Make Learning Meaningful

There are hundreds of manuals and workbooks and binders out there about how to teach and train young people, with most of them being well-intended and sometimes interesting. I’m guilty of writing more than one. But sometimes I forget to boil it down to its essence, the point.

Here are three elements for how to make learning meaningful:

  1. Relevancy – Young people know what they like, at any age. Sure, they’re constantly learning more things they like, but from the age of none my daughter has been communicating to me what she thinks is interesting and good. In my experience as I’ve grown up I’ve become so finite in what I like that I have to be conscientious of what bias I’m introducing to my daughter in order to ensure that I’m actually listening to her and in order to attempt understanding what she finds relevant. And relevancy isn’t just about likes and dislikes – its about where we’re been, where we’re going, and who we are, individually and collectively. Working in hundreds of classrooms across the country I’ve consistently heard from young poeplethat this is the most important part of their learning: That if they don’t see why, they might be able to see what – BUT they won’t feel how, and they won’t know where, when, who, or why.
  2. Transparent Teaching – Students want teachers who are real, fallible humans who act as co-learners, fellow searchers, and when appropriate, facilitators and leaders. Transparency gives teachers a mental frame for how to be real with learners. This is an important differentiation with traditional teaching, if for no other reason than because of the democratization of the process embodied inside of this way of approaching learning and teaching. Opening up oneself to demystifying teaching allows young people to conceive of themselves as both learners and teachers, and in turn gives them permission to see teachers as more than dictators. This creates a less hierarchical perspective, which in turn challenges the very nature of traditional schooling and learning.
  3. Speak by Listening. When I first read this adage in one of Paulo Freire’s books I didn’t understand exactly what he was alluding to. However, in the years since I continuously seen people who I admire live by this simple guideline. How we speak to others is a calling card for our self-perception, and in turn how we perceive others. To speak by listening means to let your receptivity, your ego and your ability sit exposed for the people you’re listening to.

There are many other keys, including appealing to multiple intelligences, using small groups, create action items, constantly checking-in, and avoiding the “trick-and-treat syndrome” that plagues so many well-meaning but poorly-executed community and school programs. We have to reach higher, and these points are meant to help teachers and youth workers make learning meaningful.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Published by Adam

For almost two decades, Adam F. C. Fletcher has led international outreach focused on engaging people successfully. Working with thousands of youth-serving nonprofits, K-12 schools, government agencies, international NGOs and other organizations around the world, his work spans the fields of education, public health, economic development and social services, and includes professional development, public speaking, publishing, social media and more. He founded the Freechild Institute for Youth Engagement, SoundOut and CommonAction, as well as writing more than 50 publications and 500 articles. He has also established 150-plus community empowerment projects.

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1 Comment

  1. The title of this post implies that a teacher can imbue the learning process with meaning. Consider the possibility that, in fact, the only person who can assign meaning to a learner’s experiences is the learner him/herself.

    I explore this idea in an essay entitled “Honoring the State’s Interest in Learning.” The key point I was making in this essay was about how the definition of education we use determines how we approach the learner. If we define education as the process successfully jumping through the hoops a school puts in front of you, then the status quo is good enough.

    On the other hand I assert that an “educated person” is better defined as someone who is able to perceive accurately, think clearly, act effectively on self-selected goals and aspirations, and engage in an on-going process of cognitive cartography in which they map out their experiences and their relationship to reality as they understand it. This is what I call the education-as-attitude position.

    Given the education-as-attitude position then what is “educational” is dependent on being aware of each individual student’s situation in time and space plus what his/her different choices in the past and future mean in relation to their current goals and aspirations.

    These are entirely unique to each individual and cannot be predicted or controlled by anyone else.

    What makes any experience “educational” is an emergent property of how the individual interacts with their environment.

    Given this point of view, which is what I think Paulo Freiere was really getting at, then the teacher is inherently put in a position where s/he must have the humility to acknowledge that s/he does not have all the power. The teacher is not in a position to provide meaning, though the teacher can perhaps facilitate the process of creating meaning that the learner is engaged in.

    This also changes the whole notion of what should count as professional teaching skills, but that’s a different conversation.


    Don Berg



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