Meaningful Learning Experiences: Teaching the Student and not the Content

By Dr. Towanda Harris

Along with the rest of the education world, I have been thinking a lot about the accessibility of meaningful learning experiences for all students. And by all, I mean all, especially our black and brown students. In the past, I have asked teachers to share their definition of “meaningful learning experiences” and majority of the time the definition started with the content and how it is used to ignite the student’s learning.

Making learning meaningful means that we must acknowledge the value of students’ life experiences and prior learning and begin with the student in order to connect the content throughout the process.  I work with schools on the most affluent side of town and schools on the poorest side of town and I keep coming back to this thought: “What if we believed that our students were brilliant in spite the pandemic?” As I reflect on my time in the classroom, my first year was filled with a lot of talking and a lot of listening. Unfortunately, I must confess that the talking was mostly me and the listening was mostly my students. It didn’t take long for me to learn that I had it all wrong. My definition of meaningful learning was steeped in teacher-centered protocols and routines, which all depended upon compliance. If my students were going to experience meaningful learning, I had to change my definition. It was NOT completing the assignments first. It was NOT answering questions before wait time was given. And it definitely was NOT scoring a hundred on an AR test. Meaningful learning was about gaining new knowledge that enabled my students to engage with each other and the world around them. It was about being emboldened to challenge and reflect on new information. It was about being able to look at life through the lens’ of multiple perspectives and experiences from others and also making connections to their own lives.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post entitled, “Can we stop telling the ‘corona kids’ how little they are learning?” by Valerie Strauss. During the past few months, I lost count of the number of times I heard words like learning loss, COVID slide, deficit, and so on. What if we are wrong? What if it wasn’t our structures, routines, and procedures that increased their learning after all? The decisions that we make are reflections of what we believe about our students and what they can accomplish. It determines how we plan for our students. In Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s book, she reminds us that “it is critically important to push back on standards and practices that are not aligned to what students need most.” In this untraditional school year, it means that the curriculum scope and sequence must be built with our students, especially our black and brown students, in mind as we journey through the highs and lows of the ever changing factors that prevent us from being in a mask off, non-“social distance” zone with our students.  

As educators, we can begin with reflecting on the physical and virtual spaces that we build. We can build a compliant classroom that is filled with rules and procedures or we can build one that is filled with student agency that is driven by students’ interest and is often self-initiated. As educators, we have had lots of time to see learning in a variety of settings. In students’ bedrooms, at the kitchen table, on the couch, and even with younger siblings joining our read alouds. Cameras ON or cameras OFF, we have been creative in our efforts to engage the learner. So, what would that look like in our classrooms? How do we ensure that we value students’ voices, their perspectives, and their contribution to the learning, regardless of the learning environment? We must start with us being thoughtful around the resources, questions, and opportunities we use to engage students within learning spaces.

How do I choose the best resources?

First, let me release you from the notion that there is one best resource. Choosing resources begins by knowing our students and continuously taking note of what is working and what is not. We have to ensure that our choices are not one sided or targeted for one audience. It should be beneficial for a variety of learning styles and representative of diverse perspectives that exist in our world. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when deciding:

  1. Do the resources provided allow students to reflect and connect with their identity?
  2. Are there specific students not benefiting from the use of the resource? Why or why not?
  3. Does the resource help to meet a goal that has been set for individual or groups of students?

How are you facilitating meaningful learning?

In a recent Education Week blog, Dr. Bettina Love boldly proclaimed that, “when schools reopen, they could be spaces of justice, high expectations, creativity, and processing the collective trauma of COVID-19.” Reiterating the point that learning is not meant to be a sit and get or a lopsided experience, with one person giving and others receiving. Learning evokes change. Are we probing students, especially black and brown students, to challenge each other’s thinking about the injustices that exists in the world around us? Questioning is a big part of the process. When we ask questions and encourage them to ask questions of themselves and others, we help students to reflect on their new learning and become changemakers. This creates an environment in which all voices and perspectives are valued and heard in order to deepen their understanding. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself in order to foster that type of environment:

1. What opportunities do you provide during instructions to invite students into the learning space?

2. Is feedback 2-way, in which students engage in conversations among teachers and peers? How do you know?

3. During the new learning, what resonates with students as they reflect on their life experiences? 

How can I co-create more opportunities for student engagement?A group of people sitting in a room

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No more “sage on stage” in classrooms. Opportunities for engagement yields a growth mindset. For example, asking students to read a passage and answer the comprehension questions, is not engagement; however, selecting themes to explore and allowing students to choose groups and share personal connections through discussion is engagement. This is the difference between passing a summative assessment and changing a perspective on a topic based on the rich conversation that a student experienced. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself in order to foster that type of environment:

1. What opportunities are we allowing for students’ two worlds to meet in daily discussions (school life AND home life)?

2. Which voices overshadow the other voices in your class? Are there multiple ways that students can engage in learning (i.e. blogging, speaking, posting, etc.)?

3. In what ways are you making students’ social well-being a priority and using it to further their learning?

Students learn more than content at school—they also learn from the ways we teach and the ways they are invited to participate in their learning. If the day is filled with students spending all of their reading time independently filling in worksheets or watching videos, without any opportunities to immerse themselves in books, what are we teaching them about what it means to read and connect with the world? At a time when we face intense pressure to achieve and address the so-called “learning loss” it may be tempting to adopt materials that claim to promise results and turn our backs on practices that make school joyful, engaging, and meaningful for our students. “It’s just for a little while,” we might think, “just until the state test is over.” However, if we want students to make gains that outlast a single assessment and lead to a lifetime of learning, we can’t sacrifice the kind of meaningful learning experiences that we know children need. 


Dr. Towanda Harris has been a teacher, staff developer, literacy content specialist, and an instructional coach. Currently an Instructional Leadership Coordinator and an adjunct professor of reading and writing in Atlanta, Georgia, she brings almost twenty years of experience to the education world. Towanda is the author of The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. You can follow her on Twitter @drtharris and IG @harrisinnovationcg.


Hammond, Z. L. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Harris, T. (2019). The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Love, B. (2020). Teachers, We Cannot Go Back to the Way Things Were . Education Week.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. New York: Scholastic.

Strauss, V. (2020). Can we stop telling the ‘corona kids’ how little they are learning? Washington Post.

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