Thursday, January 10, 2013

Meaningful Learning

What makes learning meaningful? And how could we increase the meaningfulness perceived by students?

We already know from research how much easier is to deep learn anything that makes sense and piques interest, so just utilizing that basic understanding about learning fundamentals would help schools achieve better results. Of course it is ridiculous to assume the same things interest all students, so introducing choice would be a good place to start.

Meaningful learning[1] allows students to acquire knowledge in a way that is useful for them. When you can use learned information easily, this often means that you have stored it in several different places in your mind, and you can also access that knowledge in different contexts - this is what we refer as transfer in the teaching jargon, but it actually is the natural or original way of learning.  Several contexts equals multiple connections and these multiple connections mean the objective is deep learned, because it is integrated to everything else we  know, so well that it cannot be separated from them. No learning loss happens to this knowledge - but then again it requires the content to have personal value to the learner, to be meaningful.

Learning is highly individual and takes anything between 2 milliseconds to 25 years to happen, yet in educational systems we often expect students to complete learning tasks within a certain time frame. Why? Wouldn't it be better to allow some flexibility and let students learn in their own pace? We already have the necessary technology to do provide highly individualized learning, but are still somehow stuck in the cohort mentality. We should more diligently use tools for learning facilitation instead of sticking in traditional teaching and lecturing, because the time needed for learning is different for each student. Acquiring knowledge requires individual amount of interactions between the student and the material to be learned. These interactions can vary from reading to discussions and projects, and from lecturing to engaging students in a learning game - and the guiding principle should be meaningfulness for the learner, because that guarantees better quality learning.

Meaningful learning is also competency based, so that regurgitating same content for umpteenth time is understood and accepted to be unnecessary. This is also the basic recipe for truly diverse classrooms: students get to learn what they need to learn, not what their peers need to learn. Facilitating self-paced and autonomous learning would be extremely easy with existing technology, so why don't we use all our tech like that? I am afraid the answer is quite ugly: we want to control what our students are learning, and how they do that (and also measure their performance). So we are asked to teach everything and everyone in the same way, and wish our students would miraculously deep learn it all, and even find it meaningful. Then we reprimand students for not being happy and enthusiastic to learn, or at least work hard to memorize all the (unnecessary) information we pour onto them. I know there are too many details in any given curriculum, and not enough higher level concepts - but there are many daily choices for teachers to either teach those details or facilitate students learning about them.

While discussing with the teachers I mentor there is one common theme they highlight about their work: the blissful feeling of being successful in teaching when a student has an "a-ha!" - moment. In that moment learning is extremely meaningful for the student, and it often has been described like windows suddenly opening and seeing the world/ the problem with new eyes. What happens in reality is brain creating new connections and applying knowledge in a new context. The extreme case of this is a flow experience, which can be quite addictive, actually.

Empowering students to learn helps them to like learning - or even crave  for more knowledge and understanding. This means they are learning for life not just for school. We can change the future world by choosing to provide meaningful learning experiences for our students. How do you choose to teach today?

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