How to Teach for Meaning Not Memorization

A few years ago, I spoke to a large audience of high school faculty in Kansas. During a question and answer period, one freshman algebra teacher raised his hand to ask, “How should I respond when a student asks me if he’ll ever use this subject after graduation, and I don’t know what to say?”

The implication, of course, was—he could think of no relevance to life after school.

Are Our Courses Relevant?

If we’re honest, most of us would admit we learned a lot of subjects in school that served no purpose once we finished the final examination. When I reflect on my education, I remember teachers more than classes. And I recall particular discussions more than exams. The vast majority of time was spent on irrelevant topics and poor pedagogy, that never helped me actually learn. Lots of memorization. Little meaning.

Unfortunately, it’s still happening today. Let’s take American History for example.

“Researchers for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation surveyed the 50 states and found that students are indeed weak on their knowledge of American history. But unlike some critics, who fault teacher training or weak course requirements, the report’s authors say bad curriculum is to blame,” says journalist Catherine Gewertz.

“Based on our analysis, this is not an issue of whether high school history teachers are adequately prepared or whether children today even study American history in school,” the foundation’s president, Arthur Levine, stated. “The answer to both questions is yes. This is an issue of how we teach American history and whether today’s learners see relevance and are engaged in what and how history is taught.”

The fact is, the curriculum in most schools focuses on memorizing “irrelevant, boring” names and dates, this new study found. 

I actually enjoyed history class—but I don’t remember applying much to my life. 

After my graduation, I began teaching myself. The way I was taught to teach, however, could be boiled down to: lecture, drill, memorization, test. My job was to complete the curriculum by the end of each semester—not necessarily to complete the students. There was so much to get through and so little time. After several years, however, I decided I had to change my methods because I wasn’t changing anyone’s life. 

Promoting Meaning Over Memorization

We all recognize that our world today eliminates students’ need to memorize much. They have all the pertinent information in their smart phone: names, numbers, websites, and any other piece of data they may need thanks to Google.

So how do we teach meaningful classes filled with life-changing dialogue?

Five Discussions to Teach for Meaning

Let me suggest five steps to insure classes are relevant and meaningful. Let’s return to a typical American History class for a case study:

1. When and where did the incident happen and who was involved?

This portion covers the basic facts surrounding the event, people and period you are studying. Through digging into books and websites, empower the students to discover when, where and who was involved in the incident.

2. What little known facts actually occurred that color the story?

This portion makes the class interesting. Every student has heard of Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses S. Grant, but fewer know why Grant, a man known for his drunken behavior, was finally requested to lead the Union Army. Offer students rare facts that will peak their interest.

3. What can be learned from this incident or tragedy?

The final three sections of your discussion, turn memorization into meaning. Openly discuss and record what student believe can be learned from the era or people you’ve talked about. If they’re stumped or only offer comedic answers, reveal more details about the people from the period you’ve studied.

4. Why was it important to future generations?

Now, migrate into the importance or meaning of the incident or people. This is a step in history class that teachers rarely take time to cover. This is the critical thinking portion, that requires students to find meaning and insure poor history doesn’t repeat itself.

5. How can we apply it to our lives today?

Finally, we should challenge our students to move from general understanding to personal application. What should we do in our individual lives as a result of this past incident? What can we do to implement the lessons of the past? How can we practice what we learn and improve as human beings?

This template can be used for courses well beyond history. Social studies, science, civics, reading and literature, sociology, and more can use periods and people from the past to give meaning to students today. Why not give it a shot?

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How to Teach for Meaning Not Memorization