Service Learning Stimulates The Brain.
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Service Learning Stimulates the Brain.

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Educator and Trainer
Service Learning Stimulates the Brain.

by Elaine B. Johnson The latest results of brain research support the value of an educational strategy that integrates carefully designed community service projects with the academic curriculum. Mark, a sophomore in an alternative high school in Oregon, was designated "at risk." Known for his surly contempt for school, failure to hand in assignments, and seething anger toward virtually everyone, he was a vocal critic of English class. He would rebel against the typical bloodless writing assignment, such as producing "a 300-word essay on 'friendship,' with a thesis, three supporting paragraphs, a concluding paragraph, and only three grammatical errors." Invariably he complained, "This assignment is lame! Boring! I'll be glad when I'm outta here!" Mark's teacher says that he was failing English until she tried a different approach. Members of the surrounding community had submitted a list of ways in which her students could assist them. So she asked Mark to choose a project from the list--something that would help him improve his English. Mark chose to write letters on behalf of nursing home patients who were physically incapable of typing or holding a pen. He was expected to use appropriate vocabulary, accurate grammar, and clear organization. Over a nine-week period, Mark spent two afternoons each week writing letters dictated by the nursing home residents, who then proofread and commented on what he wrote. In the process, he established special friendships with them. When the term ended, he submitted a 10-page report in which he reflected on his experience working with the patients, assessing his academic improvement, and discussing what he had learned about relationships and civic responsibility. The report earned a B+, not Mark's usual F. Like Mark, Juanita felt dislocated at her middle school. She had moved with her family from Mexico to Oregon in late September. Her teacher said she was friendless in a strange community and often stayed home. In October, however, a special project helped her make friends, learn academic subjects, and serve the community. The Department of Forestry asked Juanita's class to design an information kiosk that would include elaborate displays telling stories about animals and how they interact with one another. For example, if a rabbit were feeding and a cougar arrived, what would the tracks look like? How many kinds of animal tracks should be included in one story? How many stories could a kiosk hold? What types of measurements and diagrams were needed in charting the stories? Fascinated by animals and eager to learn more, Juanita started attending school regularly. She worked with a group of classmates to solve math problems, research animal habitats and behavior, and plot the space necessary to hold the displays. Because Juanita had a reason to learn mathematics, her pre-algebra grade improved from a low D to a strong B. She gained academic knowledge, a sense of belonging to a larger community, and confidence in her own intellectual ability. What is service learning? Mark and Juanita (not their real names) participated in what may be described as service-learning projects--carefully designed projects that involve curriculum-based learning through service to the community. Looking back on her 32 years of experience, Mark's teacher says, "Service learning is by far the best teaching strategy I've ever used with my students, regardless of their grade or ability. It's a win/win situation.

Students learn in exciting ways, others benefit, and teachers continually get to see the curriculum from a new point of view." Since the early 1980s, politicians, business leaders, and parents have expressed their concern over the diminishing quality of education in America. After cataloguing the deficiencies, they proposed various remedies. The remedy that gained greatest support at federal and local levels has involved drilling students to memorize facts and procedures so they can earn high marks on standardized achievement tests. One problem with this "solution" is that students are uninspired by pointless assignments and rote memorization. On a deeper level, it tends to ignore how the brain works best.

By contrast, service learning is a strategy that offers an effective pathway to academic success for all students, from kindergarten through university. It carefully identifies specific academic objectives in classes such as English, history, science, health, mathematics, and business, and it then invites students to achieve these objectives by actively participating in work that benefits others. Whether the students are "at risk" or well- adjusted, this approach draws forth their full promise. In 2001, the National Commission on Service-Learning chaired by former Sen. John Glenn released a report titled Learning in Deed: The Power of Service- Learning for American Schools. The report defines service learning as "a teaching and learning approach that integrates community service with academic study to enrich learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities." The American Association of Community Colleges calls it "the combination of community service and classroom instruction, with a focus on critical, reflective thinking as well as personal and civic responsibility." Research shows that when community service is tied to academic objectives, young people make gains on achievement tests, take an increased interest in completing their homework, and raise their grade-point average. For example, students in California and Michigan who took part in service-learning projects performed better on standardized tests than did their peers who had not participated in such activities. During the past nine years, more than 13 million students have participated in service-learning projects.

The key reason for the success of this approach seems to be that it is compatible with the way the brain learns best. While we do not have definitive evidence showing how certain teaching strategies affect the brain, scientific discoveries over the past 15 years have provided educators with the beginnings of a foundation for making informed judgments about teaching and learning. Brain research suggests that students learn best when they engage in activities that make academic subjects meaningful. Meaning is not intrinsic to a subject. We assign meaning when we are able to connect academic content with the context of our existing knowledge and experience. Moreover, learning is stimulated when individuals interact with others in supportive ways, and when the activities elicit positive emotions.

Let us therefore explore some relevant aspects of the inner workings of the brain. How the brain learns At birth, the brain is equipped with approximately 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) that are involved in transmitting a variety of messages within the brain and between the brain and the rest of the body. Neurons that are genetically disposed to regulate such things as blood pressure and respiration are ready at birth to carry out their roles. Other neurons--such as those involved in speech, sight, and emotional balance--are also genetically programmed but require stimuli from the outside world to form essential networks before they can function properly. In other words, external stimuli help shape the brain's physical structure. In The Human Brain: A Guided Tour, Susan Greenfield (professor of pharmacology at Oxford and director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain) gives the example of what happened to one infant in Italy suffering from a mild eye infection. The doctor applied medicine and covered the baby's eye with a bandage that remained in place for two weeks. When the bandage was removed, the infection had been cured, but the eye was blind. Neurons that were genetically designated to serve that eye had been prevented from receiving stimulation from the environment. Consequently, the brain cells failed to create circuits to serve the eye, leaving it forever blind.

