Learning Through Meaningful Connections
A Personal Learning and Teaching Philosophy
When I moved to a new house many years ago, my new neighbor spent one Sunday afternoon driving me around the streets of our neighborhood. She went house by house, telling me the names and small pieces of information about the people who lived in each home. Over the coming weeks, as I was able to gradually meet all of these new neighbors, they were often surprised that I already knew their names. I was surprised as well. When I stopped to think about it, I realized that I knew these names because I had made connections with the names of individuals and the specifics of their homes or jobs.
I believe that learning happens when we are able to form meaningful connections. Meaningful implies purposeful, important, and valuable. I believe it is the learner (not the teacher) who must be able to see (or intuit) the purpose or value in a connection for it to be meaningful. Cognitivists talk about neural connections, and that our brains store information based on its relationship to other information. Indeed, the connections I talked about making in my new neighborhood could be described completely from a cognitive standpoint. But understanding connection as a way of learning goes far beyond examining cognitive functioning.
One of Merrill’s first principles of instructions states that “Learning is promoted when existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge” (p. 44). The activation Merrill is talking about allows learners to connect new ideas to something they have already experienced. This connection immediately gives the new concept meaning to the learner. Palmer stated, “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know” (p. 54). From this perspective, the stronger the connection or the more connections a learner can make, the greater meaning the new information will have to the learner.
To understand learning more fully, we have to move beyond the idea of the individual learner and appreciate that all learning is contextual. This means that learning occurs not just through connections between ideas, but through connections formed with all the other elements of the learning environment. Activity theory specifically looks at the connections between the learner(s) (agent or subject), the task or problem being worked on (object), and the tools available to do the work (resources) to understand how learning takes place. Lave and Wenger (1991) talk about these connections in terms of legitimate participation in a community of practice. This community includes other learners as well as more knowledgeable others, and all are engaged in the activity of their practice. They call this approach situated learning.
With these various theories, “social interaction plays an important role in learning” (Allman, 2017, para. 6). As one evidence of the importance of social interaction in learning, Brown (2008) cited a study that linked college students’ success to their ability to form or participate in study groups. In this case, learning occurred through connections formed during the human interactions associated with the learning activities of the study group.
In addition to social interaction, these theories (particularly situated learning) advocate connection between the learner and the real world. This means that, whenever possible, students should learn in authentic settings where their new information can be practically applied. This connection to real-world application gives learners more authority and accountability in the system, and increases meaning for the learner.
The third type of connection making (personal connection) is best described by narrative learning theory. The narrative process, “is how we make our learning visible to ourselves . . . constructing a coherent narrative is how, in fact, we learn” (Clark & Rossiter, 2008, p. 66). Whether we are aware of it or not, we are constantly telling ourselves stories to make sense of our individual experiences and the information we encounter. Making this narrative process deliberate is a powerful connection-making process. These connections are often the most meaningful because of their very personal nature.
Recognizing the need for connection to facilitate learning, I believe in designing instruction, learning activities, and environments that are rich in content and allow for collaboration and connection between students as well as with more knowledgeable others. Because designers cannot anticipate every possible connection, and learner backgrounds can vary dramatically, learning environments should also have flexibility to allow students to make connections that are personally meaningful. Direct instruction should always activate prior knowledge or experience. As much as possible, learning environments should be allow for connections between content and the real world.
Additionally, as a teacher, I believe that one of my main jobs is to connect with my students. Palmer stated, “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves” (p. 11). Regular, non-objective reflective assignments give students the opportunity to connect with their individual learning experiences. Teachers can help students recognize their inner narratives and help them tell intentional stories that elucidate the many connections students have made and continue to make.
As I consider some of my profound learning experiences, I recognize that they occurred when I made a personal, emotional connection with an idea or with an individual. I am passionate about creating opportunities for learners to make meaningful connections. When instruction can tap into purpose and connect with what is important to the learner, transformative learning can take place.
Allman, B. (2017). Sociocultural learning. In R. West (Ed.), Foundations of Learning and Instructional Design Technology.
Brown, J. S. (2002). The social life of learning: How can continuing education be reconfigured in the future? Continuing Higher Education Review, 66, 50-69.
Brown, J. S. (2008). Minds on fire: Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0. Educause Review 43(1), 16-32.
Clark, M. C, & Rossiter, M. (2008). Narrative learning in adulthood. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 119, p. 61-70.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research & Development, 50(3), 43–59.
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc.