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Principles for Social Justice in Experiential Education

by Christopher J. Koliba

05 October 1999 16:24 UTC

Dear colleagues:

At the 1998 National Society for Experiential Education conference, we
to develop for the Social Justice "Special Interest Group" a draft set of 
principles for social justice in experiential education.  What follows is
working document that we will use as the basis for discussion at the 1999 
NSEE conference in San Diego later this month.  We offer it now for those
you who will attend the conference and want to review the document in 
advance.  We offer it also to everyone who wants to comment by e-mail and 
move the discussion forward.  Please join us in dialogue.

Christopher Koliba, KerryAnn O'Meara, Bob Seidel

<<<Working Draft>>>

Social Justice Principles for Experiential Education


We begin with the assertion that education is not value-free. Rather, all
education is forged in history,  relations of power, and relationships
that we cannot escape (hooks, 1994;Cruz1997). Given this reality, all
educators must decide which purposes and values education will serve.
George Counts wrote 

We must abandon completely the naive faith that education automatically 
liberates the mind and serves the cause of human progress; in fact we know
may serve any cause. It may serve tyranny as well as freedom, ignorance as 
well as enlightenment, falsehood as well as truth. It may lead men and
to think they are free even as it rivets them in chains of bondage.
is indeed a force of great power, particularly when the word is made to 
embrace all of the agencies and organized processes for folding the mind,
whether it is for good or evil depends, not on the laws of learning, but
the conception of life and civilization that gives it substance and 
direction. In the course of history, education has served every purpose
doctrine contrived by man; if it is to serve the cause of human freedom,
must be explicitly designed for that purpose (Counts, 1962, p.26). 

As educators, we advocate experiential learning for human freedom and,
therefore, social justice. By experiential learning we refer to the
cyclical process wherein people view their experiences as opportunities to
learn, integrate those experiences into their "education," and engage in
subsequent action based on the integration.  

Our vision of social justice today involves a society in which the
distribution of resources is according to need and all members of it are
physically and psychologically safe and secure, individuals are both
self-determining (able to develop their full capacities) and
interdependent (capable of interacting democratically with others), and
people have a sense of their potential and actual power as well as a sense
of social responsibility toward others and the society as a whole (Adams,
Bell, Griffin, 1997).

Experiential learning grounded in social justice sheds light on unequal,
unjust relationships; it can challenge prejudices and discriminatory
practices such as those based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation,
age, and ability; it can lead to questioning the social distribution of
wealth and resources; and it should force us to focus on the root causes
of social problems.  Our guiding question for this paper is: "How can we
organize experiential learning as a tool to make social relationships,
communities and society more just?"  We recognize the dynamic tension that
exists between "beginning where the learner is," and what we, as
progressive educators, believe to be the ultimate aim of education: human

Experiential learning includes, but is not limited to: service-learning,
internships, cooperative education, and community-based research.  People
practicing experiential education take on a variety of roles:  college
professors, elementary and secondary teachers, researchers, students,
community activists, non-profit administrators, school counselors,
directors of service-learning and internships within universities.

This paper presents a set of social justice principles that experiential
educators activities might use to guide their work. Together, these
principles might act as benchmarks for us to design, implement, and
evaluate experiential learning. These principles may influence the
experiential learning process at a variety of points, including:
inception and design, developing partnerships, recruiting participants,
orientation, implementation, reflection, synthesis of lived experience and
theoretical knowledge, and evaluation. 

We have divided the principles into four sections: community partnerships;
reflection; evaluation; and ideology. We seek to strike a balance by
offering principles as essential elements of a just society, while
remaining committed to an open society in which the freedom and autonomy
of the individual are upheld, actively cultivated and celebrated.  The
principles offered herein will usually appear as "should" statements.  We
recognize that in many practical instances these principles cannot
reasonably and fully be upheld.  We also view these principles as fluid
and "living." They are meant to stir discussion among practitioners, and
must be contested and debated. 

