Energizing Meaning

We usually act as if the meaning of a word were inherent to its sounds and shapes. But I bet you’ve had the experience where you looked at a word and suddenly it had no meaning. Not only did it lose semantic meaning but you couldn’t even sound it out. It became merely random marks on a page. Experiment with this; it can teach useful lessons. The easiest way to do this, actually, is to start with the sound instead of the written symbol. Say a word over and over until sound and meaning decouple. You become mute.


All language depends on complex layers of associations. A word means something only as long as you can give it meaning. But it’s not only yours to give. Students sometimes argue in class that a word can mean anything you want it to. Try it out. It doesn’t work very well, not if you want to talk with someone else. If a word meant anything you wanted it to, then how could anyone understand you? Your meaning would be different than anyone else’s. You would isolate yourself; your words would be merely mutterings in the wind. Ask yourself and your students: Where do meanings come from? When you speak, it’s not only you speaking. It’s a whole culture. It’s a time and place in history speaking.


But this connection takes energy. You can lose it. When you’re tired or angry, how hard is it to read or write? Word meanings disappear on you. Or imagine trying to write a poem or essay when you’re worried about something else. How much meaning you derive when you read a book varies greatly with your focus, quality of attention and emotional state. This is true not only with reading a language but even more with reading math symbols or scientific formulas.


This has great import to all of us, but especially to teachers. It provides a great subject for students to investigate and study. It reminds us that education often begins with uncovering what was hidden, assumed, right in front of us, and then constructing new understandings. And it reminds us that understanding and learning takes energy. So any work assigned in school must have a well motivated and clear learning goal. Even tests must be thought of in terms of what the act of taking the test teaches students.


But if meaning requires energy, what sort of effort should students be encouraged or taught to expend? To many people, work itself is good, hard work is even better. Hard work supposedly teaches persistence, how to face adversity, develop “grit.” But unjustified work imposed on people is just unjustified, and being told to do it in a school mainly teaches how useless schools can be. Work imposed only from the top is completed mostly out of fear, or out of a desire to please an authority figure. The fear might be of a bad grade or of looking bad; the work itself is not compelling. Fear can motivate, but it also creates resistance, stress. Do we want to associate learning with fear or with pleasing authority-figures?


However, work which emerges from and elucidates a student’s own life concerns, crises, joys and questions is barely work at all. It is not imposed top down but emerges from one’s life or from one’s own assessment of what is important. The effort to complete it is almost effortless.


In psychology class, when we teach about stress, we talk about the “3Cs” of commitment, control and challenge. These 3Cs develop hardiness, the ability to take on demanding work, intellectual or otherwise. Applying this to a school situation, the more a student feels committed to or interested in a topic or assignment, is given a choice or some control, and feels the task is a useful challenge or adventure, the less resistance or harmful stress they will experience, and the more they will learn. The 3Cs are a good guide to fostering effortless effort and clear learning. It also makes school more enjoyable and engaging.