Making Meaning: A Universal Experience

November 14, 2008 at 10:51 am 3 comments

posted by Beth Norford ’89, consultant and former School for Children teacher


Teaching in Lucknow, India*

I got back to the U.S. last week after five months in South Asia: India, Nepal and Pakistan. I’m beginning work as a freelance educational consultant and my mission was to visit schools and foundations; to talk with parents, teachers and students; to assess (at least superficially) the state of education on the subcontinent; and to figure out how I might play a role there. I started a blog to document my experiences and to engage with others who share an interest in progressive education in South Asia. My initial entry was a short excerpt from a lecture I presented in September at Punjab University, Lahore, Pakistan – a very brief first attempt to introduce my own beliefs about pedagogy…

“Since I am, after all, an educator, I’d like to begin by asking you a question – the sort of question that I like best: one that has no single ‘correct’ answer, the kind with many correct answers, the type that (hopefully) causes people to really think.

The question is this: What is the purpose of education? Why should we teach? Why should we learn?

The answers are many:
– We teach so that students will achieve high marks on their examinations.
– We teach so that students can be admitted to colleges and universities.
– We teach to raise the level of literacy among the population.
– We teach to offer students a better lot in life. Better health, better jobs, a better standard of living.
– We teach to offer students exposure to the history and culture of their country.

This morning I will take the liberty of talking about MY favorite answer to this question. Not the ‘correct’ answer remember, but the answer that makes me excited about my own work as an educator, that keeps me going, that gets me up in the mornings. I believe that the purpose of education is the creation of meaning. The creation of meaning. Children are trying to make meaning out of the complex and crazy world into which they are born, a world of relationships, of symbols, of patterns and randomness, a world of things beyond the comprehension of their young minds. They need all of this to mean something, to make sense. They need the tools to create this meaning for themselves. This is why they learn. And this is why I teach – to offer children the tools they will need for this most important life work.”

There is much more to come and I can’t wait to begin making contact with others who are interested in progressive education in the U.S., in South Asia, and throughout the world. Please be in touch.

* The photo is from the city of Lucknow, about 500 kilometers east of  Delhi.  I was working with students at a school called the Acharya  Narendra Deva Academy, which provides free schooling to children from working-class families who can’t afford adequate education for their kids.

Beth is a Bank Street graduate and former School for Children teacher now beginning to freelance as an educational consultant. Most of her current work is concentrated in South Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan) and she has begun a blog, “Educational Alternatives Worldwide” (with a link from our sidebar), to document her recent professional experiences. She’d really appreciate any and all comments, suggestions, questions, and feedback from the Bank Street community.

Please join the conversation by posting your comment below.

Entry filed under: constructivism, international education.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Betsy  |  November 20, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    I am really curious about how you go about giving students tools to create meaning. I’m finding out so much about how different cultures use and create different patterns of thinking and learning
    — I’d recommend Nesbitt’s The Geography of Thought, for instance — but it does make it difficult to figure out an approach that challenges but doesn’t bore or overwhelm the student. Perhaps I will find more on your own blog! Hope to join the conversation.

  • 2. Kathy  |  March 8, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    This is really interesting. I’d love to read more. Can you send me a link to your future posts? Thanks!

  • 3. Maureen  |  December 5, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    I sincerely hope to communicate with you! I am a doctoral candidate struggling with finding questions to evaluate meaning-making in terms of educational experiences. I also have a strong interest in both international and urban education, and would love to communicate more.

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