Making learning meaningful

Education should focus on making learning meaningful for students, instead of simply learning subjects to pass tests

Associate Professor John Quay, University of Melbourne

Published 23 November 2017

Ask people what the purpose of formal education is, and many will narrowly say it is ultimately to prepare young people to get a job.

Then ask the next question: how does it help someone to get a job? And the answers become a bit woolly.

Formal education is organised around subjects, but this isn’t always the best way for students to learn. Picture: iStock

For schools and tertiary institutions the emphasis is primarily on knowing. Jobs are comprised of knowledge, so increased knowledge helps you get a job.

For industries and professions, the emphasis is chiefly on doing. Jobs are comprised of skills, so expanded skills help you get a job.

However, both claims miss the bigger picture, which is that we need to be engaging kids with the meaning of knowledge and skills.

Until we reshape education around teaching the meaning of knowledge and skills, rather than learning subjects for some abstract assessment like a test, our education system will fail to align effectively with people’s real lives.

The importance of occupations

For many people, jobs are about being someone. Jobs say who you are.

As the Productivity Commission says in its recent Shifting the Dial report “for almost all of us, [jobs] are more than a source of income. They provide opportunities for social interaction; a source of self-esteem; or a feeling of purpose through making a contribution to a profession or community.”

We all occupy a wide range of ‘occupations’, from being a parent to our paid jobs. Picture: Alexander Dummer/Unsplash

But an income-generating job is just one form of what educationalists more broadly call an ‘occupation’. Occupations explain how we are occupied, what we are engaged with, who we are being.

Being-a-parent is an occupation. Being-a-sister is an occupation. And occupations change over a life-time. Being a parent to a baby is different from being a parent to an adolescent. Being a sister at five years old, is different from being a sister at fifteen or fifty.

And occupations come and go.

Lamplighters, switchboard operators and typists have disappeared and the coming and going of different occupations is accelerating as technology changes.

These changes in occupations are changes that comes with life, not merely skill and knowledge changes. And while we know an occupation is comprised of knowledge and skills, in schooling we often miss that the reverse is also true: that knowledge and skills are relevant in an occupation. It is the occupation that gives knowledge and skill meaning.

We can give young people a better start in life if we are aware that life is a journey through occupations, including at school. Knowledge and skills are best taught through occupations that are meaningful to the young people involved.

Teaching through occupations

Teachers in early childhood education are very good at this. It is virtually impossible to sit young children in chairs for hours and imbue them with knowledge and skills deemed important by someone else, as we can strive to do with older children and adolescents.

Early childhood teachers instinctively respond to individual children’s interests and natures. Picture: Katia Strieck/Flickr

So early childhood education must be organised around who these children are. Knowledge and skills are learnt through occupations that are socially significant to the children, such as being-a-maker-of-model-dinosaurs.

Early childhood teachers know more than just curriculum; they know the myriad occupations that engage their children. They use this understanding to design experiences that intentionally situate the required knowledge and skill relevantly. A teacher then can teach knowledge and skills by working with children to design and make model dinosaurs.

But things go awry when children reach school. School education is designed around ‘units of work’ – usually as topics. An occupation then becomes simply being-a-year-9-science-student, but it is artificial because its main meaning is to pass an assessment. It doesn’t compare with being-a-year-9-tennis-team-member, or being-a-friend-with-Jenny-and-Sophie, or being-someone-on-Snapchat.

Distilling knowledge and skill from occupations where they are relevant and teaching them to young people in artificial occupations – such as being-a-year-9-science-student (which is not the same as being-a-scientist) – is at the heart of why kids become disengaged. Around 40 per cent of our students are involved in unproductive behaviours.

Many students are disengaged with traditional education. Picture: Pexels

Instead, units of work should be explicitly organised through genuine occupations that express who these young people are – taking into account their backgrounds, histories, experiences, dreams, interests, abilities – and embedding the required knowledge and skills in meaningful social and material contexts.

These genuine occupations are often defined by the creations that will result – for example, working in groups over a term to design and craft a video that teaches other children how to work with fractions. Creations signal an occupation as a creative process, positioning those involved as creative people.

I have been teaching pre-service and in-service teachers how to understand such units of work as ‘creativity units’. They structure the creative process using design criteria, connected with curriculum, which support giving and receiving of feedback from all involved, not just the teacher. In this way learning is driven not by assessment, but by what is created, what it is for, and for whom.

In artificial occupations there are also creations, but they are normally designed for assessment purposes like a test, exam or assignment: the signature creations of being-a-student.

Reshaping education

Reshaping formal education around understanding genuine occupations means embedding knowledge and skills in purposeful contexts that promote engagement and improve learning.

Engaging students in occupations that connect with their interests would help make learning more meaningful. Picture: Pexels

Knowledge and skills, of course, have to remain central, but we need to stop teaching them through the artificial occupations of being-a-student in various subjects and year levels. Instead, through school, young people should be taught to achieve success through many and various genuine occupations, building a rich repertoire of occupational experience.

If middle school alone – years 5 to 9 – were organised by genuine occupations, each taught on one day per week for a term, then across four school terms per year for these five years, a repertoire of 100 genuine occupations would be accrued.

These could range from being-a-member-of-a-design-team-creating-a-toy-car-racing-track, to being-a-group-member-writing-and-performing-a-song-about-resilience-on-YouTube.

It is also extremely important that young people are supported in the selection of various occupations so that they learn how to navigate from one to another.

Reshaping schooling in this way will transform our education system and our society, enabling deeper levels of engagement. We need to focus not only on what one knows and how one does things, but who one is on life’s journey.

Banner image: Pexels

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