Making Sense: More Than Making Meaning

By: Rick Wormeli


You are required to attend an inservice training about teaching in the block-length class even though your school is not moving to a block schedule this year or in the near future.

How attentive will you be to all the details about teaching in the block-length class? How long will you be able to remember the content if you do not reference it again almost immediately?

Intellectually, you understand the material and maybe pick up a teaching tip or two, but most of the information quickly fades from your memory.

The instructional content we deliver in our classroom can make all the sense in the world, but students won't remember it unless it has meaning to them. In fact, David Sousa and Carol Ann Tomlinson, in their book, Differentiation and the Brain: How Neuroscience Supports the Learner-Friendly Classroom, declare that nothing goes into long-term memory unless it makes sense and has meaning. Of the two, they say, meaning-making has much more impact on long-term memory than sense-making.

Yes, content must make sense to students in order for them to learn it. They must understand facts, labels, connections, subsets, algorithms, processes, stipulations, conclusions, causes, effects, principles, theories, rules, and logical reasoning. However, we can't assume learning occurred because students understood the content. We have to seek ways to make content meaningful, to ensure the content and skills we are teaching are relevant to their lives.

Mired in an overloaded curriculum and the factory model of schooling, we may not feel we have time to create meaningful experiences with content in every lesson, but it's worth making the attempt.

Make It Last

In their book Deeper Learning: 7 Powerful Strategies for In-Depth and Longer-Lasting Learning, Eric Jensen and LeAnn Nickelsen state, "You can't afford NOT to provide processing time in the classroom … too much too fast won't last." Those last six words are important to post at the top of our lesson plan books. Are we out to teach so students learn, or are we there just to present curriculum and document where students fall short?

Let's spend time designing learning experiences that create meaning for students. Here are some ways to create meaning in our lessons:

  • Connect new learning to previous learning. For example, discuss the role of the antagonist in a novel after discussing the role of the protagonist. Draw upon what students know about factorization when introducing prime versus composite numbers. Teach new key signatures in music by helping students compare them to already-learned key signatures.
  • Connect new learning to students' backgrounds. We know students have pets so we draw upon that knowledge to talk about being responsible for another's well-being. We reflect on the issues surrounding local day labor gathering sites when discussing immigration laws and how local communities interact with state and federal agencies.
  • Model how the skill or concept is used. With demonstrations, think-alouds, self-talks, and modeling, students see the useful applications of what we're teaching. We demonstrate a lab procedure in the wrong sequence, and consequently, get an incorrect result. We go back, adjust the sequence, and are able to produce the correct result—all while stating aloud what we are thinking as we work.
  • Demonstrate how content or skills create leverage (gain us something) in other subjects. Here we weave relevancy and curriculum integration. This idea of leveraging is inspired by Doug Reeves' views on the appropriateness of curriculum standards in his 2010 book, Transforming Professional Development into Student Results.

In describing how teachers determine the major standards within a large array of standards, Reeves says that one of the deciding criteria is how the specific standard provides leverage for work in other subjects. For example, order of operations in mathematics is important for algebra class and beyond, so it should be in the non-negotiable, super-important category in our planning.

To make specific topics meaningful to students, then, we have to show how they provide leverage for other tasks and thinking, such as demonstrating for students in science class how knowledge of electrical flow helps us figure out efficient circuit design or why a bulb fails to light. In P.E., we can show students how knowledge of the interplay among metabolism, diet, sleep, and exercise helps us maintain a healthy weight.

  • Include a "So, why should we learn this?" section in every major lesson. Make it an official part of your lesson plan so you attend to it regularly. Answer the question for yourself, then put it into words or demonstrations for your class so students capture it as well.

Try it right now. Why is it important to know and understand common structures for poetry? Types of government? Rational versus irrational numbers? The difference between masculine and feminine in Spanish? Electromagnetism? Dance in a physical education class?

  • Increase emotional connections. In all grade levels, but particularly in middle grades and high school, intense emotion increases engagement, and that engagement creates meaning for students. Elevate that meaning by raising the emotional intensity from time to time.

Students are humbled by a holocaust survivor sharing stories from Auschwitz and they hang on every word. Students understand how important it is to disagree with someone without becoming divisive or physical by conducting formal debates, particularly when they argue for the proposition opposite their own beliefs. They protect local playgrounds from vandalism when they are the ones painting or building them through service-learning projects.

  • Create more access points in the mind. Increase the number of angles through which information is stored in the brain. With a math principle, for example, show visuals, discuss the concepts, practice with manipulatives, ask students to re-tell the concepts to others, and ask them to use art forms, engineering, architecture, and force and motion principles that apply the concept.

If we could bake the principle into something we can eat, we could add smell and taste here. This is absurd, of course, but the idea is to increase the number of exposures and media used to interact with the content and skills. The more connections that are made, the more portions of the brain that "light up."

  • Prime the brain. Cris Tovani, Robert Marzano, John Hattie, and many others make compelling cases for teachers spending classroom time priming the mind for what it's seeking and about to experience.

Before a lab, we explain to the students (or help them discover for themselves) the purpose of the lab and the steps they will take to obtain that result, including any issues that might arise. Before beginning a lecture, we do the same thing: What specific content should students seek, what road map will the lecture follow, and where might there be "bumps" in understanding? Setting goals and revealing the itinerary go a long way to meaningful participation.

  • Separate and combine knowledge: analyze, synthesize. Erik Jensen and LeAnn Nickelsen remind us in Deeper Learning: 7 Powerful Strategies for In-Depth and Longer-Lasting Learning that specific knowledge becomes meaningful when we see the whole and its parts.

Help students see how things fit together by breaking things apart, placing smaller concepts and facts in larger context, putting things together to create something new, and removing portions of the larger whole to see their effect on that whole.

For example, in English, explore how removal of one paragraph in an essay strengthens or weakens it. In history class, break down the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles I into countries' goals, concessions, reparations, and ultimate effects. Ask students about the impact of the provision's inclusion and what might have happened had it been removed.

So What?

So what does this mean for you and your instruction? If it doesn't mean much, you'll move on, looking for an article that catches your eye. By the time you finish reading this magazine, you will forget most of this column's content. Everyone does this, including me, depending on the topic.

If your response to the "So what?" question changes your next lesson in some way, prompts you to analyze previous lessons in light of these ideas, or compels you to share an idea with a colleague, you might highlight a few points and rip out the pages for safe-keeping or record the ideas in the margin of your lesson plan book for later reference.

Whatever you choose, you carry the content forward because it matters; knowledge changes into something meaningful for you.

Published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2010.


Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. E-mail rwormeli@cox.net.

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