Few of us finished our school days without complaining at times, “Why do I have to learn history/algebra/chemistry/sociology? What good will knowing this ever do me?” Sometimes, we eventually found that our hard-earned academic knowledge was useful in real life; sometimes not. In either case, while we were actually studying the topic, the lack of obvious practical applications kept us from getting too enthusiastic about it. 


A better way of generating passion for learning is a teaching approach emphasizing meaningful work. Meaningful work is closely tied to project-based learning, which focuses on active goals and problem-solving rather than book learning and memorization. When the bulk of curricula comprises meaningful projects, students learn more effectively, retain more for the long term, and have more opportunities to practice planning and relational skills.  

What makes classroom work “meaningful”? 


Obvious Relevance to Students’ Lives 


When students are handed pages of statistics on a health or social problem dubbed “important” by the state education department, it’s simply raw data with no human face and no clear connection to the kids’ everyday worlds. But when kids are encouraged to share stories about specific issues that have affected their families or others they know personally, and to design projects based on the question “What can be done about it?,” they become eager learners because they’re helping to discover things that could make a difference in their lives and the lives of their friends. 


The Use of Imagination, Evaluation, and All One’s Senses and Skills 


Things learned through straight memorization are stored in one small area of the brain, and often forgotten as soon as the test is passed. Things learned by hands-on participation, mixed well with encouragement to come up with new ideas, become deeply ingrained because they involve one’s whole self. 


Opportunities for Trial and Error 


Every famously successful person from Thomas Edison to J. K. Rowling achieved that success through trying multiple paths; dealing with multiple dead ends; and trusting their own better judgment over multiple opinions that said the whole idea was ridiculous. Traditional academic learning tends to forget that progress comes not through absorbing the same “right answers” the preceding generation already knows, but through coming up with new ideas; trying things no one has tried before; and trying again one more time than we “fail.” Truly meaningful work doesn’t just teach students to solve individual problems; it teaches them to grow themselves into effective problem-solvers.  


At Shady Oak, we emphasize meaningful work because it gets students enthusiastic about learning and about the possibility of bringing real improvement to the world.  

Science Backs Us Up! Further Resources on the Topic