Meaningful Learning

“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.”
~  Plato

Thinking back on my time at school, it is really hard to recall anything that I learned. Of course I learned to read and write, along with basic maths. I don’t remember how it happened but it obviously got into my brain somehow. When I try to recall anything else, only a few things come to me. A few facts from Biology (I really liked Biology), a couple of things from Ancient History (I thought that was really interesting), a few lines of a speech in Japanese. That’s it. Any more advanced math I would not know how to do anymore without re-learning it (which it seems will be in my future now). I was not interested in memorizing equations. I took Physics in high school and I could not tell you one thing we learned (I hated the subject). Modern History, Geography, SOSE…I can’t even remember the other subjects now. I had no interest in these and so have recalled very very little from them. Thirteen years at school and this is all I can remember? Either I have an extremely terrible memory (possible after 3 children), or something about the way I was taught or maybe what I was taught didn’t work for me. Seeing as I did quite well in school and went on to complete a Masters degree in psychology which I loved and remember most of, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. Talking to other people it seems they have similar feelings. Many of us struggle to remember a lot of what was taught at school. I actually remember the feeling of cramming for a test, and the relief I felt when it was over and I could forget everything and make room in my brain for the facts I needed to store to pass the next test. The next day I couldn’t recall nearly as much about the subject I had studied so long for as I could the day before.

Thinking about the things I can remember, all of them were things I was interested in. Things I wanted to learn more about. Things that were relevant to me. Things that I found meaningful. That’s how I continue to learn now. I am constantly learning, researching, wanting to find out more…about things that are meaningful to me. They might not be interesting to anyone else, but they are to me. The secret to real learning, is making it meaningful. It sounds so obvious! And yet, it’s not. I have fallen into the trap of concentrating on what my children ‘should’ know (according to people who don’t know my children) before, instead of what interests them. I have seen amazing activities on pinterest and thought they would be fabulous and spent time setting them up, only to have my kids take one look and resume playing with whatever they already had. And then I’ve realized… Too often we are providing the answers to questions our children haven’t had the time to ask yet.

What joy is there in memorizing facts on the life cycle of a butterfly without first marveling at the beautiful transformation?

Meaningful Learning | Happiness is here

How meaningful can it be to learn anatomy from a text book before first running as fast as the wind, climbing a tree, feeling your heart race, and wondering at the strength of your own body?

Meaningful Learning | Happiness is here

How do you foster a love for the earth without hours of unstructured time outside, experiencing it fully?

Meaningful Learning | Happiness is here

How do you convey the importance of maths if they can’t see how it is used in everyday life?

Meaningful Learning | Happiness is here

Why learn to write until you feel the desire to express what’s in your heart?

Meaningful Learning | Happiness is here

I want the questions to come first. I want to see the joy on their faces when they discover the answers themselves. I want learning to be meaningful for them.

“It is absurd and anti-life to be a part of a system that compels you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when you want to read poetry.”

~  John Taylor Gatto

Fortunately, I hear that schools have changed a lot since I was there. That there is more focus on meaningful learning, individualization, and far more interesting and unique teaching methods. As homeschoolers we have even more freedom. The luxury of interest-led learning without having to stick to a specific curriculum. Learning about topics whenever the need arises in their lives and it is meaningful to them. People may wonder if by taking this approach I worry that there are some things they won’t learn. The answer is no. The world is a fascinating place. I couldn’t stop them learning if I tried. They will learn everything they need to in their life when it is needed. My job as their parent is to expose them to as many different things as possible, and notice what sparks an interest. To provide opportunities for learning and exploration and to help them discover their passions. If there are things that they are not interested in, are they really worth learning anyway? If it is not meaningful learning then they are unlikely to remember it. Instead of basic knowledge in a broad range of areas, we value meaningful learning and a deeper knowledge in subjects they are passionate about. Why wait until you finish high school to find your passion? My children know what interests them now. Even if we are concentrating on one particular area of interest, it very rarely only covers one ‘subject’. We are able to explore many other areas through an avenue that is meaningful to them.

By letting our children take the lead in their own learning, by respecting and valuing their ideas, by letting the questions come before the answers, we are creating an environment full of meaningful learning. The love of learning follows.


July 30, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Thank you for this wonderful message you are sharing with the world! I am a Montessori Teacher and Special Ed Teacher and find your writing so valuable and meaningful! Everything you write about; your wisdom and examples are such a great help! I want children to develop and learn naturally and at their own pace. Making learning fun and memorable is so important to me and I just love your insights and ideas! I work a lot with children who have Autism, ADHD, Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Anger Management and constantly look for new ways to enhance their education and create a positive environment. So excited I found your page! Love how you are from Australia! I would love to visit there someday! 🙂

January 7, 2015 at 9:54 am

I saw that you linked back to this post on FB today (Jan 2015). I came to the same realization as you did. I checked over our local school curriculum to see where we were at and realized that we’d already done 90% of the social studies and science for the year without ever doing a lesson, just by living life. For us math and language are continuous and I know going at our own pace we will be in a different stage for those subjects.

I panicked a bit this week and pulled out a math workbook for my two boys. I did the graphing section totally out of context and it felt so pointless and disjointed. I am totally with you about the importance of meaningful work. Keep doing the wonderful things you are as a family!!

January 7, 2015 at 11:28 pm

Beautifully written!

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