What is Meaningful Learning?

by Aaron Hovel
Originally posted on Pike Perspectives

I recently attended a workshop titled Modern Learner Lab – Student Agency and Inquiry. In the workshop the topic centered around student agency. The presenters asserted that learner agency is shifting because of modern technologies.  We can now learn Algebra, the Civil War, or French anytime, anywhere, and with anyone we choose. At the same time, the future of work is more and more unclear. I discussed this in a previous post about how automation is claiming more and more jobs.  Because of this shift, where learning can and does happen anywhere and anytime, they asked us to rethink our classroom practices based on the below 3 frameworks.

First Framework – What is meaningful learning?
Take a moment now to answer that question in your head or write it down. I have been an educator for all of my adult life, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until recently, I would have had a hard time defining meaningful learning on the spot. That’s because I’ve thought so much about teaching and about what good teaching looks like. When I think about schools and education, I envision the teacher. To answer this question I need to envision the learner, and as a teacher, I need to be the chief learner and work hard to create a learning culture rather than a teaching culture. Ok, do you have your definition of meaningful learning now? I really like this definition of learning by Mark Heintz  @MrMarkHeintz⁩  “Meaningful learning is being engaged in the process of developing new understandings or skill sets that are useful in our lives.”  You can read more about his journey to define learning. How does his definition compare to yours?

Second Framework – The Modern Context
In other words, this framework encourages you to rethink your classroom practices based on the changes that are occurring in the world because of developments in technology. I discussed this in the first paragraph but to recap,  information is ubiquitous and learning can happen anywhere. The skills that our students will need in the future are changing. Top among these skills is solving messy or ill-structured problems and persuasive communication.

Third Framework – Classroom practices
Lastly, they asked us to consider classroom practices. Does our teaching align with what we believe about powerful learning and with what we understand about the modern context?  The workshop facilitators explained that this is where they see the most disconnect. Often times classroom practices do not match what we know about meaningful learning and the changes in the world today.  They challenged us to provide students with more choice or agency over what they learn, real-world problems, real audiences, and a culture that supports learning by both students and teachers alike. When students choose what they want to learn, rather than what they are told to learn, meaningful learning occurs.

The room was full of teachers and this was a difficult topic of discussion for many of us. Most teachers have spent their lives teaching a curriculum; predetermined “important” set of knowledge that we think all students should learn by the end of the year. Can we really give that up and trust students to choose what they want to learn? I agree that choosing what I want to learn increases the chances that the learning will be meaningful to me, but what if I never choose to learn cell structure or genetic inheritance (you might be able to tell I was a science teacher)? Or Shakespeare? Does it matter? As I left the workshop, I was definitely intrigued by the idea of giving students more choice in what they learn. I’m thankful to work at Pike where exploring ideas like this are encouraged and supported. I’m curious about your thoughts on student agency. Should students be given more control over their learning?  Do you believe there a set of knowledge that all students should have? Do you think student learning should be transformed to keep pace with the rapid technology changes in the world?

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