Perhaps no other field is subject to so many proposed changes, gimmick programs, shotgun strategies and steadfast adherence to damaging practices all in the name of progression than education. There are various interests competing for attention, time and a financial inroad into the field of education. From the freelancers and consultants, to the private corporations with their replication models, there is no dearth of ‘expert’ ideas on how to best promote ‘meaningful learning,’ whatever the motivation may be.
Recently, a colleague of mine posed some questions in a Facebook forum focused on what students loved and didn’t love about school and tossed in a question geared to ascertain thoughts about flipped learning. I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to sit with a group of high school students and pose these and other questions to them about learning. While I won’t post what they said here verbatim, it was significant to me that these students wanted meaningful learning experiences and could articulate what they felt meaningful learning entails.
When it came to the idea of flipped learning, the following is what they had to say. This is neither an indictment nor an endorsement of flipped learning; it is merely a report of students' thoughts and questions. I'll post most of it here verbatim. “Flipped learning can be just as bad as any other way of doing it, if it's just about teaching stuff that doesn't matter or isn't interesting.” “Flipped learning can be a good tool if used in the right way.” “It would be like doing homework or would take about the same amount of time.” “If you did all the lessons that way, it would take forever. You might have hours of lessons to listen to at night.” “I don't really have a great computer or internet connection. Wouldn't I need that to do the lesson?” “I like doing lessons with the teacher because we can discuss it and ask questions right there.” “Might be able to do this sometimes, but I don't think you can do this a lot.” “Interesting, but not everyone would like it or would want to do it.” “Do teachers really want to do this?” “Couldn't we just make the what happens during the day fun, meaningful and what we're interested in?”
Perhaps what this tells us is that students are conscious of what is happening to them in the name of education and are not just passive receptacles. What struck me about what they had to say is that they asked critical questions, were honest about their thoughts, asked that what they are expected to do be meaningful, and they didn’t buy into something simply because it was ‘new’ or a ‘different’ approach. Because something is new or different, it doesn’t necessarily translate into having meaning.
The conversation kept coming full circle to the notion that learning can and should be meaningful.
Meaningful learning, according to the students, is learning that is relevant and connected to something bigger; they want to know that what they are being asked to do has a point and is going to help them realize their dreams or at least give them the ability to chase them. The students suggested that meaningful learning happens when you feel something while you’re doing it. “You can almost feel that you’re learning.”
It isn’t so much about not having tolerance for mundane tasks, it’s about having a low threshold for doing things that others tell you have meaning when they really don’t. Students understand that they have to trust that sometimes the meaning in what they’re doing isn’t immediately apparent. They accept that. What they don’t accept is when everything they do is a wait-and-see exercise. ‘Just wait; when you get older, you’ll see how taking all these tests were meaningful.’
Really, why should they be okay with spending their days doing things that have very little meaning? Why should anyone be okay with that? We hear over and over that young people are lazy, they don’t want to work hard or sacrifice and they want everything now. This is blamed on everything from the Internet to ‘passive parenting.’ There a few problems with this mindset. For one, it isn’t true of most young people, and even if it were, it still wouldn’t make spending their days enveloped in meaningless tasks justifiable.
It may be that having the freedom to explore interests and go deeper into that area of interest is what creates the opportunities for meaningful learning. Many have written about and have explored the fact that when students are working on topics that interest them and have meaning, they will learn the three R’s and many other important life skills. In fact, this type of learning is deeper, longer lasting and makes it more likely that there is a personal investment in the learning.
Taking a brief detour to the standardized test way of measuring learning, when students engage in meaningful learning while at school, they tend to perform better on standardized tests, since meaningful learning tends to connect many different sets of skills and ways of being and doing. Meaningful learning can be a true partnership between adults and young people, where knowledge is shared and built upon.
Unfortunately, this is not how most young people spend their time at school. Most young people have the ‘sage-on-the-stage-type' learning to contend with. This is where they have little say in what they learn or do and spend their time listening to an adult tell them this and that. Used in conjunction with other ways of getting ideas across, this can be effective; used as the sole way of ‘learning,’ it’s -- at best -- ineffective.
Listening to those who have their own self-aggrandizing, ego-driven, financial agendas that have nothing to do with meaningful learning is, in part, how we ended up here. When it comes to meaningful learning, we have to listen to our young people more often, trust them to make good decisions and make sure there is the freedom to explore interests and ideas so they can 'feel the learning' and ‘make what happens during the day fun, meaningful and based on student interests.’