Why Meaningful Math Learning Matters

What Meaningfulness Means

Learning and schooling are not the same thing. There are children who are great learners but terrible students. These young people are full of ideas and questions, but they have not managed to connect their innate curiosity with their experiences in school. There are many possible reasons for this. Children may find school to be a hard place to inhabit, due to invisible expectations that leave them feeling alienated. Sometimes, school curriculum just seems irrelevant: their personal questions about the world do not find inroads in the work they are asked to do.
Although many parenting books extol children’s natural curiosity and emphasize its importance in their learning and development, schooling too often emphasizes compliance over curiosity. Thus, it is not surprising that children who are great learners and weak students have their antithesis: children who are great students but who are less invested in learning and sense making. Make no mistake: these students hit every mark of good organization, compliance, diligence, and timely work production, but they do not seek deep engagement with ideas. Given the freedom to develop a question or explore an idea, they balk and ask for more explicit directions. I have heard teachers refer to these children as “teacher-dependent.”
Too often, meaningfulness falls through this gap between learning and schooling. There is a fundamental contradiction at play: meaningfulness arises from and connects to children’s curiosity, yet “curious children” is not entirely synonymous with “successful students.” Meaningfulness comes about when students develop an appreciation for mathematical ideas. Rich and meaningful learning happens when students draw on prior knowledge and experiences to make sense of ideas and explore problems, invoke their own strategies, get to ask “what if…?”  In short, meaningful learning happens when students’ activity connects to their own curiosity. To make meaningfulness central to math teaching, then, teachers need to narrow the gap between being curious and being a good student.


Meaningfulness: When students connect their own curiosity and experience to ideas, thereby developing an interest in and appreciation for mathematical content.

Why Meaningfulness Matters

Every math teacher, at one one time or another, has been asked the question, “When are we going to use this?” While this question often gets cast as students’ resistance to learning, it can be productively reinterpreted as a plea for meaningfulness. When the hidden curriculum of math class –– the messages that are inadvertently relayed through classroom organization and activity –– consistently communicates that meaning does not matter, we end up with hordes of students who no longer reason when they are doing math. They instead focus on rituals, such as following the worked example, and cues, such as applying the last learned procedure to the current problem.
As researcher Sheila Tobias explained in her classic exploration of math anxiety, a lack of meaning exacerbates many students’ negative experiences learning mathematics. When math class emphasizes rituals and cues that rely on memorization over sense making, students’ own interpretations become worthless.

For instance, they memorize multiplication facts, and, in a search for meaning, they decide that multiplication makes things bigger. Then, they learn how to multiply numbers between 0 and 1. Their prior understanding of multiplication no longer works, so they might settle on the idea that mulitiplication intensifies numbers since it makes these fractional quantities even smaller. Finally, when they learn how to multiply negative numbers, all their ideas about multiplication become meaningless, leaving them completely at sea in their sense making. The inability to make meaning out of procedures leaves students grasping and anxious, as the procedures seem ever more arbitrary.
In contrast, when classrooms are geared toward supporting mathematical sense making, they reap multiple motivational benefits. First, students’ sense of ownership over their learning increases. Students see that multiplication can be thought of as repeated addition, the dimensions of a rectangle as related to its area, or the inverse of division. When they learn new types of multiplication, the procedures have a conceptual basis to expand on. Relatedly, their learning is more durable. Because they understand the meaning behind the mathematics they are learning, they are more likely to connect it to their own experiences. This, in turn, provides openings for their curiosity and questions. Beyond giving students opportunities for sense making, meaningful mathematics classrooms provide students chances to identify and explore their own problems. Indeed, in a systematic comparison of teacher-guided and student-driven problem solving, educational researchers Tesha Sengupta-Irving and Noel Enyedy found that the ownership, relevance, and opportunities to engage curiosity in student-driven problem solving supported stronger outcomes in student affect and engagement.[1]

The challenge, then, for teachers is how to help students engage in meaningful mathematical learning within the structures of schooling. I would love to hear your ideas about how to achieve this.

[1] Tesha Sengupta-Irving & Noel Enyedy (2014): Why Engaging in Mathematical Practices May Explain Stronger Outcomes in Affect and Engagement: Comparing Student-Driven With Highly Guided Inquiry, Journal of the Learning Sciences, DOI: 10.1080/10508406.2014.928214