In the summer of 2016, I brought together (in beautiful southwest Virginia) several friends and colleagues who have been involved in service-learning and community engagement (SLCE) for some time to think and write about our work, including about the current state of the movement. Acknowledging both the range of perspectives and the missing voices at the table and drawing on the thinking of other colleagues as well as the literature, we generated a set of topics and preliminary content for a series of blog posts I had been invited to produce with Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning. My thanks to Lori Kniffin, Jessica Murphy, Sarah Stanlick, Alexa Stout, and Elaine Ward for co-designing this series with me.

The topics in this series are as follows:

In this set of blog posts my co-authors and I seek to introduce the “lay of the land” in SLCE (related to both implementing it and studying it), to highlight resources we find useful, and to encourage participation in the ongoing growth of the movement. Comment sections are available below each post; we invite you to share ideas, examples, questions, and concerns and to build on and challenge our thinking. We very much hope this series will spark the co-inquiry that, for us, is the heart and soul of SLCE and of the international community that has formed around it.

[Patti H. Clayton, PHC Ventures, IUPUI, UNCG, K-State]

An Introduction to Service-Learning and Community Engagement as Co-Inquiry

Patti H. Clayton & Lori E. Kniffin

Everyone teaches, everyone learns, everyone serves, everyone is served.

Catchy, concise, compelling …. and calling for a profound shift in how we think about education and relationships between campuses and broader communities. Robert Sigmon (1979) used this simple framing to help launch a not-at-all simple pedagogy: service-learning (which we will broaden a bit and refer to in this series as SLCE, for service-learning and community engagement). Thirty-five years later, practitioner-scholars—by which we mean all who partner in the process with a spirit of inquiry, connect their learning with that of others, and thereby advance knowledge and practice—across the U.S. and around the world have written innumerably more words about SLCE and developed a great many definitions of it. Yet the best current thinking, as we see it, holds onto this essential idea. Veteran community partner Amy Mondloch (2009) expresses it this way: “We are all teachers, learners, and leaders” (p. 146). We ourselves often speak of SLCE as a practice and a way of being that values everyone involved as co-educators, co-learners, and co-generators of knowledge and practice.

As a form of community-campus engagement, SLCE brings together the knowledge, questions, resources, and priorities of communities with those of educational institutions to advance public purposes. As a form of experiential education, it is purposefully designed around specific learning goals to integrate academic content with relevant experience through critical reflection and assessment of learning. It is not the addition of service experiences and goals to learning experiences and goals but rather their synergistic integration. It is not volunteerism but rather an academic endeavor, and as such it does not involve giving academic credit for service but rather—as with any pedagogy—for quality of learning.

The term co-inquiry in our title is key. For us, SLCE is not about hierarchical conceptualizations of service—those who have resources doing for those in need—or of learning—those who do not know receiving information and ideas from those who are experts. As we understand it and try to enact it, SLCE involves students, community members, and faculty/staff in doing and being with one another in ways that advance our collective understanding and nudge the world—any part of the world—toward a future that is “increasingly peaceful, compassionate, just, inclusive, and verdant” (Clayton et al., 2014, p. 6). It is an approach to teaching and learning and to change that integrates two otherwise seemingly distinct sets of processes and outcomes through the simple yet powerful understanding that learning (about anything) and change (in any arena) can be—often, at their best, are—deeply intertwined acts of co-inquiry.

Again, not at all a simple undertaking. But there are frameworks and tools to support thoughtful design of SLCE projects and partnerships. As one good starting point, we find this basic definition and accompanying graphic to be very helpful:

SLCE is the integration of academic material, relevant service activities, and critical reflection in a reciprocal [co-created] partnership that engages students, faculty/staff, and community members to achieve academic, civic, and personal [growth] learning objectives as well as to advance public purposes.

(Bringle & Clayton, 2012, p. 105)


This framework provides both “roots” and “wings”: It grounds the design process in several important guiding principles while enabling—indeed, insisting upon—customization and contextualization.

What are some of the guiding principles we find most important? Closely related to co-inquiry is the fundamental principle of co-creation, which underlies our conceptualization of SLCE as democratic engagement. The table below (modified from Saltmarsh, Hartley, & Clayton, 2009) helps us unpack that principle, sheds light on the challenges we face trying to enact it in institutional and cultural contexts that are often much more aligned with technocracy than with democracy, and keeps before us a vision to guide our practice.
The conceptual framework expressed by the Venn diagrams above also brings to the forefront three other guiding principles:

  1. the centrality of critical reflection: the component of SLCE that guides making meaning of experience—generating, deepening, and documenting learning; improving the quality of action; and problematizing underlying systems of power and privilege (see Ash & Clayton, 2009; Norris, Siemers, Clayton, Weiss, & Edwards, 2017)
  2. the integration of civic learning: a category of learning goals that refers generally to capacities within individuals and communities to envision a better world and to enact change accordingly, particularly in terms of justice and democracy (see blog post #3, forthcoming, in this series)
  3. the orientation toward change and capacity building: an intention to generate short- and/or long-term improvements in individual and collective well-being, in ways of knowing and being, and in the systems within which we live

