What Makes It Meaningful?

After finishing a packet for homework, Joel pulls out his notebook. I'm wondering if he's going to write a story or maybe sketch some pictures. He's been really into that lately. Instead, he begins writing all the numbers up to 1,000, carefully trying to make sure he has it set up to work on one page.

At first glance, it feels mindless, repetitive, rote - the very things that I often rail against. I want to tell him to stop. Go run in the backyard. Go make something. Instead, I step back and watch. It's his free time and he can squander it if he wants.

At first he just writes the numbers. Then I see him finding patterns. I see him talking about skip-counting across rows. I see him doing mental math as he plans out the space.

What makes it meaningful isn't the nature of the task. I wouldn't recommend this activity across the board for all children. But it's meaningful to him. Right now. In this moment. And that's all that matters. He is setting the paramaters of learning on his own.

I am not convinced that all learning needs to be autonomous. Totally personalized learning is a recipe for narcissism. But I am also convinced that we need to be carving out autonomous times in a school day where kids can do things, even when they seem ridiculous, because that is what feels meaningful to the student.

photo credit: _Untitled-1 via photopin cc
John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. This kind of explorative learning is just breath-taking. It's elegant, efficient, beautiful. Kids can be so, so good at it, when we're able to let them do it.

  2. "Totally personalized learning is a recipe for narcissism."

    Thank you for that, I'm getting exhausted listening to many bloggers discuss complete educational freedom and a movement towards completely personalized learning. Your post reminds me of the 20% time that Google and many other companies have, and I agree with it. We should give a day a week (or equivalent amount of time split across the days) for students to use all our wonderful resources (library, computers, community leaders, teachers, etc.) to explore whatever topic they want. Mr. Smith who teaches another grade knows a lot about building soapbox cars for racing and you'd like to talk to him? See him during your 20% time, he would love to talk with you about it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. I like the twenty percent time, if it is built-in the right way and if there are enough experts that students can go to for guidance.

  3. I'm with Anthony. I love Google's 20% time idea, and I also like their motto that "creativity loves constraints." I don't think that it should always be personalized, but yes there should be some learner choice built in whenever possible. Give them some freedom within the necessary constraints.

    1. I love the concept of balance with this.


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