to reflect on ry development (Bringle, 2003) and values unique to
where we are and where we’d like to go. Concurring service-learning contexts (Harkavy, 2004; Hecht,
with recently proposed research frameworks, this 2003). As a result, there is a deficit in studies that
would mean focusing the research agenda on devel- generate theory and/or investigate the contextual fac-
oping theories, specifying values, and generating tors and learning processes in service-learning that
empirical knowledge that explain and support the lead to reported outcomes. The focus on the “what”
unique philosophical and epistemological underpin- of student learning rather than the “how” leaves us
nings of service-learning (Bringle, 2003; Harkavy, with a theoretical “black box” regarding the contex-
2004; Ziegert & McGoldrick, 2004). tual and process mechanisms in service-learning that
In terms of where we are “in theory,” the emphasis enhance certain cognitive, affective, and behavioral
on more rigorous research has drawn increasing outcomes — particularly those that are transforma-
attention to questions regarding the development of tive (Kiely, 2002, 2004).
more sophisticated methodological instrumentation Educators that do explore learning processes in
and design at the expense of theory development service-learning tend to focus primarily on reflection
(Bringle, 2003; Bringle & Hatcher, 2000; Ziegert & as a useful predictor of students’ academic and per-
McGoldrick, 2004). As Bringle points out, “there is sonal outcomes (Ash & Clayton, 2004; Eyler, Giles,
more to good research than simply collecting data” & Schmiede, 1996; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Hatcher,
(p. 4). In addition, calls for more advanced method- Bringle, & Muthiah, 2004; Silcox, 1993; Welch,
ological approaches often translate into a myopic, 1999). The emphasis on cognitive reflection stems
technical-rational obsession with more precise mea- from the service-learning field’s dominant cultural
surement of service-learning outcomes which “runs assumption that the pragmatic and reflective experi-
the risk of being misguided as it ends up focusing ential traditions of Dewey (1916, 1933) and Kolb
precision at a level that is impossible in the context of (1984) provide the most adequate philosophical and
the real world” (Ziegert & McGoldrick, 2004, p. 32). theoretical framework for understanding and
With regard to research, empirical studies on learn- explaining the processes of learning unique to ser-

vice-learning contexts and for guiding practice ing critical and transformative service-learning peda-
(Bringle & Hatcher, 2000; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Giles gogy and engagement (Kiely, 2002). The following
& Eyler, 1994; Hatcher, 1997).1 Kolb’s experiential sections review the literature that informs this study,
learning theory has become “the Rosetta stone of describe the program setting and research methodol-
experiential education” (Becker & Couto, 1996, p. ogy, explain the five dimensions of the transforma-
20) and is arguably the most popular conceptualiza- tional service-learning process model that resulted
tion of experiential learning in service-learning from this research, and discuss the theoretical and
because of the model’s putative theoretical clarity practical implications of the study findings.
and conceptual parsimony, and its pragmatic simplic-
ity (Bringle & Hatcher, 2000; Eyler & Giles, 1999; Theoretical Framework
Eyler et al., 1996; Silcox, 1993). Service-learning Consistent with calls for research that is theory-
theorists and practitioners can readily adapt Kolb’s based, theory-generating, and longitudinal (Bringle,
learning cycle of concrete experience, cognitive 2003; Bringle & Hatcher, 2000; Eyler, 2002), this
reflection, abstract theorization, and experimentation study draws from Mezirow’s (1991, 2000) transfor-
to generate knowledge and facilitate learning in mational learning process model as well as more
diverse contexts. Along with physically situating stu- recent empirical studies on, and critiques of, different
dents in authentic environments, service-learning dimensions of his model (see Mezirow & Associates,
programs simplify the Kolb model further by encour- 2000; Taylor, 1998, 2000; Yorks & Kasl, 2002).
aging some form of structured reflection to connect Mezirow’s model for transformational learning pro-
experience with concepts, ideas, and theories and vides a useful theoretical framework for service-
generate new and applicable knowledge in concrete learning practitioners because it focuses on how peo-
“real-life” situations. ple make meaning of their experiences and, in partic-
While the service-learning literature has largely ular, how significant learning and behavioral change
accepted the usefulness of Kolb’s (1984) model often result from the way people make sense of ill-
(Moore, 2000), a number of experiential learning the- structured problems, critical incidents, and/or
orists have questioned the dominance of construc- ambiguous life events. Mezirow’s empirically-based
tivist, reflective experiential learning traditions conceptual framework also has explanatory value
(Fenwick, 2000, 2003; Heron, 1992; Lave & Wenger, unique to service-learning contexts because it
1991; Michelson, 1996; Yorks & Kasl, 2002; Wilson, describes how different modes of reflection combined
1993). They offer explanatory frameworks for under- with meaningful dialogue lead people to engage in
standing the nature of the relationship between learn- more justifiable and socially-responsible action.
ing and experience that go beyond constructivist In addition, components of Mezirow’s (1991,
approaches that rely heavily on reflection (Fenwick, 2000) transformational learning theory have been
2000, 2003). Kolb’s model has been critiqued for not tested by numerous researchers in various contexts
providing enough detail on the social and contextual and ongoing research has shed light on how reflec-
aspects of experiential knowing (Fenwick, 2003; tion, the unconscious, context, emotions, relation-
Jarvis, 1987; Wilson). The nature and process of ships, dialogue, values, and power enhance transfor-
reflection still remains a largely undifferentiated mys- mational learning (see reviews by Taylor, 1998,
tery (Cone & Harris, 1996; Heron; Mezirow, 1991). 2000). Lastly, at least three empirical studies have
Moreover, the positionality and identity of the educa- found that Mezirow’s model is useful for explaining
tor and the role that emotions, affect, context, ideolo- the transformative impact of service-learning on stu-
gy, and power play in enhancing and/or inhibiting dents’ personal, civic, moral, and intellectual learning
transformational learning processes have received and development (Kiely, 2004; Eyler & Giles, 1999;
insufficient attention in Kolb’s model and in the ser- Feinstein, 2004). While these studies have increased
vice-learning literature in general (Brookfield, 2005; understanding of different types of transformative
Fenwick, 2003; Heron; Yorks & Kasl). All of these outcomes that result from participation in well-inte-
authors concur that reflection is an important part of grated service-learning programs, they did not inves-
the learning process, but research should also exam- tigate the value and pertinence of transformational
ine the value and influence of contextual factors and learning processes identified in Mezirow’s model to
nonreflective forms of learning in service-learning. service-learning contexts (Kiely, 2002, 2005). Thus,
The article presents findings from a longitudinal participation in certain service-learning programs
case study that examined the transformational learn- can sometimes have a transformative impact on stu-
ing processes and outcomes that result from service- dents’ moral, political, intellectual, personal, cultural,
learning (Kiely, 2002, 2004, 2005). The study led to and spiritual perspectives; but how or why doesn’t it
the development of a transformative service-learning happen more often? (Kiely, 2004, 2005; Eyler &
model that offers a useful explanatory lens for guid- Giles, 1999; Feinstein, 2004; Rhoads, 1997).