Likewise, external stimuli affect a person's intelligence. Not too long ago, it was believed that a person's intelligence quotient (IQ) was a single entity, fixed at birth by genetic inheritance. Now, however, many experts believe that intelligence cannot be placed in a single category but is multidimensional and is not fixed but malleable--it can be nurtured to grow. A rich learning environment can raise IQ by as much as 20 points, while an impoverished one can diminish IQ. In particular, after Howard Gardner (professor of education at Harvard) published Frames of Mind in 1983, his theory of multiple intelligences--such as linguistic, musical, spatial, and interpersonal--was widely adopted, with some modifications. Moreover, in The Secret Life of the Brain, neurologist Richard Restak notes that intelligence depends on "the number of interconnections among neurons," and this huge network varies in size and complexity "at different stages of life and according to the challenges that the brain encounters." In response to our myriad daily experiences, the neurons in our brains continually form new connections [see sidebar on "Connections for Communications and Memory"]. In other words, new circuits (networks) are established, altering the brain's physical structure. Based on this knowledge, we can understand why a student's capacity to learn and remember benefits tremendously from a rich learning environment such as that provided by active, hands-on educational opportunities. Service learning emphasizes active schoolwork that engages both body and mind to fulfill a significant purpose. The activities involve the student's five senses in conjunction with the mental faculties for planning, organizing, and decision making. In so doing, external stimuli send messages to various parts of the brain, and abstract subjects become connected to concrete reality. For instance, the sensations of touch, vision, and hearing have been found to activate areas in the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes, respectively. Each activity associated with an academic lesson generates sensory circuits that are stored as "hooks" in different regions of the brain. When any one of these "hooks" is triggered, it evokes a memory of the corresponding lesson. As a result, each activity provides opportunities for the brain to learn and remember. Human beings of any age, but especially during childhood and adolescence, need meaningful, healthy relationships [see sidebar on "Relationships, Emotions, and the Brain"]. Service learning smoothes the way for such relationships to emerge between students, teachers, and the larger community. A large body of anecdotal evidence indicates that service learning almost invariably fills young people with hope, compassion, tolerance, a sense of belonging, and joy. These strong emotions cause the memory to retain the information and events that prompted them. At the same time, service learning helps drive out fear- -particularly the fear caused by insecurity, anonymity, or bullying. Fear often prevents a student from doing well in school. In this manner, through healthy interactions, the participants learn to see themselves and others as important, valuable, and worthy of kindness. In other words, these relationships have a positive influence on their attitudes, values, self-regard, and worldview. Meaning influences memory Normally, each person has an inner drive to survive and be successful in various activities. The person's brain helps sustain this drive. In so doing, the brain tries to make sense of its surroundings--in other words, it seeks meaning. Just as we remember emotionally charged events, or information learned by using the five senses, so also we remember things that mean something to us. In its quest for meaning, the brain tries to connect new information with existing knowledge. Were someone to ask you to drive a U-Haul truck across Nebraska, surely you would wonder, "Have I ever done anything that makes me think I can do that successfully?" Invariably we search our minds to see if they hold information to help us meet a new challenge. We look for meaning in everything we do. This is why students often ask, "Why do we have to learn this?" When they see meaning in their academic material, they can understand it and remember it easily. The brain will retain information that it can arrange into some kind of meaningful pattern. For instance, the names of the Great Lakes can be memorized using the mnemonic "HOMES," derived from the first letter of each lake's name. While artificial mnemonic devices help the brain arrange disparate bits of information, the brain most easily retains facts and complex ideas when it encounters them in context, because context invests facts and ideas with meaning. Service learning also gives young people a voice. Students have a voice in selecting, designing, implementing, and evaluating their project. They are free to make choices, express opinions, weigh issues, and reach conclusions. This self-directed approach allows them to develop various abilities while engaging in work that holds personal meaning. At the end of each activity, students are asked to write down their reflections, evaluating their individual work, behavior, attitudes, and assumptions. Besides helping them recall what they did and how they did it, the reflection period sparks new insights about civic responsibility and relationships with the community. Thus we see that service learning is a brain-compatible teaching method that places academic knowledge in the context of real needs and significant purposes. In so doing, it offers all children the opportunity to develop their promise and achieve a quality education. This educational approach undoubtedly deserves the support of educators and the general public.

Additional Reading Michael H. Dickmann and Nancy Stanford-Blair, Connecting Leadership to the Brain, Thousand Oaks, Calif., Corwin Press, 2001. Karla Gottlieb and Gail Robinson, eds., A Practical Guide for Integrating Civic Responsibility into the Curriculum, Washington, D.C., Community College Press, 2002. Ronald Kotulak, Inside the Brain: Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works, Kansas City, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1996. David Perkins, Outsmarting IQ: The Emerging Science of Learnable Intelligence, New York, Free Press, 1995. Richard Restak, The Secret Life of the Brain, New York, The Dana Press and Joseph Henry Press, 2001. On the Internet The International Partnership for Service-Learning Learning In Deed National Service-Learning Clearinghouse National Service-Learning Exchange

happy reading !
Prof Jo