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What's meaningful about meaningful learning?

I'm an analytical thinker so when I hear catch phrases such as 'personalising learning' or 'engagement' my brain begins the process of analysing the language, considering its colloquial and professional contexts, and wondering how it will be interpreted (and misinterpreted) by those on the receiving end of the communication. Most recently I've been thinking about the term 'meaningful learning' and what it means within a learning context. I asked a few students the question 'What is meaningful learning for you?' and received varied responses:

"Learning is meaningful if I'm interested in it. Sometimes I'm interested because it's something I want to know more about for its own sake and sometimes it's because it will lead to qualifications that I'm interested in gaining."

"Learning has meaning for me if it leads me to take action. Some learning seems to have more meaning for the teachers than for me but I have to do it anyway."

"Meaningful - mmm. What does THAT mean? I guess it would have to be real - I have to be able to see a fit between what I'm learning about and how I can apply it in real life."

"This has to be different for different people. I love Art and History so learning is meaningful when I'm involved in something related to these areas because it's important to who I am. It's also meaningful when it touches me personally and respects my culture because that's who I am."

Dr Judith Boettcher addresses the question of what constitutes meaningful learning in her paper entitled 'What is Meaningful Learning? From Bits and Bytes to Knowledge and Skills in 15 Weeks…'

She suggests some of the following definitions for meaningful learning.

  • Learning that changes one’s brain structure;
  • Learning that supports and enables growth of more knowledge
  • Learning that changes a person’s life. 

Meaningful learning, in short, is learning that makes a difference—in one’s mind and in one’s life.

It would seem that Dr Boettcher and the students share similar ideas about what makes learning meaningful - what are your thoughts?

Have a look at my 2010 Social Sciences class (year 10) website for an example of inquiry-based learning leading to social action.


  • Kate Morgan

    I agree that this 'meaningful learning' is what motivates children. I really enjoyed looking at your website. I have a group of Years 2, 3 and 4 children(mainly 6 and 7 year olds) who have a day together each week with like-minded peers.Some of them have investigated the Kiwi and made money to buy stoat traps etc. I have found that this type of learning builds relationships within the community and now we are invited to release the Kiwi to the bush etc. This term the children are embarking on running a successful business (a restaurant they will run) and at present, are discussing where they should put the profit from the business. I would be interested in seeing what other primary schools are doing with their inquiries and how they are logging their work. Our wiki site is www.inquiryteam1.wikispaces.com. I welcome any suggestions or ideas on how to enhance this programme even further.

  • Anne Sturgess

    Thanks Kate, I loved your wiki site and especially enjoyed the Designing a New City page. I had the pleasure and privilege of visiting classrooms in several different primary schools not long ago and was delighted to see so many young learners working/learning in different 'spaces' in the rooms. In one Year 1 class I saw 5-year-olds all engaged in learning of their own choosing (within a teaching framework of course); the teacher was working with one child on his individual goals, others were in the class library, some were practising their letter shapes, others were using computers to access different learning tasks, and other tinies were using the camera to create digital stories. Their excitement about learning was palbable. Wonderful!

  • Jo Wilson


    Thanks very much for the invitation to enjoy this group - this discussion has certainly hooked me in. Over the last few years I have spent many hours discussing this question with colleagues in a range of forums. To me 'what is meaningful about meaningful learning' is that is a cognitive process that is personalized (mind you your initial comment has got me rethinking about this term), relevant and meaningful to the individual. I think this process  occurs in a range of contexts and can be surface and deep, involves thinking, engagement, transfer, challenge, building and creation of new knowledge.

    I also think that the critical factor in meaningful learning is the learner  - as ultimately the learner will determine whether the learning is meaningful, so its our role as educators to ensure we pick the best scaffolds to ensure that this is the case.

    My written thoughts for today - but will be pondering on this one

  • Anne Sturgess

    Thanks Jo. A question I have is: Can learning seem meaningless when you first 'learn' it but meaningful in a future context, i.e. on reflection? I agree that, as with so many reactions, we can have degrees of meaningful experience and these might deepen or lessen depending on future experiences. The questions for us, as educators, is how do we ensure learning is sufficiently meaningful and accessible for ALL our learners. My perception is that it is gifted students for whom learning most often seems meaningless and disengaging (as in 'mentally and emotionally disconnected).



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