A Teacher Connects The Brain and Service-Learning

By SUE BOS

As the last weeks of summer slip away, I find myself thinking more and more about the upcoming school year. It happens every year at this time; physically I’m still on vacation but my mind is on the year ahead. I find myself thinking, imagining and planning what this new class and new year might be like.

I think about things we might do, themes we might focus on and activities we might participate in. I imagine what our physical space will look and feel like. I work to plan and shape a year of rich learning experiences for my students.

One of the things I know I want to do this year is to include service learning in a more central way in our class curriculum. The Vermont State Standards and our local district curriculum framework both recognize the value of service learning experiences and have included service-learning in their guidelines.

The elementary school I work in has long been a pioneer in bringing service-learning projects into the classroom; and this year my principal has asked that all classroom teachers incorporate service learning in some way in their classrooms. These are all good reasons to include service-learning in our work for the year; but the reason that appeals most to me is that service-learning is compatible with the ways in which the brain learns.

Everything I do in the classroom, I try to do with an awareness of the discoveries neuroscientists are making about the brain and how we learn. It?s important to me that what I do in the classroom be informed by what we now know about the brain and how it functions. If I want to do my best job as a teacher, I need to know as much as I can about what my students need to make the best use of their learning potential. Understanding the brain is where it starts.

Service-learning is an important step to take. It is an effective teaching strategy that meshes well with the way the brain works.

The work of the brain is all about making connections. Information travels through the brain via neural pathways that are formed as individual neurons connect with each other. The ultimate goal is to have as many smooth and efficient neural networks as possible. Building the connections is the key. Service learning experiences offer many opportunities to build and enhance these neural networks. Service learning is all about connecting the learning in the classroom with the real world beyond the walls. Its about helping students see that there is a real and practical use for the things they are learning in school. Students connect the work they are doing now with its potential use in their future lives.

New connections between neurons in the brain are created when we have experiences we have never had before. As the brain strives to make sense of new and unfamiliar experiences, it looks for connections to things it is already familiar with. On a physical level this is accomplished through individual neurons branching out and building new connections with other neurons in the brain. Service learning offers students opportunities to meet new people, see new places and do new things. Participation in service learning projects can expose a student to people, things and ideas that they have had no experience with before. Through these activities students can broaden their horizons and foster the development of new neural connections in their brains.

We feel good when we do helpful things for other people,
and service-learning is about helping people.

Practice is essential to the maintenance and enhancement of neural pathways. The more times you do something, the better you get at what you?re doing. Practicing helps streamline connections between neurons. This happens because those neural connections are getting physically stronger each time they are used. Service-learning activities provide a useful way for students to practice the skills they are learning; it is the ultimate example of hands-on learning. A fifth grader can practice her oral reading skills when she regularly reads with her first grade reading partner. A sixth grade student can practice his computation skills and build on his understanding of numbers as he takes responsibility for the class book order.

Students of all ages can fine-tune observation and data collection skills as they document headstones in a community cemetery. Service-learning offers new and different ways to practice the skills that need to be learned in school. The brain is constantly on the alert for new input that has some meaningful connection to information that is already established in the neural network. Experiences that have a meaningful context are more likely to find a secure place to take hold in the brain. Service-learning activities are inherently meaningful. Students do things that need to be done. The purpose and meaning in their work is clearly visible; what they are doing is important and real.

Every person’s brain shares a common basic structure, but each individual brain is unique. Our students have a combination of skills and talents that they bring to every learning experience, and it is important for us to be aware of what those special talents and skills are. Experiences beyond the classroom open up opportunities for students to demonstrate and share their varied skills and talents. Intelligences that aren?t always visible in the more traditional school day, often come to light through engagement in service learning projects As I discover the intelligences my students have I can use this knowledge to help guide their work and learning. Service-learning can be a valuable tool to recognize, demonstrate and celebrate individual student’s learning styles.

All learning has emotion at its core. While the full role of emotions in learning is only beginning to be understood, we do know that students learn best when they are physically and emotionally healthy. These basic needs for survival must be met before higher brain processing can occur. We also know that learning experiences that are associated with positive emotions are more likely to find secure attachments in the neural network. We feel good when we do helpful things for other people, and service learning is about helping people. But, service learning is also about learning. When we are learning while we are helping, we feel those positive emotions, and these feelings help our developing skills find a firm foothold in the brain. Service learning provides a positive emotional framework for learning.

In an ideal world all learning experiences would be connected, meaningful, novel, unique and emotionally pleasing. We know that all these things contribute in important ways to the development of the brain, so we should be shaping everything we do in our classrooms with these conditions in mind. In reality we know that this may not be possible right away, but it makes sense to start taking some steps in this direction. Service -learning is an important step to take. It is an effective teaching strategy that meshes well with the way the brain works.

A Teacher’s Thoughts on the Brain

The Mechanics of the Brain l Brain Chart

Brain Givens and Learning Implications

The Brain and Service-Learning

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sue Bos is a veteran teacher at Guilford Central School in Vermont. She teaches 7/8 Science. Community Works Institute asked Sue to reflect on and compile her work investigating newer research on the brain. Her investigations are significant for their direct connections to her own classroom teaching.

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