Running head: MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 1
Making Learning Meaningful through
May 9, 2011
MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 2
We all remember what its like to sit through a class that is seemingly useless, and there
are reasons why phrases like, Im pretty sure my IQ just dropped ten points or I totally just
lost brain cells or Thats an hour of my life Ill never get back, exist: because students believe
they are true. And maybe they are. Too often, many researchers say, students are disengaged
from the teaching methods and material they are offered in school and they are missing the
chance to have meaningful experiences and challenging, pertinent knowledge (Jensen, 2006, p.
208, Cole, 2010, p. 15). And it is not fair, the author believes, to expect them to stay interested,
or to stay in school, or perform at their highest ability, or any other number of things educators
ask of them, if parents, community members, and teachers are not willing to take the steps to
make schooling worthwhile, to make what they are learning mean something other than a good
grade. Well-implemented school-community partnerships are one way in which teachers and
administrators are working to build these meaningful experiences. By turning traditional
classrooms into contextual immersions, students can start to build identities as contributing
members of a larger community and to see learning as rich and meaningful (Cole, 2010, p. 15).
The author chose this topic because she had an interest in finding ways to make content
relevant and interesting to all studentsnot just the college bound, not just the academically
inclined, and certainly not just the privileged. As a future teacher, building vibrant school and
community partnerships has the potential to make education into something that everyone
pitches in on, that everyone values, and that makes sense to ones students. Research has shown
that if students do not see the point in learning something, they either will not learn it or will not
retain it for long (Jensen, 2006, p. 68). School-community partnerships are one way in which the
author is interested in exploring to alleviate this problem. This paper first outlines what school-
community partnerships are and how these partnerships can support classroom teaching. The
MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 3
second part of the paper then moves into a discussion of a few research-based models of school-
community partnerships and the success rate of schools that have applied them. The last part of
the paper looks at what can be learned from research on school-community partnerships and how
educators can utilize this research to build better partnerships in the future.
What is a school-community partnership?
Most simply stated, a school-community partnership is a relationship that is created
between a school, district, or classroom and a community group, organization, or entity that
works together to support learning and student success. This type of learning, called community-
based learning, is active, connected with the classroom but taking place in meaningful, dynamic
environments (Cole, 2010, p. 15). Community-based learning is also longitudinal, involving the
building of a long-term community of support rather than just having students take part in one-
time community service projects. They are not merely made up of organizational sponsorships or
donations, or any other form of surface level involvement on the part of the community.
Successful school-community partnerships are about real relationships between students and the
community, ones that have the potential to turn contextual immersions into lessons that mean
something to students and that build [their] identities as contributing members of a larger
community and that make learning rich and meaningful (Cole, 2010, p. 15). School-community
partnerships are also each unique, because they offer the full richness of authentic contexts,
contexts that are specific to each students life and the community that surrounds them (Cole,
2010, p. 15).
Why should educators be concerned with increasing authentic interest in school and what
happens to a bored brain?
MAKING LEARNING MEANINGFUL 4
For a long time it was believed that the interchange between genes and the mind was one-
way. The common belief has been that our genes are fixed and thus our intelligence and our
tendencies are fixed as well. In his book titled Enriching the Brain: How to Maximize Every
Learners Potential, Eric Jensen (2006) proposes just the opposite idea. Through his own
research and the recent studies of neuroscientists, it has now been proven that people actually do
have the chance to change their brains, to maximize their learning potential, and even to
potentially raise their IQ scores through the occurrence of gene-environment interplay called
gene expression (p. 6). As Jensen points out, this theory has huge implications for educators.
Jensen refers to this maximizing of gene expression as enrichment, or the positive biological
response to a contrasting environment, in which measurable, synergistic, and global changes
have occurred (2006, p. 47). The results of proper enrichment, then, are an enrichment
response, which results in two happenings: the first enhances students ability to learn and
retain information and positively affects the cognition of average to gifted learners; the second
includes the possibility for enrichment to improve the cognition of those with impaired learning,
the disadvantaged, or brain damaged (Jensen, 2006, p. 81).
Central to obtaining the enrichment response, Jensen writes, is the application of the law
of contrast, or the law that says for learning to stick and influence gene-expression it must be
novel, challenging, and meaningful (2006, p. 80). While many teachers are good at making
classroom learning novel and challenging, the meaningful part often gets pushed to the side. And
so we have bored students. Or we have students that think, School just isnt for me. Or they act
out. Or maybe even they drop out. And they do so because brains do not handle boredom well:
they want to novel and challenging tasks. In fact, Jensen records that in animal studies, the
negative effects of boredom on the dendrites of brain cells are significant (2006, p. 70). In
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fact, he says, theres a greater negative from boredom than there is a positive from
enrichment (Jensen, 2006, p. 70).
Why would a school or district consider establishing school-community partnerships?
Not many adults are forced to spend their days doing tasks that do no make sense to them
or that seem meaningless. A good question, then, is why do we expect it of our students? It has
been stated why learning must be meaningful to be enriching. But how to make learning
meaningful is probably the more difficult question. For learning to be meaningful it must address
students present lives and be pertinent to their future; in other words, it must be worthwhile
(Jensen, 2006, p. 67). Anna Gahl Cole (2010), a researcher from the University of Arizona who
studied a community partnership at an urban magnet school called the Second Tuesday
Project, points out that at the heart of school-community partnerships is the desire to make
learning relevant, meaningful, challenging, interesting, and novel for all students by situating it
in local and familiar issues, contexts, and challenges. Curriculum is deeply connected to the
people, landscapes, cultures, and politics students can know and experience locally, she says. In
order to create these authentic learning community contexts, schools must build local
partnerships that can enrich student learning. Many researchers go on to argue that community
partnerships bring about a sense of civic duty and connectedness. Community partnerships, they
say, can also increase student motivation and engagement while guiding students to see the
world as an interdependent place where they play a vital role (Cole, 2010, p. 15).
What does research say about the influence of school-community partnerships?
Research on school-community partnerships indicates that they have the potential to be
very powerful support systems for learning, but that it is easy for problems implementing the
programs to hinder their success. Jensen takes up this topic in his chapter called School and
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Classroom Solutions (Jensen, 2006, p. 228). He cites complex learning projects, such a the
project Minuteman High School in Foxboro, Massachusetts which uses a school-community
partnership to annually involve 120 students from all different classes, teams, and groups in year-
long projects to design and build a house (Jensen, 2006, p. 229). Theres no doubt, he says,
that, compared with what those students would have gotten in a more traditional school, their
curriculum is vastly more likely to lead to enrichment (Jensen, 2006, p. 229). Career-based
learning is another avenue that can utilize the local community and provide enrichment that
students may not obtain in the traditional classroom. Jensen gives the example of David