Meaningful Learning

by Erin Campbell, PhD

It is evident that learning is enhanced when it is connected to something you already know about and are interested in.  This week, the sixth-grade students at LMS presented information about a chosen topic of interest to an audience of their peers, teachers, and parents – the Senior Projects.  The topics for these presentations are as varied as the students who present them, from retirement planning to ice-cream, from juggling to the history of toilets!  What makes these presentations so impressive is the abundant knowledge that the students’ have regarding their topic.  It is clear that the information that they have accumulated during the course of their research is embedded in a rich context of useful and meaningful knowledge that was already present.   
Research has found that when interesting and meaningful contexts are provided, children’s learning and motivation are enhanced.  A classic illustration is found in the 
following paragraph. 
 The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange items into different groups.  Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do.  If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step;  otherwise, you are pretty well set.  It is important not to overdo things.  That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many.  In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise.  A mistake can be expensive as well.  At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated.  Soon, however, it will become just another fact of life.  It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then, one can never tell.  After the procedure is completed, one arranges the materials into different groups again.  Then they can be put into their appropriate places.  Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will have to be repeated.  However, that is part of Life.  (Bransford & Johnson, 1972) 
After reading the passage, participants were asked to recall what they had read.  Not surprisingly they could not recall much of the passage because no context was supplied.  However, when some participants were given the context of “Washing Clothes” in the form of a title, they could effectively recall the passage.  This simple experiment demonstrates that having a meaningful context strongly affects memory. 
The importance of having a meaningful context for learning has been seen in several areas, including mathematics, language, history, and science.  School material that is meaningfully situated, as well as built upon knowledge that is already in place results in greater learning.  Another example from research, known as the “Jasper Project”, situated mathematical problems in popular movies.  For example, children were asked to consider the weight of a gold object in the middle of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Additionally, a series of movies about a character named Jasper was developed with academic problems embedded.  Results from a nine-state study of the Jasper project indicated that children in the classes that embedded mathematics problems in interesting movies were better at complex problem solving than were children in traditional mathematics classes. 
The beauty of the Montessori curriculum is that it involves materials and lessons that were developed with the entire educational program in mind.  The curriculum is 
coherently integrated across the ages from preschool through elementary.  Due to this interconnected curriculum, children can create mental structures for previously learned material, and new information gleaned from carefully designed materials is readily assimilated. 
For example, children in the Children’s House learn the names of the different geometric shapes, and go on to learn how to calculate the area of these shapes in the Elementary program.  The Fraction Insets are used in the Children’s House to make designs and learn about equivalence, and in the Elementary classrooms they are used to learn of the four mathematical operations on fractions.  The many interconnections within the Montessori curriculum are insightful and meaningful, encompassing the entire program of study.   
The Senior Projects are a finale of a year-long project where students have assimilated new, meaningful, and interesting information into their current knowledge.  It is 
remarkable to observe and admire these students in one of the many highlights during their time spent at LMS.