Meaning Guide

The meaning of education

The main job of a school isn’t to help pupils get high grades, it is to help provide meaning. This is the function of curriculum.

I’ve just started reading Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c, a book that draws from the classical liberal arts tradition to draw lessons for contemporary curriculum design in schools. It was only after I mentioned this to a colleague that they pointed out the pinned tweet on Martin’s Twitter feed, which is what’s quoted above. And I think it’s fantastic. But then, I have a pretty well developed idea of what I mean by ‘meaning’. The tweet has a lot of replies, the first of which is someone saying “meaning means what you want it to mean”.

Boy with book discovering meaning

Is this true? In the opening scenes of Kenneth Clark’s BBC documentary Civilisation, first broadcast fifty years ago, Clark stands on the south bank of the Seine in Paris and says “What is civilisation? … I don’t know – I can’t define it in abstract terms … yet.”

He then turns to Notre Dame cathedral and says “But I think I can recognise it when I see it.”

That’s how many of us probably feel about meaning – it’s hard to define what it is in abstract terms, but we know when we’ve had a meaningful experience. It’s always seemed clear to me, for example, that the biggest difference in performance between teams of similar capability that I’ve worked in, has been how meaningful we’ve found our work. Similarly in education, when I’ve attended classes and training courses with meaningful content, that content has seemed to stick effortlessly, whereas facts I’ve rote-learned for exams have washed quickly away.

So meaning is powerful, and observable, but what actually is it? There’s a longer summary here, but in essence it’s the feeling we get when something both makes sense (“I see what you mean“) and we care about it (“This means a lot to me”. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. The more we care about things the more we seek to understand, and the more we understand the more we seek to care. Meaning is what it feels like when this is happening, although we’re usually so engrossed in the experience that we’re not aware of it at the time:

If this doesn’t make sense, then imagine for a minute that you’re a brain. If your primary purpose as an organ is to build an effective model of the world, then understanding and caring are two sides of the same coin. With a finite number of neurons to play with, what matters is whether the model you are building is useful, and a model about something you don’t care about is as useless as a model you don’t understand.

When education goes wrong is when these two sides get split apart:

  • On one hand, wanting students to care leads to a greater focus on student-led study, gamification, narrative, problem-solving hooks and so on, all of which (other things being equal) will increase student engagement. Which is fantastic. Caring is good. But getting students to care is not actually that difficult, if there are no constraints on what or how much they are expected to learn; most kids seem to care a great deal, for example, when they are playing video games, but no one is suggesting that teachers should be replaced by Playstations. I can think of many committed teachers I loved because their classes were so engaging, spontaneous and fun; I can recall the experiences and conversations I had, but not how they related to the subjects I was supposed to be studying.
  • On the other hand, wanting students to understand, without worrying about why they should care, leads to the kind of utterly dreary classes that we all remember from school, where we were simply expected to recount an endless string of unconnected ‘facts’. In these classes the teachers had to find ways of making us care, for example by instilling a fear of failure in high-stakes tests. As a naturally competitive person, the knowledge that I would get to ‘compete’ for grades in tests kept me going; it kept me semi-engaged, but I could remember precious little of what I had ‘learned’ once the test was out of the way.

The teachers we remember most, of course, are the rare ones who achieved both. Each insight, each ‘aha’ moment, connected to a real problem that mattered, each new piece of knowledge built on what came before, each question burned with relevance.

I experience a wistfulness, even as I write this, for all the things that I wish I had learned (or could remember) from school but can’t. Knowledge has a compounding effect – the more you have, the more interesting the world becomes, and the more engaged you are with the world, the more knowledge you acquire. Most things that are addictive are bad for you, but this one isn’t! Acquiring the habit doesn’t require school, but surely there’s no better place to start. This cycle of learning, with greater understanding driving greater caring, and greater caring driving greater understanding, is the defining trait of meaningful experience, and it’s definitional of outstanding education.

And that is why the main job of school is to help provide meaning.

1 comment

  • Excellent piece, especially at the start of the academic year, and irrespective of whether primary, secondary or tertiary – it’s the teachers/tutors who try to find out why one would care and what about who I remember best.

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