Download a PDF of this page here


A service‐learning case study: Exploring empowerment and self-authorship
Jaime Winans, doctoral candidate, Texas A&M University []

Keywords:Empowerment, power low-income students, pedagogies

Conference track: K12 civic and learning outcomes

Format: Research/Scholarly paper

This study is concerned with empowerment as described in critical theory. Empowerment means not only engaging students in the world around them, but also facilitating their development of the courage needed to change social order (McLaren, 1989). Critical theorists such as Freire (1970, 2009), McLaren (1989), Kincheloe (2008), and others have established the grounds for understanding the oppressive nature of schooling structures, while arguing for pedagogies of empowerment and liberation. As a social structure laden with tacit dimensions of power, schools may empower or oppress. To empower students and teachers, the curriculum must permit them with an intellectual space to explore alternate sources, diverse historical interpretations, and to produce their own knowledge, which may conflict with mainstream thought (Kincheloe, 2008).

Gaining an understanding of these processes is important due to an increasing trend of unequal access to quality education that disproportionately affects minority students, including rising high school dropout rates (Barton, 2005). An in-depth, holistic understanding of service-learning as experienced by students at a low-income, non-dominant high school, which is presently lacking from the literature, will be a major contribution to the research. It is theorized that increased service-learning opportunities in low-performing, non-dominant high schools will improve retention (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Wulsin, 2008; Simonet, 2008). Service-learning pedagogies, through the co-creation of new intellectual and social spaces, may counter the oppressive practices of silencing and exclusion, which is detailed by critical theorists. This study not only describes empowerment, but also shows the possibilities for engaging diverse learners whose life experiences and cultural forms of knowledge have not been legitimated by schooling. Furthermore, this study also aims to present the underrepresented voices of non-dominant youth. Their interpretations of service-learning will have implications for the continued refinement of service-learning and other empowerment pedagogies.

Barton, P. E. (2005). One third of a nation: Rising dropout rates and declining opportunities. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Retrieved from

Billig, S. H., & Weah, W. (2008). K-12 service-learning standards for quality practice. Retrieved from

Bridgeland, J. M., DiIulio, J. J., & Wulsin, S. C. (2008, April). Engaged for success: Service-learning as a tool for high school dropout prevention. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises. Retrieved from pdfs/service-learning.pdf

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.

Freire, P. (2009). Pedagogy of the oppressed: 30th anniversary edition. New York, NY: Continuum.

Giroux, H. A. (2005). Border crossings: Cultural workers and the politics of education (2nd ed). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kahne, J. & Westheimer, J. (1999). In the service of what? The politics of service learning. In J. Claus & C. Ogden (Eds.), Service learning for youth empowerment and social change (pp. 25–38). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Kaye, C. B. (2004). The complete guide to service learning: Proven, practical ways to engage students in civic responsibility, academic curriculum, & social action. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, Inc.

Kincheloe, J. (2008). Critical pedagogy primer (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

McLaren, P. (1989). Life in schools. New York, NY: Longman.

McLaren, P. L., & Giarelli, J. M. (1995). Introduction: Critical theory and educational research. In P. McLaren & J. Giarelli (Eds.), Critical theory and educational research (pp. 1–22). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Niesz, T. (2008). Professional movements, local appropriations, and the limits of educational critique: The cultural production of mixed messages at an urban middle school. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 21(4), 327–346.

Simonet, D. (2008). Service-learning and academic success: The links to retention research. Minnesota Campus Compact. Retrieved from

Skinner, R., & Chapman, C. (1999). Service-learning and community service in K-12 public schools. National Center for Education Statistics. NCES 1999043. Retrieved from

Stanton, T. K., Giles, D. E., & Cruz, N. I. (1999). (Eds). Service-learning: A movement’s pioneers reflect on its origins, practice, and future. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

To access materials from this session please click on the file link(s) below:

Subject Author Replies Views Last Message
No Comments