While adhering to the defining features expressed in the Venn diagrams and the guiding principles that, taken together, generate its distinctive potential, no two instances of SLCE will be—or should be—the same. To hint at the range of approaches, just among the six of us who gathered in Virginia and designed this series of blog posts, there is experience of SLCE …

  • in co-curricular programs and student organizations
  • in single courses, threaded across multiple courses, as independent studies, in general education, in major courses, and in capstones, from the first year to graduate school;
  • on campus, in local neighborhoods, in nearby municipalities, across the state, around the country, abroad, and online;
  • extending across a week, a summer, a semester, and multiple years;
  • involving direct service, behind-the-scenes work, research, and advocacy;
  • with grassroots initiatives as well as small and large non-profit and for-profit organizations;
  • in which critical reflection is written, oral, audio-visual, embodied, individual, collaborative, face-to-face, and online.

Whatever the particulars of design in any given instance, SLCE understood and undertaken as democratic engagement—as co-inquiry—is apt to be counter-normative to some extent for everyone involved: both requiring and fostering powerfully “outside the box” ways of being (see Clayton & Ash, 2004; Howard, 1998). The many ways in which it challenges and disrupts default and socialized perspectives, practices, and identities both make it difficult and give it transformational (paradigm shifting) potential. SLCE thus conceived invites and fosters—even requires—fundamental shifts in how we understand ourselves and our world, in how we relate with bodies of thought and with one another, and in how we approach learning and change.

In his profoundly thoughtful essay “What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about service,” Adam Davis (2006) argues that “service, in principle and in practice, is not simple (SINS)” and that “the belief that service is good (SIG) should not mean that we blind ourselves to [its] complexity.” Adam’s message holds for SLCE as well, perhaps even moreso. The international community of SLCE practitioner-scholars is building a substantial knowledge base related to potential outcomes and, to a lesser extent, the processes that may generate them (see the 3-volume IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research, series editors Bringle & Hatcher). Largely confident of its potential “goodness,” SLCE practitioner-scholars are increasingly giving critical attention to the complexities of the process. This series of blog posts is offered in that spirit, with the intent to not only introduce SLCE but also point to a few of the complexities that, at least as we see it, explain why it has such potential to help us change ourselves and our world.


  • Ash, S. L. & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education 1, 25-48.
  • Bringle, R. G., & Clayton, P. H. (2012). Civic education through service-learning: What, how, and why? In L. McIlraith, A. Lyons, & R. Munck (Eds.), Higher education and civic engagement: Comparative perspectives (pp. 101-124). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Clayton, P. H., & Ash, S. L. (2004). Shifts in perspective: Capitalizing on the counter-normative nature of service-learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 11(1), 59-70.
  • Clayton, P. H., Hess, G., Hartman, E., Edwards, K. E., Shackford-Bradley, J., Harrison, B., & McLaughlin, K. (2014). Educating for democracy by walking the talk in experiential learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 6, 3–36.
  • Davis, A. (2006). What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about service. In A. Davis & E. Lynn (Eds.), The civically engaged reader (pp. 148-154). Chicago: Great Books Foundation.
  • Howard, J. P. F. (1998). Academic service learning: A counternormative pedagogy. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 73, 21-29.
  • Mondloch, A. S. (2009). One director’s voice. In R. Stoecker & E. A. Tryon (Eds.), The unheard voices: Community organizations and service learning (pp. 136–146). Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  • Norris, K., Siemers, C., Clayton, P. H., & Weiss, H. A., & Edwards, K. E. (in press, 2017). Critical reflection. In C. Dolgon, T. Eatman, & T. Mitchell (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of service-learning and community engagement. Boston: Cambridge University Press.
  • Saltmarsh, J. A., Hartley, M., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Democratic engagement white paper. Boston: New England Resource Center for Higher Education.
  • Sigmon, R. L. (1979). Service-learning: Three principles. Synergist, 8(1), 9-11.

Patti H. Clayton ( is an SLCE consultant (PHC Ventures,, a Senior Scholar with IUPUI and UNCG, and a Visiting Senior Scholar with Kansas State University. She facilitates professional and organizational development, co-produces practice-oriented scholarly resources, and is currently co-facilitating the international Service-Learning and Community Engagement Future Directions Project (SLCE-FDP;

Lori E. Kniffin ( is a doctoral student in Cultural Foundations of Education and a graduate assistant at the Institute for Community and Economic Engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In her previous role at the Staley School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University, she taught an SLCE junior-level leadership course that worked to advance food justice on and off campus for five years. She is chair of the IARSLCE Graduate Student Network and the inaugural Fellow on the SLCE-FDP.

Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts. Check in regularly to learn more about and contribute to discussion of foundational knowledge, promising practices, helpful resources, and future directions of SLCE.

How to cite this post:

An Introduction to Service-Learning and Community Engagement as Co-Inquiry. 2017, January 24. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from