Transformative Learning Model
Mezirow’s (1991, 2000) process-oriented theoreti- presentations on various topics including community
cal model provides important insight on how trans- development and health, Nicaraguan culture, history,
formation learning occurs in service-learning. Based and language (Kiely, 2002, 2004). Students perform
on a comprehensive study of the re-entry learning service work and conduct research to examine and
experience of women returning to college after a long address health and social problems in resource-poor
hiatus from school, Mezirow (1978, 1991) developed communities. Students design and implement health
a transformational learning model that describes the education skits and workshops, conduct health
learning processes2 that led participants in his study assessments in local neighborhoods, and work at the
to experience significant change in the ways they local hospital (Kiely, 2002, 2004). Course require-
understood their identity, culture, and behavior — ments include a daily journal, evening reflection
which he labeled “perspective transformation.” groups, a report that communicates the results of stu-
Mezirow found that perspective transformation is dent research and a final reflection paper which
typically initiated by a disorienting dilemma — a includes a plan for future action (Kiely, 2002). The
critical incident or event that acts as a trigger that can, service-learning pedagogy draws from various theo-
under certain conditions (i.e., opportunities for retical models including asset-based approaches to
reflection and dialogue, openness to change, etc.), community development (Korten, 1990; Kretzman &
lead people to engage in a transformational learning McKnight, 1993) and community-based health inter-
process whereby previously taken-for-granted ventions (Werner, 1999; Werner & Bower, 1998),
assumptions, values, beliefs, and lifestyle habits are and also approaches to participatory action research
assessed and, in some cases, radically transformed. that fit the context and short-term nature of the pro-
Mezirow’s (2000) transformational learning model gram (Chambers, 1997).
includes the following nonsequential learning The overall program goals involve investigating
processes: “1) A disorienting dilemma, 2) self-exam- the origins and solutions to local community prob-
ination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt or shame, 3) lems and, more specifically, to provide medical relief
a critical assessment of assumptions, 4) recognition (i.e., medical supplies and medicines) and support for
that one’s discontent and the process of transforma- community development efforts through service
tion are shared, 5) exploration of options for new work (i.e., workshops, neighborhood health assess-
roles, relationships, and actions, 6) planning a course ments, and health clinics in remote areas where there
of action, 7) acquiring knowledge and skills for is little access to health care) with existing communi-
implementing one’s plans, 8) provisionally trying ty-based health organizations and networks. The
new roles 9) building competence and self-confi- transformative goals of the program encourage stu-
dence in new roles and relationships 10) a reintegra- dents to develop a critical understanding of the
tion into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated underlying contextual factors, institutional arrange-
by one’s new perspective” ( p. 22). Previous research ments, and structural forces that affect persistent
suggests that the process of perspective transforma- poverty, economic disparities, and health problems in
tion and the relationship between individual and Nicaragua. The program pedagogy also provides stu-
social transformation are often difficult to predeter- dents with opportunities to explore the meaning of
mine, explain, and assess because of methodological global citizenship to help students learn to question
constraints, myriad contextual factors, different indi- unjust social, political, economic, and cultural
vidual learning styles and personalities, and the norms, institutions, and policies, and to engage in
diversity of educational programs studied (Mezirow social action to transform institutions and policies
& Associates, 2000; Taylor, 1998, 2000).3 that perpetuate social injustice, political oppression,
Regardless, the ideal end result of transformational and economic disparities locally and globally (Kiely,
learning is that one is empowered by learning to be 2002, 2004, 2005).
more socially responsible, self-directed, and less
dependent on false assumptions. Methodology

Service-Learning Program Setting A longitudinal case study design was used to bet-
ter understand how study participants experienced
Over the past 10 years, a New York community transformational learning during and after participa-
college has provided an opportunity for undergradu- tion in the service-learning program in Nicaragua
ate students to participate in a service-learning (Kiely, 2002).4 A detailed case study is a useful
immersion program in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. research approach for providing in-depth contextual
From 1994-2005, seven separate cohorts consisting information on processes and outcomes for program
of a total of 57 students from two and four-year col- improvement, illuminating unique or unusual aspects
leges participated in the program. Program partici- of a research phenomenon, generating theory, or
pants receive six-credits for attending seminars and enlightening a wider scholarly or policy-making

audience (Bringle, 2003; Merriam, 1998; Patton, ing program context, and confirm the nature of spe-
2002; Stake, 1995, 2000). The long-term nature of cific events discussed during student interviews and
the case study generated significant theoretical focus groups. Attention was devoted to observing stu-
insight into meaning that students attribute to the dents’ emotional, physical, and intellectual responses
learning processes that enhance transformational to important events, the physical setting, service
learning in service-learning over time. work, and social interaction. Comprehensive and
Data gathering methods included document analy- detailed field notes and video footage were recorded
sis, on-site participant observation, focus groups, and and analyzed each year. Most students participated in
semistructured and unstructured interviews (Kiely, interviews and focus groups prior to and during the
2002). A case study that utilizes multiple methods program, shortly after returning to the U.S., and once
such as observation, document analysis, and inter- more in 2001-2002 to explore the process of trans-
viewing is useful in terms of validating, corroborating formational learning over a significant period of time
and “triangulating” emerging ideas, constructs, and (Kiely, 2002).
interpretations, and is more apt to increase the trust- A constant comparative method of analysis was
worthiness and validity of the study results (Merriam, used to identify common themes and generate theory
1998; Patton, 2002; Stake, 1995, 2000). Document grounded in the data gathered (Glaser & Strauss,
analysis consisted of an examination of multiple 1973; Patton, 2002). Coding procedures examined
information sources including pre- and post-trip sur- themes and the conceptual relationship among them
veys, photographs, journals, reflection papers, (Merriam, 1998; Patton). The constant comparative
research reports, and action plans. As co-instructor of analysis of multiple data sources led to the develop-
the Nicaragua program from 1994-2001, I was able ment of a transformational learning process model
to observe participation in service-learning activities, for service-learning. The use of an audit trail, multi-
gain an in-depth understanding of the service-learn- ple methods, and sources for gathering information,

Figure 1
Transformational Service-Learning Process Model
Theme Meaning & Characteristics
Contextual There are personal (i.e., biography, personality, learning style, expectations, prior travel experi-
border crossing ence, and sense of efficacy), structural (i.e., race, class, gender, culture, ethnicity, nationality, sex-
ual orientation, and physical ability), historical (i.e., the socioeconomic and political history of
Nicaragua and US-Nicaragua relations within larger socioeconomic and political systems), and
programmatic factors (i.e., intercultural immersion, direct service-work and opportunities for
critical reflection and dialogue with diverse perspectives, and curriculum that focuses on social
justice issues such as poverty, economic disparities, unequal relations of power) which intersect
to influence and frame the way students experience the process of transformational learning in
Dissonance Dissonance constitutes incongruence between participants’ prior frame of reference and aspects
of the contextual factors that shape the service-learning experience. There is a relationship
between dissonance type, intensity, and duration and the nature of learning processes that result.
Low to high intensity dissonance acts as triggers for learning. High-intensity dissonance cat-
alyzes ongoing learning. Dissonance types are historical, environmental, social physical, eco-
nomic, political, cultural, spiritual, communicative, and technological.
Personalizing Personalizing represents how participants individually respond to and learn from different types
of dissonance. It is visceral and emotional, and compels students to assess internal strengths and
weaknesses. Emotions and feelings include anger, happiness, sadness, helplessness, fear, anxiety,
confusion, joy, nervousness, romanticizing, cynicism, sarcasm, selfishness, and embarrassment.
Processing Processing is both an individual reflective learning process and a social, dialogic learning
process. Processing is problematizing, questioning, analyzing, and searching for causes and solu-
tions to problems and issues. It occurs through various reflective and discursive processes such
as journaling, reflection groups, community dialogues, walking, research, and observation.
Connecting Connecting is learning to affectively understand and empathize through relationships with com-
munity members, peers, and faculty. It is learning through nonreflective modes such as sensing,
sharing, feeling, caring, participating, relating, listening, comforting, empathizing, intuiting, and
doing. Examples include performing skits, singing, dancing, swimming, attending church, com-
pleting chores, playing games, home stays, sharing food, treating wounds, and sharing stories.