Some Principles That Should Inform Experiential Education:


The emphasis we are placing on developing genuine partnerships among
educators, their students and people and organizations situated in "the
community,"  reflects the need to adopt a holistic view of the learning
process, as well as reflect the importance of acknowledging our social
interdependencies.  We also intend that values expressed here should apply
to businesses and other for-profit, "private" organizations that serve as
internship and "school-to-work" sites.

1) We must be prepared to accept that our educational institutions are not
the only, nor often, the best 
sources of knowledge.

2) Educators and the experiential learning setting (community partner)
should disclose how and why they are choosing to work together.

3) Community organizations and internship sites are not to exploit
students as simply "free labor," nor can education institutions or
programs exploit community members as uncompensated educators.

4) The historical relationship between the local community and the
educational institution must be 
acknowledged, including any anger, resentment, and distrust that may have
developed between them.  In some cases this may mean making amends for
past wrongs in an effort to develop trust and move forward together.

5) The reciprocal nature of relationships among all partners within the
experiential learning process 
must be understood by all parties.  (Educational institutions must share
their resources such as staff time, facilities, technical support, and
grant funding with their community partners, as well as any accolades,
products, or knowledge that come from the partnership.)        

6)      We must make room for the multiplicity of community voices at
every stage: including program design, implementation, and evaluation.
Every effort should be made to ensure that residents, clients and any
usually voiceless groups are genuinely involved.  Professional status
within a community should not be mistaken for community leadership and
genuine representation.

7) Diverse participant involvement must always be a goal as well as a
means to other ends.  Conflicts 
arising out of a lack of diversity should be handled openly and with
respect to the cultures of all of those implicated.

8) Continuous attention should be paid to the democratic use of power
(economic, social, and political) 
and the open management and resolution of conflicts.

9) Clear goals and expectations that are flexible and subject to amendment
should be understood among 
all partners. 

10) Community-based research should be sponsored jointly by the
educational institution and one or more 
community organizations.
11)  Educators are, in large part, responsible for the actions of their
learners in the experiential learning setting and must take reasonable
precautions to avoid "doing harm" to the community;


We use "reflection" here to describe the pedagogical dimensions of the
learning that takes place in experiential education.  Reflection implies a
process that unfolds within the mind of the learner, in dialogue between
the learner and others, (peers, educators, community members), and within
the records of the reflection (written or otherwise) produced by the
We recognize that for some the term "reflection" is flawed, in that it
often connotes an informal or "weak" form of pedagogy.  We have opted to
use the term reflection here, in part, to present learning as both a
formal and informal process.  To describe this process as "synthesis"
could imply that a systemic, ultimately "scientific," process is
undertaken.  Our use of the term reflection certainly accounts for the
application of rigorous connections among particular concepts and
experiences.  However, we should also acknowledge the less formal learning
that takes place outside of traditional educational contexts.  During
these moments, the "continuity of learning," as Dewey puts it, takes
place. Thus, reflection ultimately leads to long term shifts in knowledge
and action.

12) Reflection exists in the context of relationships embedded within a
dynamic and changing world, 
      and not isolated or abstracted from it.

13) The reflection process should respect, even if it challenges, the
values that participants bring to the 
       endeavor, rather than deferring to "outside" sources of authority.

14) Reflection should inevitably lead toward a deepening of one's
obligation to participate in the creation 
      of a just and democratic society.

15) Reflection should reveal habitual ways of understanding and relating
to society and one's role within 
       society- (e.g., preconceptions about people and social problems).

15)  Reflection can only occur when the reciprocal nature of relationships
among people is actively, and frequently acknowledged. 

16)  Reflection should stimulate the consideration of relationships that
are formed between the learner and educators, other people, concepts and
theories related to specific bodies of knowledge.
17) Reflection should eventually reveal the past, present and possible
future nature of social processes and the root causes of social problems.

