Meaningful Learning

by Nancy Monson

Schools desperately need a new vision that meets the needs and truly addresses the crises of our youth. The cry for more academics, more testing, back to basics is a band-aid that won’t stick on an open wound. What children need are qualitative, meaningful, valuable experiences in living life, in being useful, in coming to deeply know themselves and our responsibilities as human beings, in engaging a process of working, giving, taking, and being fully prepared to negotiate adulthood with competence in every area of living, not just having their heads stuffed with useless information and facts that mean nothing without experience. In the past, life skills came first. They created a foundation in each person to which academics or abstract learning could adhere to. They also gave children a sense of usefulness and contribution, as well as a connection to the fullness of the body’s capacities. Children come to school excited to learn, but soon lose a personal connection to the value of what they are learning. Children want to know about REAL life. I think that if we look closely enough we will see that our greatest dilemna is how to restore meaning and purpose to everyday living, not just for children, but for adults as well. This is what education must address.

Our education system is a failure. I could list statistics of where we place against other industrialized nations, but a better test would be to ask parents if they really look at what their children are doing in school, or if they go and sit in the classroom for a whole day, or a week, and EXPERIENCE what it’s like to be sitting inside, at a desk, most of the day. As adults, we have really forgotten what it is like to be a child, the intensity of energy, curiosity, joy, the need to move, to touch, to try things, to be allowed to help and be responsible. We pretend that what they are learning is interesting, because so much of what we now find interesting is intellectual instead of experiential. But that is not how children learn, and it is not how their brains develop their higher capacities. How much of your child’s time is engaged in active, experiential, creative learning, that is interesting, practical, open ended, mysterious, or exciting? There are some children who thrive in school and love book learning, but most are bored. They tune out or act out, get labeled in one way or another, and get put into another box, or room, until they hopefully adjust and do "what they are supposed to do." This creates one of two things depending on the child: passive dullness and conformity that hides behind looking alright but later in life leads to unhappiness, disconnection from feeling any meaning in life and often depression (but of course we can take a pill and fix it); or violence from the pent up energy, frustration and unexpressed feelings.

So, what would meaningful learning, or real life skills learning, look like? I can only address a few things here, but what I have asked myself is, what’s really important? What are the skills and qualities that are universal, that transcend time, that are permanent, that everyone needs in order to meet life fully prepared to be someone who will be learning until the hour of their death?
At this time in history, we must learn how to live in harmony with other people. There are just too many people in the world to continue to take the moral standpoint that the rights of the individual are the most important. We are entering a new phase of human evolution where the whole must come first, and within that, each person can find their meaning. We do have an obligation to all people, to animals, to the planet, and education needs to prepare children for this duty to serve, to give back what has been given. Real joy comes from developing capacities and then using them for the benefit of the whole. As one poet said, "I want to come to the end of my life as a flame that has been all used up." Service, relationships of every kind and real communication must be at the heart of learning, and in order for this to be possible, there must be a place for contemplation, for learning how to know ourselves, to see ourselves, to look deeply within to find answers about life that can never be learned any other way.

Teamwork is another core component of education because it is a vehicle to bring together all the children's talents and qualities to create something greater than they could alone. I think children should have an opportunity to pursue their personal passions and interests, but without teamwork, the continuation of egoism, an overemphasis on the greatness of the individual, and a lack of true understanding and compassion, can only be the result. All of our great heroes knew this: Helen Keller, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, just to name a few.

To foster the development of communication skills, teamwork, practical living skills and harmonious relationships with ourselves and others, we need to build more bridges, more community, more involvement. The two things parents tell me they most want are: for their children to be confident, self-accepting, life long learners, and that parents want to find more balance in their lives so that they can be fully nourished by every aspect of their lives (work, family, friends, diet, exercise, alone time, personal interests) and thus be better more whole parents. They don’t know how to do this given the demands of time. Community, the coming together of families and schools to share in the raising AND educating of children seems to be an answer to both longings that is full of promise and hope. Everyone can be involved in this. We can enliven school curriculum by teaching children life skills such as gardening, working on cars, fixing things, building, cooking, cleaning, babysitting, writing newsletters or organizing community events. Those are examples of just a few things that could easily incorporate reading, writing, math, science, history (how have people lived in villages, how have people organized themselves successfully throughout history, finding models of cooperative living, or creating them...) Why keep children away from the experience of LIVING and contributing? They are dying to learn, and they have so much to offer.


© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.

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