Transformative Learning Model
ongoing member checks, and debriefing with col- tity and the world.
leagues enhanced the trustworthiness of the findings Secondly, the participant’s race, class, gender, reli-
and the authenticity of the research process (Guba & gion, and nationality comprise the structural element
Lincoln, 1989). of context. Structural “border crossing” highlights
the notion that international service-learning is not
Findings only a shift in one’s personal biography and geo-
My analysis of the data found five categories that graphic position, but also a movement across social-
describe how students experienced transformational ly, economically, politically, and historically con-
learning in service-learning: contextual border cross- structed borders that students bring with them as part
ing, dissonance, personalizing, processing, and con- of their “baggage.” Structural aspects of the service-
necting (see Figure 1). These five learning processes learning context focus students’ attention on the
add insight to current notions of transformational power they have relative to Nicaraguans they work
learning theory and articulate a conceptual frame- with and enables students’ to develop a greater
work for educators to understand and more effective- awareness of the amount of socioeconomic and polit-
ly foster learning processes that lead to transforma- ical capital they bring across the border.
tive outcomes in service-learning. There is also a historical dimension of context,
such as country-specific factors that influence current
Contextual Border Crossing issues and Nicaraguan history and culture, and social
The study data suggest that there are four impor- factors that define U.S.-Nicaragua relations, and their
tant elements of context that affect students’ transfor- global socioeconomic and political position.
mational learning before, during, and after their par- Historical context directs students’ awareness to the
ticipation in the program. Contextual border crossing unequal development and asymmetrical divisions of
describes how personal, structural, historical, and power between the U.S. and Nicaragua. Students
programmatic elements of the service-learning con- begin to realize that they always carry their American
text frame the unique nature and impact of students’ nationality with them, along with their history and
service-learning experience, either enhancing or hin- the historical relations of power between the U.S. and
dering possibilities for transformational learning. Nicaragua. Historical elements of context have
Personal aspects of the context include study par- implications for learning that leads students to exam-
ticipants’ personality traits, social roles, professional ine the significance of nationality, unequal relations
background, knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, inter- of power, and relative value of certain citizenship
ests, needs, learning styles, expectations, motiva- rights and obligations.
tions, desires, fears, and sense of efficacy. The per- Lastly, there are programmatic factors that explain
sonal aspects of context make up all of the individual how context affects transformational learning. In the
life experiences or “biographical baggage” founda- case of the service-learning program in Nicaragua,
tional to understanding students’ individual frame of students experience direct, “24/7” immersion in a
reference, and the content and process of students’ unique cross-cultural environment. The living
service-learning experience. Assumptions and beliefs arrangements and service work entail multiple
common to many participants include an uncritical opportunities to interact with the community. The
acceptance of intercultural competence based on program pedagogy is critical, and incorporates cur-
prior international travel and study experience; west- ricular activities that focus on addressing social, eco-
ern view of health (i.e., medical knowledge comes nomic, and political issues affecting resource-poor
from scientific study and is prescribed by expert doc- Nicaraguans. The service-learning theory is driven
tors); national conceptions of citizenship; individual- by relief and asset-based community development
istic explanations of social problems (i.e., “pull your- approaches, transformational learning, and global
self up by your bootstraps” philosophy); acceptance citizenship models. The program facilitators main-
of direct charity and relief approaches to persistent tain participatory philosophies and support equal lev-
poverty; expert-driven and/or deficit approaches to els of community involvement. Community partners
community development and research (rather than help design the program syllabi, teach seminars, and
asset-based or participatory); and general support for take important roles in planning and implementing
(or lack of interest in challenging) U.S. foreign poli- the service work. Participatory approaches are also
cy, political, and economic institutions, and capitalist reflected in the different types of service-work relat-
ideology. The service-learning experience in ed to health prevention (i.e., neighborhood assess-
Nicaragua leads some students to begin to unpack ments, health clinics, hospital work, skits, and work-
and reevaluate assumptions in their biographical bag- shops) and opportunities to engage in participatory
gage that often leads them to return home with an action research. Lastly, the program includes oppor-
entirely different set of assumptions about their iden- tunities for students to connect, reflect, and dialogue

with people who maintain different political and eco- carry with them all the’s like they’re
nomic ideologies, cultural norms, health practices, stuck “between a rock and a hard place” with
and spiritual beliefs.5 all the domestic abuse, and
Crossing contextual borders initiates a complex seems like the men do what they want and
leave the women to take care of the
transformational learning process whereby students,
family...even if that means selling bread, doing
who are mostly Caucasian, female, middle class, laundry, begging, they are willing to make sac-
American citizens, increasingly realize how their rifices to make sure their children are fed...I
identity and position in the world are not only became so aware of my white, American priv-
defined by nationality and physical boundaries, but ileged status...and the independence I have as a
also shaped by socially, culturally, politically, eco- woman in the U.S....
nomically, and historically constructed borders. For
example, Kendra’s journal description of her person- The students’ comments exemplify their initial
al thoughts, expectations, concerns, fears, and hopes learning on how moving from the U.S. to Nicaragua
captures the essence of what goes through many stu- means more than crossing physical borders. By cross-
dents’ minds, and highlights how contextual factors ing borders, working with resource-poor
influence the transformational learning process: Nicaraguans, and being immersed in an entirely dif-
ferent physical, social, political, economic, and cul-
I imagined suffering and pain and had a fear of tural context, students begin to reexamine dimensions
being unable to function and provide care to of their frame of reference and unpack the meanings
people because I thought I would break down they associate with U.S.-Nicaraguan history, citizen-
emotionally. I was terrified that I would be ship, poverty, privilege, economic disparities, human
seen as a rich, ignorant American. I am already
rights, access to health, social roles, quality of life,
insecure about the whiteness of my skin and
wondered what kind of coldness I would and the nature of specific issues and problems.
receive from the local people of Puerto Dissonance
Cabezas and all of Nicaragua. I was afraid I
would not be able to access any of the knowl- Dissonance makes up another critical element of
edge that I have built up regarding nursing how students experience the transformational
care. I know very little Spanish, therefore I was process in service-learning. Because of the longitudi-
convinced that communication would be a hor- nal nature of this research, I was able to not only
rendous barrier and that my inability to speak identify distinct forms of dissonance but also discov-
the language would get me into some detri- er an important relationship among the type, intensi-
mental experience. The United States of
ty, duration, and learning involved in dissonance. The
America has a very shady and complex history
study results also indicate that the transformational
that I have a general understanding of but have
never been able to completely understand. learning process has to do with the type and intensi-
Nicaragua has a similarly confusing history ty of dissonance students experience relative to the
that I just started looking into just prior to the context factors they bring with them across “the bor-
trip. I thought that the inadequacy of my der” and upon return to the U.S. (Kiely, 2002). Even
knowledge base would greatly hinder my abil- though students begin to examine their position rela-
ity to comprehend the state of the country upon tive to Nicaraguans prior to leaving the U.S., it is not
my visit. I wanted to enter the country and until they enter Nicaragua that they begin to experi-
shed my jaded or preconceived notions but was ence different types and levels of physical, environ-
unsure as to whether that was even possible. I mental, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual dimen-
am an optimist and have great hope for the
sions of dissonance. The type and level of intensity of
world. When I get into the muck and mire of
their dissonance has to do with the gap or incongru-
the extensive problems that are prevalent in
this world I begin to feel pessimistic. I was ence that students experience between their contex-
worried I would lose all my hope; that the tual baggage and elements of the new cultural con-
problems were too immense to work with or text. The duration of the dissonance also has to do
solve...I didn’t want to be perceived as a per- with the combination of the type and intensity of the
son who thinks like this “oh you poor, suffer- dissonance (Kiely, 2002).
ing, ignorant people, let me try to save you.” Type of dissonance. Dissonance occurs frequently
because much of what students see, feel, touch, hear,
Beth also offers an example of how personal, struc-
and participate in is new and incongruent with their
tural, programmatic, and historical dimensions of the
frame of reference or world-view. Because students
context intersect and influence the learning process,
are living in a dramatically different set of environ-
...meeting Nicaraguan women in Puerto and mental, cultural, social, physical, political, and eco-
learning about the tremendous burdens they nomic circumstances, they are forced to function,