18) Reflection should contribute to the continuity of experiential
learning, that is, strengthening the    
      relationship of formal education to learning through all aspects of

19) Reflection should lead to the exploration of deeply held values and
the application of these values in 
       the context of lived experience.

20)  Reflection should lead the learner to create a vision of what a more
just world might look like.

21) Reflection should address the learner's "insider" and "outsider"
status within the experiential learning 

22) Reflection should be conducted as a dialogue with others so that
applications of new insights can be 
       considered and possible misinterpretations of experience explored;

23)  Reflection should encourage participants to seek additional
opportunities to enhance their learning.

24) Reflection should consider the ethical issues concerning "participant

25) Reflection should reveal the differences in opportunity structures,
life experiences, and race, class, and religion between education
personnel and community participants in ways that do not stereotype or in
any way elevate one group over another.


What ideological influence do practitioners of experiential learning for
social justice desire? How can we encourage learning outcomes without
forcing them upon learners?  These questions reflect the ideological
dilemma of many practitioners of experiential education for social
justice.  We use the term "ideologies" to encompass any particular
framework from which to view the world, especially its social, economic,
and political relationships. "Ideology," by definition, exists across the
political spectrum from left to 

26) Educators should be cognizant of the underlying values, ideological
orientations and world-views that 
       motivate them to practice experiential education.

27) When sharing their ideological orientations with students, educators
should speak from personal 
       experience and insight.

28) Educators should work to ameliorate the contradictions that may exist
between their values and the 
       values of the institution in which they work.

29)  Educators should seek a "community of peers"  through  which they can
engage in reflection.

30)  Educators should not grade or evaluate students' performance on their
adoption or rejection of an 
       ideological outcome or worldview.

31) Educators should not place the development of students' leadership,
cognitive, civic or life skills 
       above outcomes related to community improvement or development, but
seek to strike a balance   
       between them, favoring the community when there is any uncertainty.

32) Educators should demonstrate respect for students' right to their own
ideological orientations.  Where 
       we fail to find common ground, we need to respect other people's
right to live as they choose.  We need    
       to respect the humanity of all participants in all roles and
encourage all participants to recognize thei 
       responsibility to each other.

33) Educators should offer theory, history, discipline-specific research,
and avenues to access local 
       community knowledge to locate and set the context and framework
within which participants 
       understand their activity.

34)  Educators must understand the power inherent in language, and need to
be mindful of how labels can 
        be interpreted as "dehumanizing" by various actors within the
experiential learning setting. Those with 
       needs must define their needs so that responsibilities and roles
are clear and appropriate matches are

35) Professional educators should be cognizant of the authority and power
inherent in their role as teachers.

36) Educators should encourage critical thinking about philanthropy,
politics, social problems, and human 
       behavior generally, including traditional gender roles and racial
and class stereotypes.

38) Educators should ensure that reciprocal relationships exist among
educators, their students and the community in which learning is taking


Evaluation is an essential component of the experiential learning process,
as it provides an opportunity to ask the critical question: "What
matters?"  Evaluation is useful in determining how and what students are
learning, what impacts they are having at the learning sites, and how
successful the educator has been throughout the entire process.
Particularly in this era of "standards-based education," it even more
important to ensure that the quality of the entire experiential learning
process is high and possesses value for everyone involved.  

39) The goals of program evaluation must address community outcomes as
well as student learning 
        outcomes. Likewise, all parties should participate in program

40) As with other program components, everyone should have a voice in
evaluation design and review.  
       Those with special evaluation skills need to make technical issues
understandable to all participants.

41) Evaluation should explicitly consider how the program addresses or
respects all participants' goals, 
       needs, desires, and investment in the program.

42) Evaluation should be built into the process from the beginning, and
include all stakeholders in setting 
       objectives and benchmarks and developing evaluation methodology.

43) Evaluation should be used to derive a sense of common purpose between
all partners in the 
       experiential learning endeavor.


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