Redefining Service Learning for Pre-Service Teachers: Extending Civic Commitment to Global Outreach


This article takes a closer look at the definition of service learning in the context of pre-service teachers. Though progress is being made in education, an important component of 21st century skills, namely global awareness, is frequently overlooked. While reviewing the definitions for service learning, it seemed that they stopped short at civic commitment in the local community instead of global outreach. The case is made that for service learning to be truly transformative, it must include a global component.


Globalization has been used as the springboard for this discussion because it has touched almost every person and locale in today’s world. Globalization denotes an “increase in interconnections, or interdependence, a rise in transnational flows, and an intensification of process such that the world is, in some respects, becoming a single place” (Mittelman, 2000, p.5). In an interconnected and interdependent world, it seems that our focus is still very parochial with relevance to both service learning and civic commitment. The question that ensues is to what extent are educational institutions training pre-service teachers to contribute to the global society while assisting local communities to have a democratic voice in the process of globalization? Global outreach has been overlooked in the definitions of service learning while embracing civic commitment, reciprocity, experiential learning, and even career preparedness. Its omission is manifest in the plethora of definitions.


For this paper global education, global awareness, global outreach, global perspective, globalism, and world view will be used interchangeably because although different in their individual definitions, there are commonalities that pervade their delineations, such as interconnectedness and interdependence. One of the most effective ways of understanding global outreach is through global education. Church, Zimmerman, Bargerstock, & Kenney (2003) define outreach “as activity in which academic staff engage with external organizations and communities in a reciprocal learning/teaching situation….” (p. 142). When the word ‘global’ is appended to ‘outreach’ is just extends the realm of engagement.   The approach of recommending an extension of local civic commitment to global outreach is placed in the context of pre-service teachers, and their involvement with service learning, as part of their course work.

Merryfield (1998) addressed global education as a teacher-problem, as in teacher education, both in pre-service training and in-service training. Although the literature abounds in articles, courses, curricula that deal exclusively with the topics of global awareness, understanding, competencies, citizenship, and skills, “the actual dissemination and application of those components of global education learned in those courses, both in the teacher-training programs and in the development of lesson plans, remains ambiguous”(Ferreira, 2013, p. 56). This is further confirmed by Morrow and Williams (1989) in a study on global education perspectives and practice of home economics teachers. Their findings in a Home Economics course indicated that “the teachers responding to the study are not integrating global education content in the home economics curriculum” (p.33) in spite of their global awareness developed through academic courses.

This is partially due to a failure in recognition of global education as interdisciplinary, and one that should permeate all curricula. Additionally, the case can be made that the mere provision of courses in global awareness is not adequate but must be supplemented by the efficacious experience of service learning through global outreach programs. Global educators (Ferreira, 2011; Gaudelli, 2003; & Kirkwood, 2001) consider global outreach via global education as a preparation for pre-service teachers and students to learn to live in a progressively interconnected world, and become informed national and global citizens, while engaging in socially meaningful action. These tenets are not in direct opposition to the multiple definitions of service learning but just add another dimension to it.

Literature review

The literature reveals a wide range of approaches to service learning and civic commitment. Sheffield (2005) maintains that service learning is “over-defined” (p. 46) thereby losing its conceptual structure. It has followed a borrow-and-add strategy; hence, it would be redundant to discuss the myriad definitions of service learning since most people view it through their lens. However, most institutions have, at the core of their definitions the idea that: “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities” (National Service Learning Clearinghouse, 2009). There are others (Bringle, Hatcher, & McIntosh, 2006; Eyler & Giles, 1999) who have adopted it with variations. In some cases the definition has been adopted with modifications such as setting goals (Sigmon, 1979, as cited in Furco 1996), adopting projects (Coulter-Kern, Coulter-Kern, P, Schenkel, Walker, & Fogle, 2013) , and/or followed by structured assessments (Karayan & Gathercoal, 2005). There are, however, certain concepts central to all definitions of service learning namely: civic responsibility, reciprocity between learner and school or community, experiential learning, and reflections.

From a different vantage point, service learning can be framed in the pragmatism of Dewey (1938), the social reconstruction of Paulo Freire (1993), and the constructivism of Vygotsky (1978). Dewey’s conception of inquiry sees service learning as beginning with a social problem, understanding the problem and finding solutions. This is clearly indicative of the concept of civic commitment included in the definition of service learning, but it should not necessarily be the end-all of the definition. Freire (1971) too, helped change the landscape of Brazil through the praxis of “reflection and action” (p.75) of its oppressed population. Again, his work of social reconstructionism is evidence that there should be interaction through civic commitment to achieve success in improving the society of the oppressed. Finally, Vygotsky (1978) believed that students are active creators of their own knowledge through social interaction. Social constructivism is embedded in the experiential aspect of service learning.