Transformative Learning Model
think, and learn in ways to which they are unaccus- data consistently shows that experiencing high-inten-
tomed. The types of dissonance that emerged from sity dissonance creates permanent markers in stu-
the data include historical, environmental, physical, dents’ frame of reference (Kiely, 2002, 2005). High-
economic, political, cultural, spiritual, social, com- intensity dissonance connected to social and eco-
municative, and technological. nomic disparities cannot be reconciled through
Sarah describes the multiple dimensions of disso- reflection or participation in service work alone and
nance as “seeing garbage everywhere, kids, pigs and remains with students long after returning to the U.S.
dogs eating from it, burning it, rummaging through in ways that affect their worldview, relationships,
it.” Cindy experiences dissonance as a “constant state lifestyle, and consumption habits. Six years later,
of shock walking all over town through a mixture of Ben highlights the different forms of dissonance that
run-down shacks on stilts, dirt roads, dust, over- students experience and its long-term impact:
whelming heat, the stench of burning garbage, old
Well I think the thing that stands out to me
beat-up cars, sewage systems dried up or stagnant.”
about that experience is just kind of a wake up
They contrast their own homes with “shanties hous-
call to how privileged, entitled my life has
ing 10 family members” and “some of the nicer been as a U.S. American, as a member of the
houses and cars — which locals attribute to drugs.” upper middle class within the U.S. and all of
They observe tangible vestiges of the civil war as the things that I take for granted, as far as not
“those people with the machine guns” who serve as needing to worry about. Things that I was
reminders of instability and potential for conflict. aware of having been in other situations in
Intensity of dissonance. Importantly, the study developing countries and just being aware of
found that students distinguish between low- and generally but having that emotional in your
high-intensity dissonance. Low-intensity dissonance face kind of awareness of the fact that I take
includes the difficulties with communicating in for granted, I turn tap water, the water will be
another language, adjustment to the new physical safe and good. I can quench my thirst at any
time and will be safe. At any drinking fountain,
surroundings, housing, modes of transportation, the
I don’t even question that. I don’t even ques-
climate, food, and exposure to a wide variety of tion that I can go to any restaurant in the area
potentially dangerous animals and insects. or any shopping, any supermarket, and all of
Importantly, low-intensity dissonance leads to instru- my food will be safe. I don’t even question the
mental and communicative forms of learning that security of my house generally. I mean securi-
help students adapt to new and unfamiliar conditions ty in terms of rats. That was very unsettling to
relatively quickly. Students learn to boil water that is me, sleeping in that place, it freaked me out, I
not potable, use sunscreen lotions for skin and insect admit it. I was very unsettled and I had diffi-
protection, take Malaria pills, wear hats and appro- culty sleeping. Having been in other environ-
priate clothing, wash their hands, practice Spanish ments, I’ve been like you know you go camp-
and Miskito in the local market and service work, ing here, I’ve also been in other camping in the
memorize geographic markers, and protect them- Savannah in Africa but just something about a
small place with the proximity of rats is a bit
selves from insects with mosquito nets. Students’
adjustment to low-intensity dissonance tends to be
short-term and manageable by acquiring additional Beth also describes the high-intensity dissonance
information or drawing from existing knowledge. that she experienced at the hospital and how it later
Importantly, high-intensity dissonance, such as affected her in coming to terms with her own fears of
witnessing extreme forms of poverty, hunger, scarci- living amidst poverty in a developing country,
ty, and disease, is much more ambiguous and com-
plex. What students see, feel, smell, hear, and touch I remember how shocked I was at seeing the
conditions in the hospital, I mean there were
during much of their service work with Nicaraguans
buzzards and stray dogs eating hospital waste
living in poverty is shocking and overwhelming. right outside, the flies in the kitchen, the
Reflection on existing knowledge is not enough to women cooking fish for staff and patients on
effectively address and manage the contradictions in hibachis because there wasn’t any propane gas
intense forms of dissonance. High-intensity disso- for the ovens, the rice ration running out, no
nance often causes powerful emotions and confusion chest protectors for x-rays, an ambulance that
and leads study participants to reexamine their exist- would break down, the $100 a month salaries
ing knowledge and assumptions regarding the causes for doctors, hardly any medicine and on and on
and solutions to ambiguous and ill-structured prob- and on...It was simply overwhelming...
lems such as extreme forms of persistent poverty.
Then Beth adds,
Duration of dissonance. Whereas low intensity
forms of dissonance fade and/or are resolved, the ...that night I got some serious pains in my

abdomen and I just got so paranoid, I thought od of time very meaningful relationships with
“what if it is something serious?, where would Nicaraguans who have little access to health care and
I go?” you know and “Oh, no, not the hospi- medicine. Because of interactions with people who
tal”...and I thought of how privileged I am and are suffering from a variety of social problems, stu-
spoiled...It also made me, think, like, “am I cut
dents no longer see poverty as an abstract and
out for this...? I don’t know if I can handle
detached image viewed on television. Rather, pover-
development work and here I am”...I have trav-
eled all over Europe, it was a real eye-opener ty is connected to real people with names, faces, and
but more just that deep feeling of vulnerabili- hearts. The struggle of Nicaraguans who are surviv-
ty...I just never knew what it was like to live in ing on very little food, money, shelter, and clean
poverty...I mean really live in poverty so that water is felt viscerally and internalized by each study
you know what it feels like not to have, you participant in a unique manner. Karen describes the health, no money, no clean water, no learning process entailed in the human face of per-
medicines and no social services.... sonalization as,
High-intensity dissonance that is political, eco- ...bringing in the intellectual and spiritual, the
nomic, historical, and social marks the initial change emotional, everything...usually when you study
in the way students see themselves and the world. It something, you don’t get very emotionally
is the start of students’ transformational learning involved. Other than to be enraged by some-
process, a repositioning process in which they begin thing and then just go have coffee and talk about
to rethink their political assumptions, spending it with somebody and it goes away...No, not
when it’s real, not when you’ve touched it and
habits, loyalties, and global position on the map of
held it and hugged it. “It” being the community
power and wealth. What’s more, the intensely-disso- of problems and the individuals.
nant experiences do not go away. Rather, they
become an important part of participants’ frame of Janice captures the heightened sense of personal
reference and continue to influence students’ trans- responsibility one develops when seeing and feeling
formational learning and action. For example, the the human face of poverty firsthand by contrasting it
day after returning to Nicaragua, Jen drove to New with how one might observe poverty on TV.
York City to apply to be a Peace Corps volunteer. She
...It gets you more personally involved rather
was stationed in Honduras, but made it her mission to than if you see the commercials on
return to Puerto Cabezas to explain to the don’t have to watch it. You have a choice. But if
Nicaraguans she met the previous year how much you go down to Nicaragua you don’t have a
they inspired her. After returning from Nicaragua, choice, you are surrounded with it. It becomes
Laura obtained a Nursing degree but then explained part of your everyday experience so you have to
that her experience in Nicaragua influenced her deci- deal with it and by dealing with it you come to
sion to quit her job as a nurse to work on initiatives kind of understand it and hopefully you are able
that support universal health insurance. She later to incorporate it in your value system and your
became co-chair of the local Green Party to take moral system and try to figure out where these
more active leadership role in shaping political poli- people are coming from and try to understand
why there is this poverty rather than seeing these
cies. Four years after her service-learning experience,
starving kids on TV who you don’t know...
Beth quit her job as a study abroad advisor, and later,
as a social studies teacher, incorporated global pover- Personalizing also represents the emotional
ty and human rights issues into her lesson plans. She response students have to different types of disso-
later worked for a human rights organization and nance — particularly those that are more intense.
continues to raise awareness on how students can get Direct contact with the human face of poverty is not
involved in service-learning initiatives. These few something that can be “intellectualized” or “rational-
examples show dissonance continues to affect stu- ized” away, as students comment over and over dur-
dents’ worldview, career choices, and lifestyle habits ing reflection sessions and in journals (Kiely, 2002,
over time.6 2005). Service-learning work that addresses poverty
Personalizing and suffering causes powerful emotional reactions
that necessitate a response and cannot be ignored.
The data indicate that participants also respond Students express “moral outrage” and “feel compas-
emotionally and viscerally to the various forms of sion for poor people’s struggle.” They experience a
dissonance they experience. This individual learning variety of emotions including shame, guilt, anger,
process represents the “personalized” nature of trans- confusion, compassion, denial, and sadness. This
formational learning in service-learning. Students’ type of dissonance requires not only an intellectual
service work allows them to develop in a short peri- response, but an internal and emotional learning

