First Principles for Promoting Meaningful Learning
Harold Modell, Ph.D.
 
When meaningful learning or learning with understanding takes place, students are able  to apply information that is being acquired to solve novel problems.  Most teachers, regardless of what they do in the classroom, agree that their goal is not just to dispense information, but to have their students learn their discipline(s) in ways that will be beneficial to their students’ lives.  To accomplish this goal, teachers must establish a learning environment in which students will engage in meaningful learning. Such an environment, of necessity, has certain characteristics related to student behavior, the learning process, and the role of the instructor in the process.  The design of  a successful environment in this regard is derived from a set of first principles of classroom practice.  These first principles represent the assumptions and definitions on which all activities in the classroom are based.  These first principles are presented below.  The order of presentation is not intended to represent a hierarchy of importance.
 
Principle 1:  We cannot learn for our students.  They must do the learning, and, they must take responsibility  for their own learning.  This is easy to say but sometimes difficult to achieve.  Students, for the most part,  think that learning means memorizing a story and repeating the story or parts of the story on demand.  Students also think that by learning the story, one becomes educated.  Hence, students think they pay for their education.  That education is a commodity, not unlike a bunch of bananas or a bottle of beer, and the teacher is just the clerk dispensing these commodities.  
 
                 But, education is the result of what we call meaningful learning.  Meaningful learning is applying  information that is being acquired to solve real world problems.  The process goes well beyond data acquisition.  Students don’t pay for an education.  They pay for an opportunity!  An opportunity to be guided through a process.  How well they take advantage of that opportunity and how much they learn as a result depends on them.
 
Principle 2:  Our job is to help the learner to learn.  Until we become capable of performing the Vulcan mind-meld or some similar method of ensuring that we can effectively put knowledge into our students brains, we must realize that we are limited by the student in how much knowledge we can impart, AND we most certainly can’t instill a thinking process into students’ heads.  All we can do is help them learn to engage in the appropriate process and provide them with opportunities to practice that process.  The challenge, then, is to determine what kind of help they need, do what we can to provide that help, and assess how successful we were as a result.
 
Principle 3:  Students come to us with prior knowledge.  Some of this knowledge helps students learn new ideas and processes, and some of this knowledge impedes incorporation of new ideas and processes.  We must help students discover how well their ideas model the real world and help them refine these ideas or mental models so that they use them more effectively to solve real world problems.
 
Principle 4:  Life is cumulative!  What we learn in one discipline is generally applicable to other disciplines, and what we learn early in life is applicable to problems that we confront later in life.   Life is an integrated experience that draws on past knowledge and skills to solve new problems.  For the student, this means that we are not “done” with information after we turn to the next unit in the text or after we take the unit exam, midterm or final exam.  Hence, it is important to make sense of knowledge as we acquire it so that we can incorporate it into appropriate mental models that we will use to face current and future problems.
 
Principle 5:  We must help students make their current mental model visible.  Meaningful learning involves the process of testing and revising mental models.    Before students can test their mental models to determine where they do not make accurate predictions about real world events, they must acknowledge that they have a current model and make it visible so that it can be examined.  We must facilitate this process.
 
Principle 6:  We must create safe learning environments.  The process of meaningful learning requires students to take intellectual risks.  They must be willing to admit limitations of their current mental models and conceptual problems that they may be having with respect to refining their mental models.  To be successful, the learning environment must be safe and supportive of this behavior.
 
A model of the learning environment
These six principles provide a rationale for what we will do in the classroom.  However, it is necessary to have an implementation plan before we can transform the rationale into practice.  Hence, the next step is to develop a model of the classroom that will provide the basis for implementation.
 
To develop the model, think about the steps that you would take when designing a course in your content area.  Keeping these first principles in mind,  the first step in the process is define the “output state.”  A helpful way to define this state is to answer the question, “What do we want our students to be able to do when they complete the course?”  Another way of saying this is, “What are the performance goals for the students?”   After deciding what the performance goals are, you might consider what the student needs to know to accomplish the goals.
 
Principle 2 states that the instructor’s job is to help the learner to learn, and Principle 3 acknowledges that students have prior knowledge.  The next step in the process, then is to decide what the “input state” of the student is.  That is, what prior knowledge and skills does the student have that are related to the performance goals?  Having assessed the input state and knowing the output state, one can design learning experiences for the student that will help him/her make the transition from the input to the output state.  In our model, we will call this the “transition state.”   In this discussion, we developed the model in the context of a whole course.  However,  the model just as easily applies to a section of a course, or even a short portion of a single day’s activities.  In these cases, the model becomes iterative where the output state with its performance goals becomes the input state for the subsequent performance goal. In a course, the output state of one element (topic, course section, etc.) serves as the input state for the next element.  A pictorial representation of the model is shown below.
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