Although the philosophies of Dewey, Freire, and Vygotsky are so relevant to service learning, it seems problematic to obsess with only engaging the local community in a globalized world. A search for service learning and global revealed few mentions of the word global. Furco’s (1996) definition of service learning was that, “service programs might include semester‐long or year‐long activities in which students dedicate themselves to addressing a cause that meets a local community (or global) need” (p.11). An International Service learning Inventory was employed by Cox, Murray, and Plante (2014) to determine students’ views on variables associated with worldview namely: social justice, intercultural competencies, diversity, global awareness, democracy, civic engagement, and transformative learning. This was a study done with field experience in Botswana. The findings indicated large effect sizes on a number of variables which were defined as students’ worldview. Jacoby (1996) argues that, “service learning enables colleges and universities to enhance student learning and development while making unique contributions to their communities, the nation, and the world” (p.19). She adds that, “the term community refers to local neighborhoods, the state, the nation, and the global community” (p.20). The paucity of literature linking or associating global awareness and service learning is evidence of the shortsightedness in the mindset of its proponents and advocates who need to be informed. We need to address the narrow vision of the definition of service learning and revise it to include global outreach.

A Framework for Civic Commitment and Global Outreach

Of special interest in connecting civic commitment with global outreach is Chambers’ conceptual framework of service learning (2009). The “theoretical clusters” (p.80) in Chambers’ formulation can be adapted to accommodate the concept of global outreach. Chambers starts with “experiential learning” (p.80) where, according to him, the “actions are carried out by learner and members of the communities” (p.81). David Kolb (1984) in his Learning Model also chose the term “experiential learning”, which is also closely aligned with “reflection” and “reciprocity”. These are integral to service learning, and add to the substantive definition of service learning. The connotation of the word reciprocity needs further clarification here, and the one that should be adopted as part of the definition of service learning. One of its important meanings is conveyed “by its Latin counterpart (still used in law), do ut des, literally, “I give so that you will give” (Keith, 2005, p. 14). This has profound implications for developing, promoting, and spreading the goodwill not only to the local community but also to the global community, and the reason why it should be central to experiential learning as a factor of service learning.

Next Chambers discusses social learning which is complementary to experiential learning as Chambers emphasizes that at this level “human behaviors are functions of interactions between students’ meaning-making processes and action choices, academic information, and human and environmental forces in the communities in which they are engaged” (p.81). An element of omission in that statement is specifically identifying the communities as both local and global. The inclusion of those words would change the dynamics of social learning.

Student development should be predicated on social and experiential learning in Chamber’s framework. The knowledge and skills gained from social interactions should help further not only their own cognitive growth but also their civic responsibility (as well as their global responsibility). At this stage important community needs, both local and global, should be identified and linked to the interests of the students and teachers because as Myers (2006) argues, “Scholarship on globalization suggests that new forms of democratic citizenship are emerging, yet the United States’ educational system remains resistant to global perspectives in the curriculum and continues to favor national patriotism over learning about the world” (p. 370).

For Chambers, “liberatory learning” (p.82) is where the participant will transition into transformational shifts in social consciousness. However, Chambers, in his discussion, does allude to Freire’s (1973) concern about the individual’s relationship only to the immediate society, while Kolb views some of Freire’s work from a different perspective. Kolb argues that “the dialectic nature of learning and adaptation is encompassed in his concept of praxis, which he, (Freire) defines as reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (p.29). Social consciousness should be about humanity at large, not just the local community. If social consciousness is a collaborative involvement in community recognition and problem solving then it should embrace the interdependence and interconnnectedness of the globalized world, an important concept of global citizenship. It is necessary to understand as Falk (1993) states that “the spirit of global citizenship is almost completely de-territorialized and is associated with an extension of citizenship as an expression of an affirmation of human unity” (as cited in Brecher, Childs, & Cutler, p.42).

While the theoretical approaches to service learning by Chambers seem to portray a logical transition along a continuum, involving the tenets of service learning, they discount the global component. Kolb also argues that the cumulative experience and knowledge gained through experiential learning should serve as a catalyst to increase the relevance of working with the “real world environment” (p.34) but does not include global in its connotation. Real world by a 21st century definition should be the globalized world, not restricted to the local environment only. It is cogent then that transformative social consciousness should inherently include civic commitment not only to the local community but additionally to the global community leading to global citizenship. This would be a true representation of transformative behavior for service learning in the 21st century.

Identifying Problems with Service Learning and Pre-service Teachers

Given the diversity of students and the importance of developing a global worldview, it is essential that pre-service teachers understand the connections between service learning and globalization. I argue that the problem is manifold. It begins with partnerships – or rather the lack of partnerships between school and teachers, and educational programs in teacher-training institutions. The complexity of the problem makes for a difficult prognosis for its solution, but nevertheless every effort must be made, along with a willingness and determination, to improve the partnership and make it meaningful for all concerned.