Transformative Learning Model
process, which often generates a greater sense of mode. “That was also very unsettling to me person-
empathy, responsibility, and commitment to work ally — the fact that I was unsettled by it. It made me
with Nicaraguans. Katelin describes the internaliza- question my self image as macho, tough, someone
tion and need to respond to felt poverty in Nicaragua: who can handle things...somebody who can just deal
with it, somebody who’s not a cry baby or pam-
...once you have the information, you can’t
ignore it, you can’t just not say or do anything
about it. I mean of course to some degree The highly subjective learning process of self-
you’ll go out to eat and of course you’ll do examination represented in personalizing is integral-
things that are in your life but you can have ly connected to the dissonance caused by crossing
values that incorporate more of the world....I borders from the U.S. into Nicaragua. The learning
think that was definitely a big part of my edu- process of personalization, albeit emotional challeng-
cation of who I am ...I think about being there ing at times, often becomes empowering for students
a lot as having played a really important role in and their comments tend to reflect this shift in self-
where my level of consciousness is... efficacy. Angela typifies the new-found confidence
Each student responds to direct contact with disso- that comes from dealing with the “crisis” situations
nance associated with the human face of poverty on in Nicaragua: “I was able to overcome my initial
an individual basis. Responses depend on the “con- fears in the clinics” and upon return to the U.S. has
textual baggage” students bring with them and type “become more confident in hospital work and emer-
of problem they confront. However, the findings sug- gency situations.” An important part of the learning
gest that most students tend to respond by surfacing process of personalization is working through disso-
and reexamining personal strengths and weaknesses. nance by evaluating personal strengths and weak-
Students learn new things about themselves in the nesses and also developing the confidence to take
midst of poverty and crisis that they did not know action to address the health problems and poverty
prior to their service-learning experience. Most had witnessed through service-learning work.
never confronted the kinds of dissonance associated Processing and Connecting
with situations in which privilege and unequal rela-
tions of power are unmasked in the face of poverty. The identification of the two categories of process-
Many students describe personalization as if they ing and connecting highlight an important intercon-
have been “stripped raw” and in the face of “crisis” nected and dialectical relationship between the cogni-
see themselves for what they are really worth. Their tive and affective dimensions of the transformational
strengths and weaknesses became more apparent. learning process in service-learning (Kiely, 2002,
They often asked, “why didn’t the impoverished con- 2005). Processing entails rational, reflective and,
ditions I am experiencing here affect me so intensely importantly, dialogic ways in which students explored
before?” Or, “can I handle working in conditions of and reevaluated their assumptions or engaged with
poverty?” and “am I willing to take risks to address others to understand the origins of and solutions to
what I am witnessing?” Joyce describes the nature of social problems. Connecting represents the affective
how students “personalize” the process of interna- dimensions of the transformational learning process
tional service-learning through first-hand experience: in which students developed deeper relationships with
Nicaraguans in an effort to understand and empathize
...when you go there and you kind of have to with their life situation. The interdependent relation-
look inward and you have to figure out how to
ship between processing and connecting helps explain
cope with this really strange experience and so
there is an awareness thing that happens that how students experience transformation as both an
other people can’t...they don’t have that under- abstract intellectual shift in their understanding of
standing... it’s definitely personalized and so poverty, service-learning, and their citizenship role as
it’s much more real and its an evolving thing, well as a profound change in their sense of moral
like you evolved by doing it and somebody affiliation and obligation (Kiely, 2002).
who is not there isn’t going to do that. Processing. Students used various individual and
social learning strategies to cognitively process their
Ben describes the internalization of the living con-
interactions and service-related experiences in
ditions and poverty he confronted first-hand and how
Nicaragua. Processing enabled students to gain a
it made him deeply aware of the baggage he carried
more substantial conceptual understanding of the
with him to Nicaragua and now saw his response as
causes of, and solutions to, current issues and prob-
a sign of personal weakness. Ben responded cynical-
lems in Nicaragua. Students identified various pro-
ly to what he perceived as rather “rustic” accommo-
grammatic activities that provided space for process-
dations for program participants and struggled with
ing, including: daily reflection and dialogue on the
his inability to initially deal with living in crisis
quality and impact of service work, academic semi-

