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Teaching to support meaning making?

"adolescents on the path to higher levels of academic achievement and self-actualization showed cognitive and emotional dispositions toward both concrete and abstract meaning-making in their narratives. They constructed a compelling story for themselves that integrates information about the individual situations, facts, actions, and emotions that seem most salient, and then effortfully deliberated on this story by connecting to larger patterns, systems, beliefs, or values they have been exposed to that seem pertinent. The result is a narrative that explains the here-and-now in terms of a bigger, deeper, personally relevant, and intellectually satisfying understanding." (emphasis my own)

This quote is from Mary Helen Immordino-Yang in her ASCD article on building meaning being great for teenager brain development. Mary Helen's work has shown that learning is a meaning making process that is not divorced of emotion but intertwined with it - and that it is also reliant on the social and cultural aspects of our lives. She has shown that learners learn when they build the material, that they are being presented with, into a grander narrative into which they situate themselves in a way that personally matters.

Learners yearn for meaning that content coverage does not guarantee

I have started to ask students what they want from their education. I am often surprised by their answers and would encourage any readers to ask their learners a similar question.

One group of Grade 9s (~15-16yrs old) told me they want education to help them to understanding the news. They told me that they hated not fully understanding enough to make sense of the world around them. They lamented that school wasn't helping them in this matter but seemed more interested in telling them what has been. In their perception what school wanted to teach them and what they wanted to know fell into two separate buckets. You only need to know a little about learning and/or teenagers and you will know that this is a problem:

Teenagers want to understand the world around them - this wildly confusing, constantly changing world and they don't think school is helping them to do this.

learners learn when they build the material they are being presented with, into a grander narrative that situates themselves in a way that personally matters.

In Mary Helen's paradigm, education's primary role is to help students to build personally relevant coherent narratives.

Concepts - the meeting place of ideas

One place to look, for a teaching approach that enables students to find meaning, is in the concept based learning movement. Here the focus is on big ideas that carry meaning across domains, a process often referred to as Far Transfer. There has been a lot of great work in terms of supporting students in constructing conceptual understandings. I would, to this end, recommend the Learning that Transfers book.

Meaning resides in the 'in between'

What I have learned from these explorations is that meaning exists in the 'in between'. What I mean by this is that how learners express the links, connections and relationships between concepts is an articulation of how they understand things. Give them two words, for example Power and Choice and ask them to write about what links these is a first step to meaning building. As they add more concepts to this understanding a more complex expression of meaning making emerges.

Concepts - the route to personal meaning

Before I progress, I need to deal with a bug that seems to have crept into the concept based learning ecosystem. There exists an unspoken default that concepts have a single true meaning; perhaps this arises because Lynn Ericsson described concepts as universal and unchanging. It is plainly not the case, concepts are contextual (eg different disciplines or schools within disciplines hold different perspectives on these ideas) and contemporaneous (ideas change over time and culture). This view, of the contextual influence of meaning, is a crucial insight of the field of social semiotics. What we should know then is that learners will arrive at different understandings about how the world works (indeed they may develop meanings that conflict with other generated meanings). This can lead to times when learners can really dig into the issues. In doing so they learn to question assumptions, to explore their own cultural ties, and it pushes learners to justify each position that they hold - surely an essential skill considering where we are at right now.

So instead of seeing concepts as 'libraries', where terms are defined, it better to see concepts as being 'coffee houses', places to meet, to share and compare ideas. Concepts are category labels but they hold diverse ideas not a single universal one.

Scaffolding complexity

We know from Bloom's work that the work of creating is a high level task. The same surely is true for a learner who is creating meaning - it takes students to the pinnacle of thinking because it involves the construction (creation) of individualised (innovative) understanding.

In the classroom, teachers understand that the route to successful complex thinking is, at least in the initial stages, via a carefully constructed scaffolded process. What then are the scaffolds to support narrative building? How do we effectively support learner expressions of their conceptions of meaning?

A framework to support meaning making

To this end have developed a framework that all subjects can use. In using this model discrete explorations of meaning can find themselves a stage and can thus contribute to wider narratives that learners can build.

The framework is designed to help learners place meaning within three main arenas and their interaction with each other. The arenas are the individual, the communities in which they interact and the wider systems (economic, political, environmental etc) at large. It poses the question of how their identity is shaped by and shapes their community. It explores how collective meanings, values and beliefs influence the decisions communities make and the impact that has on the social, political, economic, environmental and cultural systems around us.

By arranging the elements in this way it implicitly embeds two crucial questions:

  1. How does the world fit together and what is our place and purpose in it?

  2. How do we exert influence and effect the changes that we value?

By adopting a common framework across the subject groups we embed Systems Thinking into our curriculum conversations. We support learners in taking insights from one subject to another. Learners are supported in seeing their place and their influence (upon and from) the wider community. They can use the framework to explore how society impacts on the systems around us in multifaceted ways and consider what actions that they could take to amplify their own impact and influence on systemic issues that concern them.

The concepts embedded in the model open up several areas of exploration in terms of key human motivations for systemic decision making. They are not the only ones. Nor are they THE fundamental concepts, behind each concept there are other profound concepts. Indeed some of these deeper concepts shape multiple of the concepts shown in the framework (examples include Power, Perspectives and Reasoning)

I do not see the model as complete but nor to I think it should be. I believe that it will stimulate new ways of thinking. It is deliberately flexible enough to include other concepts and respond to novel insights. The model should remain adaptable such that learners can add to it - as this in its own right is a road to wider meaning making.

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