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A Meaningful Education
       The actual content that is learned in school may be important, but merely learning a set of facts does not constitute a good education. In today’s world, facts can easily be looked up. Memorizing and being able to simply repeat them is not a good gauge of what has been learned. Over four decades of experience in the classroom has led me to conclude that a set of other factors may be more difficult to measure, but they are far more important.
       A primary factor is comprehension. If students do not understand the material, the facts that they can repeat have little value. The concepts taught must mean something to the students. This enables them to use it in some way. Even if the content itself is never again needed, the process of gaining an understanding can have actual value in their future.
       Similarly, recognizing the context in which the content can be applied is critical. This aspect of knowledge let’s one decide what is useful and when it is useful. As Louis Agassiz said, “Facts are stupid things, until brought into conjugation with some general law.” Just restating facts has minimal value. It is essential that students can apply what they have learned.
       Students should not learn independent, disjoint concepts. Students need to see how they are interrelated. What they gain in one class or on one day should be used from then on. For example, their English and math should be used in all classes. This interdependence gives more value to what the students have learned while also reinforcing their personal strength and potential. Students need to understand that portions of what they are learning are skills that need to be continually sharpened. They do not yet know their future. The stronger their skills, the more options will be open when they need to make selections.
       Sparking interest should also be a focus in a meaningful education. Teachers who drone out facts in a repetitive manner squash student motivation. Variation is important, but even better is offering “aha” insights and unexpected turns that lead the students to want to learn more. As Anne Duncan said, great teachers “light a lifelong curiosity, teaching students to solve problems like a scientist, write like a novelist, listen like a poet, see like an artist, and observe like a journalist.”
       In most professions, teamwork is necessary for success. It is therefore appropriate that students be introduced to this in the classroom, just as they are in an athletic team. When appropriate, they need to gain experience of how to work together, assisting one another to achieve a desired goal and taking advantage of individual strengths and abilities. Simply sitting and working by themselves is often counterproductive.
       Few people really learn something after a single exposure. Repetition and practice are required to comprehend and internalize something, and the concept should be presented in a variety of ways. This is the purpose of homework, but it only works if it is meaningful. Worksheets can similarly aid in this manner, but neither will work if it is mere drudgery. Students need to understand the value of the practice, just as important as it is in an athletic setting.
       The interaction between teacher and student is an essential factor in a meaningful education. At times, the teacher must be “the sage on the stage.” However, it is also important to play the role of “the guide by the side,” giving students direct assistance and getting to know them as individuals. Being aware that a teacher cares about them increases what they will get out of that class.
       Probably the most valuable skill students can gain in school is learning how to learn. Once they have this, the world is opened to them and the future is what they choose. This is the best thing teachers can offer to their students. The class should operate with this as a primary goal. It is not something that is learned in a single day – or week or year. However, if enough educators set this as their goal, students will leave school with something that has justified their time and energy and will prove to be beneficial throughout their lives.
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