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Students don't come to classrooms with empty heads--they want meaningful learning that is relevant to their goals and interests.

The 3 pillars of meaningful learning

Students don't come to classrooms with empty heads--they want learning to be meaningful and relevant to their goals and interests

We have a saying where I work at the Van Andel Institute for Education: “We believe learning should be memorable, meaningful, and fun!” It’s a quote that I earnestly believe in, but I also recognize the challenges that come with this lofty goal. The number of responsibilities teachers must deal with is endless, and the world of education is only growing more uncertain.

Creating lessons which fully engage our students can sometimes feel like an added burden. After all, isn’t it their responsibility to pay attention, learn, and apply the knowledge we give them?

Well, yes and no. Certainly our students must develop their own sense of accountability, but educators need to remember that our pupils are not empty vessels waiting to be filled. Our students are people with goals, dreams, concerns, and interests. Of course they want the content we teach to be meaningful. If we’re to respect this fact, while also delivering the best education that we can, then we need to make relevance, experience, and impact the core pillars of our lesson creation.


  • Make Content Relatable: Instruction should be designed with students’ prior knowledge in mind. Using a generous amount of analogies, metaphors, and practical examples enables students to connect material to knowledge they already possess and experiences they’ve had.
  • Don’t Underestimate Inspiration: Often instruction becomes relevant and interesting simply because a teacher exudes passion for the topic. A teacher can provide a personal connection to ideas that students may initially perceive as foreign. A great teacher can inspire us to see relevance where we thought there was none.
  • Lead With Engagement: A topic can be quite interesting simply by initiating that learning with an engagement hook. Instruction that effectively utilizes conflict, surprise, stories, mystery, puzzles, etc. is assured to generate significant learner interest while also helping to manufacture a strong learner desire to know.


  • Make Play a Part of Their Day: Active student participation in the learning process can create meaning and interest. Providing students with opportunities for play allows them to make connections with the learning concepts and construct meaning in a way that is both useful and purposeful.
  • Give Students Choice: Providing students some measure of meaningful choice and control over the learning process empowers them to make content relevant through their lived experience. As students develop their understanding of a subject they will often begin to identify with the ideas and see them as personally valuable.
  • Provide Authentic Experiences: When students can see that what they are learning in class is important and useful out in the community and world around them, they draw the connection that what they are learning has utility and value.


  • Make Learning Involved: Active student participation in the learning process can also create meaning and interest. As students get involved in the nitty gritty of the learning, they visibly grow in their understanding of content and can make direct connections to why this content is important and impactful in the world in which they live.
  • Make Learning Matter: When students see that their learning can directly impact the world in positive ways, they learn that the content is both valuable and essential to being a successful citizen. The experience then becomes just as important as the learning. And that type of learning cannot be done without that valuable experience.

When we make content relevant to students’ lives, create experiences that are valuable and rich, and provide learning opportunities that have an impact, meaningful learning is bound to happen.

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