The second problem is the dearth of instructional and educational content in teacher training classes on understanding the concept of globalization which according to David Held entails “the intensification of worldwide social relations which link distant localities is such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa” (as cited in Morrow & Torres, 2000, p. 29). Keith (2005) expands on global awareness and global responsibility with relevance to the “world’s interconnectedness, along with a sense of collective responsibility for the well-being of the earth and its creatures and support for global equity, peace, and justice” (p.8). A related challenge is lesson planning methodology where service learning and global awareness issues are neglected. This omission could be due in part to the teaching strategies used in teaching methods at the pre-service teaching level, or it could be due to a shortcoming in the knowledge of techniques to develop global awareness in everyday teaching, or just being uninformed and apathetic toward the subject (Duckworth, R. Levy, & L. Levy, 2005; Hanvey, 1986, Merryfield, 1998).

Some Solutions  

Indulging in global outreach would extend the opportunity for participants to enhance and expand professional and personal skills while acquiring the understanding and knowledge about the realities of international issues that affect not only their community but the world at large. These are issues that know no boundaries in today’s globalized world. What is unacceptable is that these important issues are ignored at the college level, especially in the training of pre-service teachers. More students are entering the pre-service teacher education program in colleges with limited knowledge about pressing global issues. There needs to be a turn in education that creates a global awareness alongside awareness of local issues and problems. The philosophies that underlie service learning, coupled with a robust curriculum and substantive content, suggest that service learning is a powerful tool to enhance global understanding and outreach.

For the pre-service teachers to appreciate service learning it should not only be recognized as pathway to teacher career readiness but also their passage toward global citizenship. Pre-service teachers should understand that “education has long been tied to citizenship; a global education provides the basis for world citizenship” (Adams & Carfagna, 2006, p. 159). Schukar (1993) calls for policy where, “children in this country must be provided an education that more than adequately prepares them for citizenship in the society and world they will soon inherit” (p.57). Longo & Saltmarsh (2011) argue, pre-service teachers must realize that, “service learning in a global context requires practitioners and researchers to consider not only outcomes associated with civic engagement, but the parameters of citizenship defined by globalization, migration, national identity, regionalism, nationalism and human rights” (as cited in Bringle, Hatcher & Jones, p. 71), none of which can be ignored by our country. Teaching the main tenets of global citizenship is evidence of 21st century competencies of those teachers. It also enhances the otherwise routine pedagogical practices of the classroom.

To do this we have to break the cycle of conventional service learning for pre-service teachers it must start with the courses offered to them. They must be inclusive of the global perspective and must pervade the entire teacher training program. This is so that the pre-service teachers are infused with both knowledge and method of incorporating global awareness into the service learning program, and later into their classrooms. This would entail the cooperation of teachers, administrators in the school, the local community, and subsequently the global community together with the use of technology. Service learning in the global context is the quintessential process to achieve this for pre-service teachers. Being a global citizen embodies the acknowledgment of human rights and social justice on a local and global level; additionally, it emphasizes the professionalism and quality of the pre-service teacher, both of which need enhancement (Imig & Imig, 2007). Teachers who can deliver on this should be and hopefully will be held to a higher level of recognition.

Besides the education courses there are other avenues of being introduced to a worldview. Travel always provides the ultimate experience in understanding the world with all its complexities and can add an eventful dimension to service learning. Global Exploration for Educators Organization (GEEO), a non-profit organization helps enhance involvement in the global context for teachers through travel. In lieu of travel, the next best practice would be making connections and creating liaisons with other global educators in this mosaic world. With diminished funding, however, technology comes to the rescue, and it is just a few clicks away. The Global Education Conference (free online) does just that. It brings together innovators and educators from around the world to facilitate collaboration from a world-wide community to support cultural and global awareness. Additionally, there are several organizations and websites to assist the teacher educators, pre-service teachers, and teacher practitioners, such as Green Map System, Oxfam, American Forum of Global Education, UNESCO’s Global Citizenship Education, to mention a few. Regardless of all the support online or otherwise, it takes a concerted effort on the part of the aforementioned teachers to want to help their students navigate in this new world order.

In redefining service learning for the globalized world, “global outreach provides the opportunity for participants to expand their global perspectives by exploring economic, social, political and environmental injustices, and become knowledgeable and active citizens aspiring to work for local and global communities” (Fordham Institution, 2014, Mission Statement). As 21st century educators, it is about knowing and having the skills to incorporate everyday content beyond the local issues. It is about learning from interactions with the local community, and eventually the global community through the media of choice, the principle of reciprocity in a “server-served relationship” (Keith, 2005, p. 13). One cannot ignore the reflections on that involvement which should subsequently lead to a social consciousness of a higher order, and global citizenship. I believe that service learning is a process which should develop a partnership, where both parties engage in a common area of civic responsibility and reciprocity, in both local and global contexts, resulting in experiential learning and a heightened level of social consciousness.



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About the author:

Renita Ferreira

Renita Ferreira, Ed.D., currently teaches at Miami Dade College (formerly Miami Dade Community College). She developed a valid and reliable instrument to measure ‘global awareness’ in partial fulfillment of her doctorate. In addition to her doctorate, Renita has two Master’s degrees, one in Comparative Education and the other in Multiculturalism, and three Bachelor’s degrees in Arts, Hospitality, and Education respectively. She is actively engaged in research about global literacy and global awareness, and has presented at several educational conferences, both national and international.