Gardner's synthesis of "good work" stimulated thought on my part. He talks about work being "good" in at least three possible ways. It may be "excellent in quality", "responsible" meaning it is good for the wider community, or it may "feel good" because it is "engaging and meaningful."

During my career, I have focused most on the first category of high quality. My feedback to students is generally a reflection of my judgment of the quality of their work compared to my standard. In recent years I have become much better at providing rubrics and other descriptions of those standards in advance so students can self assess before turning in the assignment.

This book has made me think especially about Gardner's third category. In what ways can we make school work engaging and meaningful for students? I believe that many teachers, me included, have our students do work that we know from our experience to be useful in understanding our discipline. Does that automatically mean that the activities we assign will be engaging and meaningful to students?

I have long been critical of Math teachers and blamed them for the poor understanding of Math concepts by my students. My opinions have been formed over time based upon my experience in college Math classes and my observations of my colleagues in the Math department. Personally, I loved Math in high school and even decided to be a Math teacher when enrolled in college. It took just 2 semesters of college Math to convince me that I no longer wanted to pursue a Math degree. Upon reflection, I determined that the difference between my teacher in high school (I went to a small high school and had the same Math teacher for my final 3 years) and my college teachers was that my high school teacher always showed me how the things I was learning applied to the world. My college teachers, on the other hand, taught Math as the manipulation of a bunch of symbols that were of little interest to me in a practical sense.

What should we do in our teaching to make our students' learning engaging and meaningful to them? I would be interested in your thoughts.

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Hi Ken,
First I will confess to not having read Gardners book as yet, but I would like to relate to the point you raised. I think that one way we can make school work "engaging and meaningful" to our students is to have them share it with a wide audience who is interested in what they are doing. The audience could be teachers or topic experts or peers who are following the work. If the audience will interact with the students, reviewing and commenting on the work this could bring about even greater involvement. This, if the reviewers are polite and show genuine interest in the work. One of the classes in our school has been doing a collaborative project with a Canadian class. Our students did research projects on various aspects of Jerusalem and posted them on the project wiki where the Canadian students viewed them and posted their reviews in the discussion areas of the wiki. Our students enjoyed the reviews greatly and related to the suggestions and questions that they received. Most of them incorporated the suggestions they received in subsequent revisions of their work.
A nice example of this process can be seen here:
Thanks for the addition to my discussion. I read some of the interaction between your students and the students in Canada. What a great way to increase the understanding and interaction between very different cultures.

I have been thinking about how to get my students connected to people of different cultures. You have given me some great ideas.
Our Collaborative Literature program. sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Education provides opportunities for this kind of cultural exchange. See:
Make the work engaging and meaningful...a very worthy ambition. One way I try to do this is by putting the work into the hands of the kids, calling it "Week's Work," and allowing the students to go about the individualized and collaborative work on their own schedules. They have work time during class (which is almost all the time since I'm not up in front of the class for "sit and git" lectures very often) and homework is Week's Work, too, whatever the student wants to continue to work on at home. (Homework is expected to average about 45 minutes a night for these 4th/5th graders. Students often work longer--they can decide.) Students know they can add to the plans for Week's Work, designing assignments in which everyone will participate.

So I've found that empowering the kids in this way leads to them feeling the work is engaging and meaningful. Still, I have much work to do, especially in this new age of learning. Kids feel empowered, which leads to engagement, but what is truly meaningful? This is something always in flux, always changing and evolving. And the definition of meaningful is not "fun" but something much more powerful. Meaningfulness may be there at the onset, or not there until one looks back.
I love thinking about these questions.

What Reuven said adds a lot. This has been a new step for me, this year, with all the Web 2.0 stuff. Now my kids podcast and make iMovies. For whom? Answering the question of audience provides some of the essence in this question of meaningfulness.

Thank you, Ken! A great question. Let's keep thinking.
I liked your story about learning to hit a curve ball. It is interesting to me that we, guys especially, tend to bring up experiences in sports when we talk about something that we struggled with but eventually learned. It is more difficult for me to think of learning concepts in Math, Science, writing, etc. with the same level of clarity. In sports, it is very clear, you either hit that curve ball and got the RBI or everyone knew that you were unsuccessful.

What would we need to do to insure that our students have the same kinds of experiences with other learning situations? Would a student with an intense interest in writing or science be able to tell the same kind of story about struggling to learn something difficult and finally finding success?
Ok, that second to last paragraph, Skip, about the inner-city kid becoming a microbiologist, yes, that satisfies me as a very pure and perfect example of "meaningful." Wow. I'm going to read that a number of times. Education doesn't get any better than that. What I also like about your example (besides its depth and beauty) is that it could easily switch into any number of life-filled examples: some home-schooled kid notices a robin nest in a tree by his house every year, googles robins and finds Journey North, joins the community of data reporters and discoverers who investigate the birds together, and this kid ends up at Cornell teaching migratory patterns to college students, some of whom work at Journey North. Or the kid who watched ants on the suburban sidewalk and by luck found a community of naturalists who traveled the world with him, who ended up becoming the naturalist E.O. Wilson, who's starting the Encyclopedia of Life. That's meaningful.
But I don't think any of this could be planned out. I think a common denominator here, getting back to Ken's question about engagement and meaning, is that when learning is "real," it's powerful. So what's REAL? I think maybe it's learning in settings or situations in which we feel we can make a difference.
I just read an article in Edutopia magazine about a whole school district that started a movement to make learning engaging and meaningful for their students. This story surely illustrates a place where students are doing "good work". Here is the link to the Edutpoia article.
Ken, this Edutopia article is such a great resource for us. Thanks so much for posting the link.
Hi Edi,

Yeah! Go, girl... You can and ARE doing it! Gotta love that attitude. Your comment here could be a "poster thought" for all teachers trying to get into a new way of thinking about education. Your students will come out of their shells (which was likely put there thorough irrelevancy of the curricula and lack of listening on the teachers' parts). They will become responsible for their own learning because of your style, which nurtures students in actually "owning" the learning. Kudos! Count me in as an ultimate cheerleader for you in this endeavor. From my experience, it takes courage--and needs support. All of your students won't respond, you know, and you can't take that as a bad thing, just more of the challenge. Some are more hurt, or have longer histories of being uninvolved in learning. They will take a longer time to awaken. Never give up...keep going!

It's so great how you're approaching your work in this class. Students who get to participate in the design of their classes--the design of their learning--are enriched and empowered. As soon as they experience that you really mean for them to be involved, they are likely to raise their expectations for themselves. They might just blow your mind with "good work." Please keep us posted, all along the way. What an adventure!
Thanks for sharing this with the group.

PS: I agree that feeling that you're learning as much as teaching is a great sign!



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