nars, group reflection, community presentations, By talking with members of the community, Beth
reading materials, individual journals, research pro- developed an awareness of the complexity of the
jects, informal conversations with Nicaraguans, region’s history and multiple perspectives on the
peers, faculty, and development professionals, obser- Sandinista revolution and competing cultural, socioe-
vations of daily events, and postprogram reflective conomic, and political ideologies that continue to
papers and gatherings. divide the region.
Students reported multiple informal and formal Connecting. Students also consistently reported an
opportunities to reflect on their service work as a way affective learning dimension in making sense of their
to improve their practice and conduct clinics more service-learning experience. In addition to exploring
effectively, sometimes during the clinic and sometimes the causes of, and finding solutions to, community
afterward in their journals or as part of the daily group issues and problems through processing, students
reflection. Importantly, the study data indicate that stu- learned to “understand” Nicaraguans’ position and
dents’ processing included critical forms of reflection life situation through caring, supporting, and listen-
on their own and others’ assumptions. As a result, they ing to community members. Students made connec-
questioned the nature of knowledge and power, the tions with the community and their peers through
role of service work and existing social arrangements service work, and learned about Nicaraguans lives by
that influenced the problems their service work was listening to Nicaraguans’ stories. Informal interac-
meant to address. They also expressed a commitment tions led students to develop deeper relationships and
to take action against the root causes of social prob- empathize with the struggles of many Nicaraguans
and their fellow students. Study participants often
lems and go beyond “Band-Aid” solutions like the
attribute connections with community members to
health clinics. For example, Kendra reflects that, “the
reframing their moral allegiance into greater solidar-
medical care that we provided just perpetuated the dis-
ity with Nicaraguans and the global poor.
ease of dependency...I believe that we were appreciat-
For example, the study found that all of the female
ed and that we helped a lot of people out of potential-
participants comment on their common bond with
ly devastating situations, but I felt a heart pang and a other Nicaraguan women as a “sisterhood” that moti-
moral doubt every time we walked away from a com- vates their continuing efforts to “raise Americans’
munity. What about their tomorrow?” awareness about poverty affecting women and chil-
Students’ critical awareness of root causes to prob- dren in Nicaragua” and to “talk with my friends at
lems including unjust policies and institutions and home and at least get them to think about advocating
historical and socially structured relations of power, on behalf of poor people.” Kendra keeps a picture of
can be attributed to multiple types of reflection (i.e., a woman she came to know in Nicaragua by her bed-
readings, seminars, presentations, journaling, group side as “inspiration,” and Katelin, who works in a
reflection, and community-based research) and regu- social service agency that provides support for
lar opportunities for dialogue with diverse members women, continues to share resources with the
of the Puerto Cabezas community. Beth describes her Director of the Center for Women in Puerto Cabezas.
exposure to the history of the Atlantic Coast through These examples signify that deep connections that
dialogue with community members: were developed in Nicaragua remain with students
When I arrived in Nicaragua, I did not under-
after they return home.
stand the difference between the East and West Discussion
of the country or the unique identity of the
indigenous population. I also thought that the The five empirically-generated dimensions of
Sandinistas were the “good guys” in the revo- learning identified in this case study provide an
lution and civil war. It seemed like the people authentic description of the process of transforma-
of the Atlantic Coast, being the poorest and tional learning that occurs in service-learning. The
least educated region, had the most to gain study also provides ample evidence that reflection is
from the Revolution. Then, we went on the only part of a much more holistic set of transforma-
boat trip to Wawa and Roberto [the first mate
tional learning processes unique to service-learning.
and a Creole] talked about fighting for the
The following discussion highlights both the theoret-
Contras. Then, Earl [pastor and on-site contact
person] told us how he was forced to fight for
ical and practical implications of the study findings.
the Sandinistas and never fired a single shot in The study findings add insight to prior studies that
protest. Then, we had to stay in Puerto on the had identified the transformative outcomes but did
day of the elections because of concerns about not adequately explain the role of, and interaction
continuing Miskito Separatist uprisings in among, specific contextual factors in shaping the
rural areas who it seems had a valid gripe learning process that led to perspective transforma-
about lack of political representation. tion (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Feinstein, 2004; Hayes &

Transformative Learning Model
Cuban, 1997; Kiely, 2004; Rhoads, 1997). While Low-level dissonance does not lead to profound
previous research identifies “crossing borders” of shifts in students’ frame of reference, but rather, leads
race, class, and gender as important structural dimen- to increased competence in communicating and liv-
sions that influence the learning process in service- ing in the host country (i.e., students change their
learning (Hayes & Cuban; Rhoads), these studies do habits to adjust to a new culture but their world-view
not give sufficient attention to the conceptual con- remains unchanged). However, if the type of disso-
nections among the various structural, historical, per- nance is intense (i.e., experiencing poverty for the
sonal, and programmatic aspects of the context and first time), then it continues to instigate ongoing
their implications for theory and transformative prac- learning and is shaped by both internal factors (the
tice. Eyler & Giles (1999) claim that “well-integrat- psychological impact) and external forces (dominant
ed” service-learning programs that incorporate and cultural ideologies, social relations, and institutional
focus on placement quality, diversity, reflection, arrangements). Students continue to draw on the dis-
application, and community voice are more apt to sonant experiences as reminders and inspiration for
have an influence on students’ perspective transfor- maintaining and acting on their newly formed critical
mation. However, because Eyler and Giles’s (1999) awareness and often became more intense and/or
study relies on data gathered from students partici- frustrated about their ability to make a difference
pating in a number of service-learning programs with and/or raise awareness in the U.S. about the living
different activities, goals, and purposes, they are not conditions of many Nicaraguans and the global poor.7
able to adequately explain how program dimensions Importantly, theorists and practitioners should be
and other contextual factors interact to foster trans- careful not to attribute students’ transformational
formational learning. The study data suggest that to learning solely to intense socioeconomic dissonance,
understand and foster students’ transformational or to some vague and monolithic phenomena like
learning in service-learning, the relationship and “culture shock.” Such a conclusion would be mis-
interaction among the personal, structural, historical, guided and certainly miss the central theoretical and
and programmatic contextual factors must be exam- practical significance of the study results, which
ined in greater detail and should inform the program point to a more complex relationship among context
planning process. and dissonance in service-learning. The important
The study data also indicates that by situating stu- consideration, then, is the generalizability and causal
dents in real-life situations and framing curricula properties of the conceptual categories identified in
around addressing social problems, service-learning contextual border crossing and dissonance, and how
contexts present students with problematic situations well they explain learning and guide practical deci-
similar to what Mezirow (2000, p. 22) labels “disori- sions in specific service-learning programs. In this
enting dilemmas” or what Dewey refers to as study, the findings suggest that at the very least, ser-
“forked-road dilemmas” (1933, p. 14). However, this vice-learning practitioners should consider how the
study adds more specific information about how dif- relationship among at least four major contextual fac-
ferent types and levels of dissonance lead to different tors (e.g., program characteristics, historical relation-
modes of learning. In addition, the study identifies a ships, personal biographies, and structural dimen-
connection between contextual factors and multiple sions) affects the type, intensity, and duration of dis-
forms of dissonance, which confirms Jarvis’ critique sonance and the kinds of learning that result (i.e.,
of Kolb’s model that “learning is not just a psycho- instrumental, communicative, and transformational).
logical process that happens in splendid isolation Practitioners should therefore plan service-learning
from the world in which the learner lives, but that it programs with a clear understanding of the various
is intimately related to the world and affected by it” contextual factors unique to their program. With
(Jarvis, 1987, p. 11, as cited in Wilson, 1993, p. 74). greater knowledge of context, practitioners will be
The longitudinal nature of this case study provided better equipped to identify the connections between
extensive documentation indicating that dissonance context and different types of dissonance, particular-
affects students’ transformational learning long after ly those that are more intense. Armed with greater
their participation in the service-learning program knowledge of how context and dissonance function
(Kiely, 2002, 2005). The identification and differen- in specific service-learning programs, practitioners
tiation among the type, intensity, and duration of dis- can anticipate and prepare more effectively for stu-
sonance adds empirical insight to the nature of trans- dents’ emotional and cognitive responses.
formational learning in service-learning. This study In addition, knowing that low-intensity dissonance
suggests that dissonance related to environmental is manageable through instrumental and communica-
discomfort and/or the inability to communicate in a tive forms of learning, and that high-intensity disso-
foreign language is low-level dissonance and tends to nance entails a more complex and prolonged set of
trigger forms of learning that further adaptation. transformational learning processes, also has impli-

