There is much debate of what meaningful learning is and how it can be achieved. This debate can be traced back, and even beyond, what Dewey was arguing in 1938. He was attempting to state a case for schools to have an acceptance of what he called ‘collateral learning’. This can be compared to what Stenhouse (1975) referred to as the ‘hidden curriculum’ (in Moyles and Hargreaves, 2003). This being the inevitable learning undertaken by students outside of the prescribed school curriculum. The learning of likes and dislikes, and attitudes towards school and ones own learning (Dewey, in Hlebowitsh, 1994: 340). Dewey was arguing 70 years ago that teachers failing to motivate each student’s personal interest, and ignoring the value of this inevitable learning which took place outside of the planned curriculum, was done so at the peril of the teachers, school and pupils. Acceptance of only the learning that had been planned by the teacher, ignored the extensiveness of learning that could have possibly taken place for each child. Pollard (2008) continues this argument by defining learning as the process, understanding and application of knowledge, skills and attitudes; as well as ‘feelings towards themselves, towards each other and towards learning itself’ (170). He states therefore, that learning is not purely cognitive and prescribed, but is instead a combination involving social and affective elements also.
Pollard advocates a constructivist approach in which the learner has an independent and active role in his/her own learning, which can be achieved after an understanding from the teacher of the child’s current point of knowledge and understanding, by employing Vygotsky’s scaffolding of the Proximal Zone of development (in Pollard: 178). In this way the teacher has a clear idea of the child’s current point of understanding, before introducing a new concept which will extend that understanding and thus have meaning for the child on a personalized level. Quicke, 1999, also argues for this type of understanding of the learner. He has defined a ‘good learner’ as a student who is active rather than passive in his/her own learning, finding connections between existing and new knowledge, and critically assessing understanding of the features and meaningfulness to his/her life and social environment (34). He states that a ‘thinking skills teacher’ is necessary in order for students to become ‘good learners’. A thinking skills teacher is one who encourages students to become aware of their own thought processes and learning. He states that the overall aim of such a teacher would be to ‘foster a critical disposition rather than merely to teach skills’ (Quicke, 1999: 39).
In order for learning to be meaningful the teacher must put the students in the position of understanding not only what has been learnt but also how this can be useful to them in their own lives. Without this understanding of relevance, learning is limited and will likely not be memorized. In order for relevance to be acquired students must have the opportunity to discuss, explore, question and evaluate, as McDermott has stated ‘learning does not belong to individual persons, but to the various conversations of which they are a part’ without this there is ‘no learning and there is little memory’ (in Collins and Cook, 2001: 68).
Skelton (in Hayden et al., 2006) discusses Claxton’s notion of ‘slow thinking’, stating that learning is a mixture of knowledge, skills, understanding and practice. It is over time and practice that the meaningfulness of learning comes to light through the ‘slow’ emergence of understanding. (46). Skelton goes on to state the real danger of what happens in many schools; explaining that frequently, schools recognize the importance of knowledge, skills and understanding but view them within a hierarchy, giving more importance to one above the others. Skelton, argues that all should be given equal importance within a student’s learning and that real understanding is the product of a combination of knowledge, skills and relevant practice.
In summarizing what is meaningful learning, Bruner (in Leach and Moon, 2007: 18) has stated that
‘Modern pedagogy is moving increasingly to the view that the child should be aware of her own thought processes, and that it is crucial for the pedagogical theorist and teacher alike to help her to become more meta-cognitive – to be as aware of how she goes about her learning and thinking as she is about the subject matter she is studying. Achieving skill and accumulating knowledge are not enough. The learner can be helped to achieve full mastery by reflecting as well upon how she is going about her job and how her approach can be improved. Equipping her with a good theory of mind – or a theory of mental functioning – is one part of helping her do so.
In order for a child to gain meaningful understanding she must be made to consider the way in which she learns. The teacher should adopt the ‘thinking skills’ approach and help the child consider the process she has undertaken to arrive at understanding (meta-cognition). The teacher should also enable the child to reflect upon the meaning of this new knowledge and understanding in the context of relevance to her life and beliefs. In this way the learning takes on meaning for the child and should not only be remembered but also used for transfer into other areas of learning. For knowledge to be useful it must be remembered and used, as opposed to forgotten after an exam. By attaining this type of learning and understanding the child as a whole is able to develop and continue learning in a positive and personalized way, achieving ‘personalized learning … maximizing all learners’ capacity to learn, achieve and participate’ (TDA, 2007, in Pollard, 2008: 171).
Emma is the Primary School Coordinator for the English curriculum. She is the co-founding member of Acorn House along with Ms. Diena.