How to create meaningful learning in the classroom

When we talk about what the mission of a school should be, most people agree that it should be to pass on knowledge, beliefs, customs and values. The school’s mission is to prepare its students for life within a society. However, if this is the case, why is most of the knowledge taught in an isolated manner and out of context? How can we expect our students to be prepared for life in society if they are not able to understand what the purpose of the knowledge is nor how to apply that to their daily life?

When we learn, we associate meanings to the things around us, and the meaning maybe different in each cultural environment. One of the current educational topics being debated is what we know as meaningful learning and an individual’s ability to apply it in different contexts. The question is: what degree of significance in learning is dependent on the relationship that students are able to build between the new content we teach and their prior knowledge?

Learning is considered meaningful when it is generalizable, functional and durable

Durable means that it is recorded in our long-term memory and we can access it at any time. Generalizable means that learning is associated with different contexts, situations and tasks. Lastly, functional learning means that learning makes us act differently.

Teaching based on these ideas involves understanding the two key characteristics of the learning process:

  1. Durable learning is only possible when attention, practice and repetition are united.
  2. All things learned are either associated with the subject, the tasks, the interaction with others; or the physical setting where they have been taught. The further transfer of this knowledge to other subjects, tasks, interactions or spaces is not achieved spontaneously and must be taught.

The more distinct the contexts or tasks are, the more difficult the generalization of learning becomes

In other words, learning is contextualized and the student cannot generalize it spontaneously. The more distinct the contexts or tasks are, the more difficult it is for a student to generalize what they have learned. This is why the teacher must guide the transfer of knowledge to other contexts and tasks. Asking the student to use the same mathematical operation in different assignments, subjects, and physical settings, helps the student to generalize this learning, and through repetition, he or she stores it in the student’s long-term memory.

Helping students form meaningful learning and the ability to apply it is important:

  1. Teach the same concept, procedure or attitude using various methodologies, in different tasks, subjects, and physical settings.
  2. Help students find similarities between school context and the scientific, cultural or social context when it comes to applying knowledge.
  3. Focus teaching on the understanding of abstract concepts and processes, rather than memorizing data.
  4. Bring up genuine problems of the students from their daily environment, in which it is necessary to apply knowledge.

All these practices must be based on prior knowledge, which is the basis on which meaningful learning is constructed, and they must be accompanied by a formative and continuous assessment. Only then can the brain of the learners create multiple neural pathways for the same information, making it more accessible, active, and relative to many other learned situations, and therefore, be more durable, generalizable, and functional. By using the same knowledge to solve different problems in various contexts, we are forming meaningful learning at the same time as we develop the ability to apply learned concepts.

Significant Learning

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Discover offline activities and teaching units, a perfect combination of fun and meaningful learning.


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