cations for how practitioners conceive their program identified in personalizing also add greater insight to
orientation, goals, and purposes, structure pedagogy, Rhoad’s (1997) finding that students who engage in
and evaluate learning outcomes and processes. service work with resource-poor individuals were
Evaluating a students’ ability to boil water, dress a more apt to “personalize their social concerns and
wound, and/or build a house is fairly straightforward thus more willing to become involved in work for
compared to measuring how well students perform social change” (p. 7). The dimension of personaliz-
triage and manage crisis during a clinic. Similarly, it ing points to the importance emotions play in foster-
is far easier to measure knowledge acquisition than it ing transformation in service-learning contexts and is
is to create a set of quality criteria, benchmarks, and more consistent with Fenwick’s (2003) conceptual-
explicit expectations to make summary judgments ization of learning from experience which she claims
about the quality of students’ level of care and empa- “is not simply a situation to be apprehended but also
thy, their ability to communicate trust, and/or the a positioning of self within the situation, entailing
analytical skill in assessing the value of competing contradictory emotional responses and intuitive per-
socioeconomic and political ideologies for address- ceptions” (p. 82).
ing poverty. The identification of historical, program- From a practical standpoint, personalizing points
matic, structural, and personal contextual factors to the importance of identifying and exploring how
along with multiple types of dissonance in service- emotions and feelings impact transformational learn-
learning suggests that the process of learning in ser- ing in different service-learning contexts.
vice-learning is not only much more complex than Personalizing also has implications for service-learn-
the kinds of learning processes and knowledge gen- ing practitioners who may benefit from paying
erated in the classroom; it also means that service- greater attention to the emotional learning that stems
learning programs in general have more diverse con- from different types and levels of dissonance students
textual qualities and therefore, should be designed, experience in service-learning. It is important to
implemented, and judged with that in mind. establish a safe and comfortable climate to allow stu-
The identification of a dialectical relationship dents space to communicate and work though emo-
among nonreflective learning processes of personal- tions so that they enhance rather than hinder trans-
izing and connecting and rational forms of learning formational learning. It is also crucial to reaffirm stu-
entailed in processing adds important theoretical dents’ personal strengths and provide ongoing sup-
insight to how emotional, affective, visceral aspects port so that weaknesses can be surfaced and evaluat-
of learning enhance or hinder students’ transforma- ed without embarrassment or fear of failure.
tion learning. This finding also counters the dominant The rational and cognitive forms of learning
reflective tradition and Western cultural bias embed- described in the category of processing confirms pre-
ded in Mezirow’s (1991, 2000) model, and in ser- vious research that found that critical reflection plays
vice-learning theory and research in general, which an essential role in fostering students’ perspective
have largely neglected to consider the role of non- transformation (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Mezirow, 2000,
reflective forms of learning (Fenwick, 2003; Kiely, Rhoads, 1997; Taylor, 1998, 2000). This finding sup-
2002, 2005; Taylor, 2000; Yorks & Kasl, 2002). ports Mezirow’s (1990) contention that “the most
While Mezirow (2000, p. 22) does claim that trans- significant learning experiences in adulthood involve
formational learning often leads learners to initially critical self-reflection — reassessing the way we
experience “self-examination with feelings of fear, have posed problems and reassessing our own orien-
anger, guilt or shame,” his model emphasizes the role tation to perceiving, knowing, believing, feeling and
of reflection in coming to terms with emotions, acting” (p. 13). Rhoads also claims that
which might preclude perspective transformation
(Kiely, 2005; Yorks & Kasl). In contrast, I found par- service without a reflective component fails to
ticipants’ emotional responses and visceral connec- be forward looking, fails to be concerned about
tions to various types and intensities of dissonance the community beyond the present, and in
played a central role in how they understand and essence fails as community service...service
reexamine their identity relative to Nicaraguans, their projects ought to have reflective components
that challenge individuals to struggle to identi-
self-worth, and their commitment to working on
fy various forces that may contribute to home-
behalf of others. In this study, service-learning par- lessness, rural and urban poverty and econom-
ticipants experienced a wide range of positive and ic inequities in general. (p. 185)
negative feelings and emotions, including confusion,
sadness, fear, doubt, pain, frustration, denial, cyni- However, the identification of both individual and
cism, romanticism, shame, guilt, anger, helplessness, social dimensions of processing provides additional
loneliness, joy, and empathy. insight to previous research on transformational
The emotional and visceral learning processes learning in service-learning (Eyler & Giles, 1999;

Transformative Learning Model
Rhoads, 1997). hand, the powerful connections and significant rela-
In particular, this study found that dialogue with, tionships students develop with Nicaraguans, howev-
and observations of, community members who er, cannot be understood and translated into practical
maintained radically different political, economic, action unless students process the emotional and
cultural, spiritual, and social perspectives enhanced affective dimensions of their service-learning experi-
study participants’ ability to question taken-for- ence through reflection and dialogue. Therefore, one
granted assumptions, engage in ideology critique, of the most important contributions this study makes
identify hegemonic aspects of U.S. and Nicaraguan to the previous research and theory in service-learn-
culture, and, more frequently than in previous stud- ing is that students’ transformational learning is more
ies, reframe perspectives. For example, listening to apt to occur and persist over the long-term if there are
the opinions of Miskito separatists, and critically structured opportunities for participants to engage in
reflecting on the socialist philosophy espoused and reflective (i.e., processing) and nonreflective (i.e.,
practiced by Sandinistas, or doing research with local personalizing and connecting) learning processes
herbalists had a profound impact on students’ under- with peers, faculty, and community members.
standing of their citizenship role in society, their cul-
ture, and the origin and solutions to community prob- Conclusion
lems. This finding suggests that practitioners should Earlier in this paper, I highlighted Ziegert &
include assignments that encourage critical reflec- McGoldrick’s (2004) contention that the field of ser-
tion, but also structure opportunities for dialogue that vice-learning is currently experiencing a “method-
surface diverse perspectives — especially those that ological crossroads” (p. 34). Their recommendations
help students question dominant cultural norms, ide- for navigating the future of service-learning research
ologies, and assumptions related to citizenship, safely through this crossroads is that “researchers
moral allegiance, and service-learning approaches. should consider three areas — theory, values, and the
The identification of connecting as a learning art of applied empirical research — and should con-
process echoes prior critiques of Mezirow’s (1991, centrate their efforts in areas in which they are most
2000) model that claim that it relies too heavily on skilled” (p. 34). Despite their call for greater special-
rational forms of reflection while neglecting to con- ization in each of the three areas, this study, which
sider the important role of affect, the body, and emo- was perhaps overly ambitious, attempted to meet
tions in transformational learning (Belenky & each of the three criteria. The normative vision
Stanton, 2000; Taylor, 2000; Yorks & Kasl, 2002). embedded in this study is that service-learning
The learning process entailed in connecting confirms research should identify the learning processes that
previous research findings that service-learning pro- explain how service-learning is uniquely transforma-
grams that provide multiple opportunities for direct tive. Second, the study draws from Mezirow’s (1991,
interaction with diverse community members is a 2000) well-articulated and oft-studied theoretical
strong predictor of students’ perspective transforma- framework for explaining how transformational
tion (Eyler & Giles, 1999). Connecting in this study learning occurs in service-learning. Third, as a longi-
also supports Rhoads’ (1997) contention that “partic- tudinal case study this research provides substantial
ipation in community service reinforces a student’s empirical documentation gathered from multiple
relational or caring self” (p. 67). data sources in a specific service-learning context. As
Importantly, the data from this study indicate that a result, this study identified five learning processes
affective learning combined with critical reflection and theorized a conceptual relationship among them,
provides a key integrative link to understanding how which led to the development of a transformative ser-
students experience transformational learning over vice-learning model. This model expands on
time (Kiely, 2002, 2005). Consistent with feminist Mezirow’s conceptualization of transformational
approaches to learning and social change (Belenky et learning and provides service-learning practitioners
al., 1986; Gilligan, 1982; Noddings, 1984; Weiler, with a more advanced conceptual framework for fos-
1991) underpinning Rhoads’ (1997) service-learning tering transformational learning in diverse service-
framework8 as well as feminist critiques of learning contexts.
Mezirow’s model (Belenky & Stanton, 2000; Tisdell, A central message in this study is that those who
1998), this study suggests that the reflection and dia- uncritically accept the hegemony of the constructivist
logue entailed in processing the service-learning reflective tradition, particularly in terms of justifying
experience has limited transformative impact on stu- normative claims regarding the “value” of service-
dents’ empathic understanding, sense of moral affili- learning as transformative practice, are missing
ation to Nicaraguans, and ongoing political engage- important nonreflective components that might better
ment unless it is understood emotionally, viscerally, explain how service-learning leads to long-term per-
and affectively (Kiely, 2002, 2005). On the other spective transformation (Eyler & Giles, 1999; Kiely,

