UJ’s Prof Nadine Petersen scoops inaugural global award for service-learning scholarship in teacher education

Prof Nadine Petersen, researcher in the Department of Childhood Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), has been announced as the winner of the 2019 International Research Award by the International Association of Research on Service-Learning and Community Engagement (IARSLCE). Prof Petersen also serves as Vice Dean: Teaching and Learning of the UJ Faculty of Education.

Prof Petersen has a long history of promoting service learning in teacher education in South Africa. She says, “My personal understanding of being ‘the other’, being subject to unjust policies and unequal education under apartheid, has influenced my research in service learning and community engagement.”

Service learning is a form of experiential learning in which students offer their educational services to meet a particular need in a community while at the same time learning more about their academic university content.

“Young student teachers engage in service learning during the practical component of their university courses,” says Prof Petersen. “While they’re still students, serving at schools, they come into contact with diverse learners and teachers in communities that can face many challenges. Essentially, service learning is about learning, in the classroom, what it means to be a caring teacher in a just society.

“So for instance, student teachers tutoring mathematics learn more about the way in which mathematics is taught in the primary school and why pupils struggle. As a result, they may learn better methods to teach the subject, which areas of the mathematics school curriculum need more time for learners to master, and which methods work best with learners who struggle,” she adds.

In her doctoral thesis, published in 2007, she developed her views about the space, place and shape of service learning in teacher education. In it, she challenged the limitations of academic community service as ‘social responsibility’.

Since then, Prof Petersen has collaborated with colleagues from UJ and other countries, to identify innovations that can help student teachers in school classrooms.

As the former Head of the Department of Childhood Education on the Soweto campus, Prof Petersen contributed significantly to the establishment of the UJ-affiliated, Funda UJabule School in Soweto and its use as a laboratory for student teachers. Here primary school student teachers do many of their service learning projects. These include a food gardening project, an anti-bullying campaigns, a sports day and a history and geography gallery walk.

“In my view, service learning is the ideal way for bringing the means and ends together in the development of caring teachers who work for social justice. Over the last 15 years, I have focused specific attention on service learning in teacher education, particularly childhood teacher education within the UJ partnership with Funda UJabule, working with many colleagues and students,” she says.

Prof Petersen is of the view that the rapid changes brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) impacts the world outside, as well as inside the school classroom.

She says: As we move into this fast changing world I believe that the unknown future that awaits our new teachers, and the children they will serve, will need a firm foundation like never before. I believe that the values of care and social justice learned through experience with others, in service learning during the pre-service years, are pillars on which ideals such as trust, collaboration, innovation and resilience can be built within student teachers.

Without this, how will we prepare future teachers to address all the gaps that the threat and possibilities of artificial intelligence and automation will create in society? How else will we prepare future teachers to teach for innovation that is socially- and economically embedded? In addition, how else will we teach our future teachers the bonds of working together and standing together in times of uncertainty to assist those in society who will inevitably be left by the wayside?

Student teachers need to learn many things beyond the subjects they teach. They also need to learn how to get to know the learners in their classrooms – and learn to care and be accountable for them. This is as important as the “what” in the curriculum and the “how” of the pedagogy”.

In her latest research she focuses on understanding how service learning is being customised in developing contexts; and how the notions of ‘service’ and ‘community engagement’ are adapting and being redefined by students and staff in light of the challenges presented by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“A crucial goal in service learning for student teachers is the ‘formation of a social disposition’ defined by researcher Dewey in 1944. This is needed so that teachers can serve society in a way that builds citizenship and democracy,” she concludes.

Prof Petersen has been invited to receive the award on 23 October at the 2019 IARSLCE Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the United States.

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