-by Dan Jones-
I am ready to put on my leather fedora, ensure my trusty whip is at my side, and go on an adventure that will lead to one of the most significant discoveries of all humanity. This year we are going to be the ones who discover what many have searched for over the years, but no one seems to know how to locate. Few seem to have the time to devote to uncovering this mystery, but now time is on our side. We will venture into the realm of the unknown and cross impossible bridges in our search for the ever elusive and desperately coveted artifact: meaning.
As any adventure does, we begin with our map. The problem is that as educators, our curriculum maps tell us where to go, but they do not tell us how to get there. It is important to know where we are heading on this journey, but our quest is not a destination. Instead, we are searching for the pathways that give the destination context or relevance. It is essential to know where we are starting so that we can plan a route that engages our audience, and we don’t lose anyone along the way. Educators do not want their students saying, “This isn’t for me!” or “I cannot see where I am going!” We need to allow our students to lead us on this adventure and help them not only to see the path but also blaze their own.
My journey to find meaning began in high school. In 1995, I remembered sitting in my geometry class and thinking: why on earth do I need to know how to find the area of a cone? The only thing I cared about a cone was how much ice cream I could put in it. I was not alone in my thinking. The number of times my math teacher expressed that we would probably never use the content presented made it so no one in the class, no matter how smart, cared about the content. Presenting material for the sole purpose of “I have to teach this,” does not equate to teaching. It is merely content without context. If we are not putting content into real-world scenarios or adding context to what is being taught, then we cannot say that we are teaching it. All we have done is present it.
Math class is not the only content area where this becomes an issue. After teaching reading and language arts as well as social studies, I have heard students express, “Why do we have to learn about things that have nothing to do with us?” Indeed, that is a profound question. It was one that caused me to search for that missing element in my instruction: meaning. We have all been following our curriculum maps to reach the end of our yearly adventures, but our maps lack a critical element that gives our adventure purpose; answering the questions, “Why do I need to learn this?” (context), and “When am I ever going to use this information?” (relevance).
If students are going to internalize the content that we have been charged with teaching, context and relevance have to be the cornerstone. We should have known for years that meaning was a missing element to the classroom, so the question becomes: how do I build it into what I am already doing? This question becomes easier to answer when we stop to look at the focus of what we are doing. Ask yourself the following question: Once my students master this content, what will they be able to do? Content is valuable, but we must plan how our students will connect with the content, as well as what skills that material will build within them. Because of the complexity of our students, here are five strategies for reaching every student and rooting your lessons in meaning.
Mike Anderson, author of Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, suggests that providing students with choice in the classroom helps to build relevance, and it allows students to connect with content through their interests and passions; essentially, they create their personalized context. We know that students have a more profound sense of ownership when they have determined the way in which they express their understanding of the content. Flipped Learning provides every teacher in every classroom with the freedom to position students to take ownership of their learning and build meaning into each lesson. As flipped classroom educators, we have to relax our grip on the educational reins, and we must enable students to guide their learning according to their educational needs and connections.
Context and relevance are at the heart of differentiation. It is no surprise that asking every student to complete all the work, in the same manner, is NOT best practice. True differentiation is impossible in a traditional class. Flipped Learning provides teachers with the TIME to provide differentiation effectively. Carol Ann Tomlinson wrote in her book Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners, 2nd Edition, “In differentiated classrooms, teachers ensure that students compete against themselves as they grow and develop more than they compete against one another, always moving toward—and often beyond—designated content goals.” The focus is on the student and ensures that the student is connecting with content in a personal way that builds meaning into the way content is learned. Differentiation leads us right into number 3.
Project Based Learning is a culmination of student choice and differentiation. If meaning in the classroom had a soul, PBL would be it. This particular instructional method encourages students to design their projects using their passions, interests, and skills. John R. Mergendoller wrote a blog piece for the Buck Institute for Education in which he quotes John Dewey’s work saying, “The teacher becomes a partner in the learning process, guiding students to independently discover meaning within the subject area.” Project Based Learning allows students to interact with content in different and relevant ways and, by doing so, allows them to discover the meaning in the lesson. We, as educators, do not have to construct the meaning for them. Because students are so varied, students must be positioned to take such ownership of their learning that they can construct the meaning in the learning. The question surrounding PBL has primarily been: How is PBL possible with every lesson? Simply put, Flipped Learning provides us with the time to do PBL with every lesson. If we are going to build meaning into each lesson, we need to involve our students in the learning within our class.
It is easy to confuse student choice with student voice, but they are very different. Allowing students the opportunity to share how content has impacted or affected them is critical to building meaning into the lesson, but it doesn’t mean you have to cede authority to your students. It can be challenging to step back and not interject meaning into a lesson. Telling students what they should have gotten out of a lesson distances the student from the content coverage. That makes the lesson all about you, instead of all about them. If students are provided with opportunities to share their takeaways from content, they can build context and relevance within the curriculum. Robin Robertson wrote an article for the American Psychological Association titled Helping Students Find Relevance. In this article, she states, “Having students relate their (my emphasis) perceptions and experiences to the current topic is a great way to provide relevance.” She goes on to discuss that when students can express their connections with the content, they can go deeper into the content as well as identify if they are making accurate connections.
When the community is brought into a lesson, students can instantly see how the content being presented connects with their real world. Imagine teaching students about angles or shapes using a map of their local community or reading the works of literature from a local author in their town. Allowing students to discuss their community and issues within it allows them to have deeper buy-in and see the relevance of content. Immordino-Yang and Faeth wrote an article titled Building Smart Students: A Neuroscience Perspective on the Role of Emotion and Skilled Intuition in Learning. In it, they wrote, “When the students are involved in designing the lesson, they become clearer on the goal of the lesson, and more emotionally invested in and attached to the learning outcomes.”
Meaning plays such an essential role in educating students that we cannot continue to ignore it. We are given curriculum maps, but they do not lead us to meaning. It is our responsibility to our students to provide them with paths by which they can establish their context and relevance. At the end of this adventure we started, we see why meaning was so elusive all along. Meaning lives in the hearts of our individual students, and it’s different for each one. We can never hope to discover meaning in our classrooms, but we can (and should) open our students to finding their own meaning in our content and embrace that meaning as their own.
To reach every student every day, we need to ensure that every lesson is relevant and contextualized for the students. We need them to connect with the content in a way that allows them to understand why they need to learn it. These five strategies can help teachers allow students to engage differently with the content and build their connections and meaning.