2002; Kellogg, 1998; Lisman, 1998; Rhoads, 1997). and supporting the transformative nature and impact
Very few service-learning practitioners and theorists of service-learning. This focus rests on the assump-
would challenge the claim that “reflection is the glue tion that if research continues to avoid theory devel-
that holds service and learning together to provide opment that helps explain and guide the transforma-
educative experiences” (Eyler et. al., 1996, p. 16). tive and progressive vision of service-learning prac-
Service-learning practitioners, theorists, and tice, the impact of our research efforts will remain
researchers (Ash & Clayton, 2004; Cooper, 1998; normatively benign, theoretically blurred, and prag-
Dunlap, 1997; Eyler et al., 1996; Eyler & Giles; matically unrealistic (Bringle, 2003; Leeds, 1998;
Hatcher & Bringle, 1999; Hatcher, Bringle, & Lisman, 1998; Robinson, 1999). A second assump-
Muthiah, 2004; Jacoby & Associates, 1996; Maher, tion embedded in this research is that knowing that
2003; Silcox, 1993; Stanton, 1997; Welch, 1999) service-learning enhances intellectual and cognitive
continue to identify cognitive reflection as the most development in one’s disciplinary home says no
powerful pedagogical device and an essential pro- more than what one might find in empirical studies
gram ingredient for enabling individual students to that assess learning resulting from passive participa-
process, digest, and transform their service-learning tion in a traditional classroom. A service-learning
experience into something intellectually meaningful research agenda that is based on advanced instru-
and practical. The dominant discourse in the service- mentation to measure pre-determined outcomes
learning community assumes that what constitutes couched within the narrow confines of disciplinary
the learning process in service-learning is individual knowledge is misguided and inappropriate, especial-
reflection, and this line of thinking leads to the ly given the unique transformative potential of ser-
assumption that without opportunities for reflection, vice-learning. As Harkavy (2004) emphatically
there is no learning. If nonreflective learning occurs, warns, this limited research agenda ends up reducing
it isn’t valued in the same way as a phenomenon of service-learning’s potential as a social movement, an
research interest as the purportedly-superior cogni- institutional change agent, an approach to communi-
tive forms of intellectual reasoning (Eyler & Giles; ty and economic development and a pedagogy that
Eyler, 2000; Silcox). transforms students into socially responsible citizens
This research suggests that instead of narrowly into “the same old, same old”(p. 4). In other words,
focusing service-learning research on more precise the transformative message of service-learning will
methods, disciplinary-based outcomes, and reflective fall on deaf ears, will continue to evolve on a rhetor-
techniques, researchers should also generate knowl- ical level, and tragically remain on the periphery of
edge of, and develop theories about, the contextual, educational institutions unless more relevant and use-
visceral, emotive, and affective aspects that enhance ful theory develops on why and how it is different
transformational learning in service-learning. from classroom pedagogy and also uniquely trans-
Researchers might evaluate dimensions of connect- formative for students, faculty, communities, and
ing that were identified in this study, or draw from institutions. Since the rise of service-learning in K-12
other conceptual frameworks such as Heron’s (1992) and higher education contexts has often been herald-
affective learning model, dialogic learning approach- ed as a new, more “engaged” paradigm that explicit-
es (Gore, 1993; hooks, 1994; Luke & Gore, 1992; ly questioned higher education’s detachment from
Vella, 2002; Ward, 1994), or Fenwick’s (2000, 2003) societal issues and problems (Boyer, 1990; Eyler &
typology that describes four alternative experiential Giles, 1999; Harkavy, 2004; Lisman, 1998; Liu,
learning frameworks to the reflective, constructivist 1995a, 1995b, 1996; Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999),
traditions. Along with research that differentiates the it is crucial that researchers discover and explain
types of reflection in service-learning, research that more holistically the underlying pedagogical and
focuses its attention on nonreflective learning contextual mechanisms that make service-learning a
processes would more adequately explain and sup- distinctly transformative educational enterprise.9
port the unique academic, political, ethical, and The service-learning model presented here offers
social purposes driving the service-learning move- researchers a number of conceptual categories that
ment in K-12 and higher education (Harkavy, 2004; need more thorough examination in diverse service-
Robinson, 1999; Ziegert & McGoldrick, 2004). learning programs. This study is one of many steps to
Another central message is the importance of be taken to address theoretical and empirical gaps in
research that draws from and generates theory not moving the normative vision for service-learning
only to add consistency and greater rigor to service- toward transformative practice and impact. For the
learning research, but also to justify and support the service-learning field to realize such a vision, it is
normative, philosophical, and epistemological necessary to develop a unified and comprehensive
dimensions unique to service-learning. This research experiential learning theory grounded in, and high-
was explicitly directed at understanding, improving, lighting dimensions of, learning that is both transfor-

Transformative Learning Model
mative and unique to service-learning practice. 6
Given space limitations, I did not include numerous
examples of how students’ service-learning experience in
Notes Nicaragua continues to frame their worldview and
actions. Please see Kiely (2002, 2004) for further exam-
The author would like to thank the editors, reviewers, ples of the long-term transformative impact on students’
and in particular, Esther Prins, Marcy Smith, and Andrea
perspective and lifestyle choices.
Kiely, for timely and helpful feedback and suggestions
for improving the quality of this manuscript. See Kiely (2004) for examples of long-term chal-
1 lenges associated with perspective transformation.
While some alternative conceptual approaches have
been proposed (Cone & Harris, 1996; Wolfson & My interpretation of the “relational” nature of con-
Willinsky, 1998) as more adequately representative of necting as it relates to transformational learning in this
the kinds of learning that occur in service-learning, they study is somewhat similar to Rhoads’ (1997) understand-
are presented as descriptive models and have neither ing of how students develop a “caring self” (1997, p. 51).
been embraced nor empirically tested in substantial ways He draws from Noddings’ (1984) notion of engrossment
in the field. to make an important distinction between students’ abil-
It is also important to point out that while Mezirow’s ity to empathize (i.e., putting oneself in the others’ shoes)
(1978) work is empirically grounded, his evolving and “‘feeling with’ the other” which is “not a means to
understanding of transformational learning theory (see an end; it is an end in itself” (Rhoads, p. 51).
Mezirow, 1991, 2000) draws from a number of intellec- 9
It is also necessary to expand the field’s limited con-
tual traditions including Dewey’s pragmatism, Blumer’s
ception of citizenship. Please see Kiely & Hartman
and Mead’s symbolic interactionism, Gould’s psychoan-
(2004) for a framework for global citizenship in service-
alytic theory of adult development, Freire’s concept of
learning more in tune with the kinds of socially respon-
conscientization, and Habermas’s critical social theory
(Finger & Asun, 2001). Drawing primarily from sible citizenship needed to prepare students to address
Habermas’ theory of communicative action, Mezirow current problems and issues found in an increasingly
distinguishes between instrumental and communicative interdependent and globalized world.
domains of learning which result from technical and
practical interests respectively (see Mezirow, 1991,
2000). Instrumental learning, which dominates educa-
tional practice, involves acquiring information, skills and Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2004). The articulated
competencies learn more effective ways “to control and learning: An approach to guided reflection and assess-
manipulate the environment or other people, as in task- ment. Innovative Higher Education, 29(2), 137-154.
oriented problem-solving to improve performance or Astin, A. W., Vogelgesang, L. J., Ikeda, E. K., & Yee, J.
practice” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 8). Communicative learn- A. (2000). How service learning affects students. Los
ing involves “learning what others mean when they com- Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute,
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