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What do we mean when we say "the construction of individual meaning"?

The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding   -- Leonardo daVinci

When I was about twelve or thirteen years-old, my favorite book was Gone With the Wind. I'm sure I read it at least three times in one summer alone. My reading tastes varied widely; in between reading Gone With the Wind I sandwiched comic books (mostly Spiderman and The Fantastic Four) and popular magazines, chewed my way through War and Peace, and attempted to digest readings in microbiology and genetics that were way over my head. Anyway, back to my story. As I mentioned, at that time in my life, Gone With the Wind was my favorite book. Imagine my excitement when I learned that the movie version was going to play at the local cinema (the re-release -- I'm not THAT old)! To this day, I remember sitting in the theater seat, munching popcorn, waiting for my favorite book to unspool on the screen in front of me. What could be more perfect? I'm lucky I didn't choke on my popcorn the first time I saw Vivien Leigh. That wasn't MY Scarlett! How could they do this to me? And that wasn't MY Tara! (Of course, it wasn't Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett or her Tara either.) I was shocked, of course, because I did not understand that I had constructed my "own text" as I read the book. That story and its characters were alive in my imagination, and the movie version (someone else's construction) was incomprehensible to me. The movie version almost "killed" the living story I had constructed as I read the book.

As a screenwriter, I realize today that it's a technical impossibility (and not even desirable) for a movie adaptation to "be" the book playing out on the screen. (That's why an adaptation is called an adaptation, of course.) Normally, a writer adapting a book to the screen will search for the "cinematic" threads (theme, character, setting, pieces of the plot), pulling some threads out to use in the movie, possibly even adding new threads. However, my reaction to the Gone with the Wind film is good story to explain what we mean by the "construction of individual" meaning. Meaning is context dependent and individual. Each of us brings his or her own past experiences and personal mind-set to each new learning experience which, in-turn, shapes that learning experience differently for each learner. The construction of meaning is unique to the individual but also shaped by sets of assumptions/rules/understandings common to a particular community and/or context.

venn diagram

In the 1980s, literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote an essay in response to an attack by Meyer Abrams on his "Newreader" ideas about literary criticism and linguistics. Fish (1990), along with other critics including Derrida and Bloom, suggested that a text cannot "exist" independent of reader/context, and, therefore, our "interpretations" of texts are based on shifting sands because of the unavailability of determinate meanings. Abrams questioned Fish's views, pointing out that Fish was engaging in nonsense -- using "standard language in order deconstruct the standard language" (Fish, p.303). Frankly, to me, some of the arguments on both sides sound like "Dr. Seuss-isms." However, many of Fish's comments are useful for us to consider within the context our discussion of the construction of meaning. (Interestingly, in the 1980s, Fish was trying to get at what brain science is now beginning to illuminate about how the learner constructs meaning. This is a fun example of how we can help our students make connections between the various fields they are studying. While this example is personally meaningful to me, as an English literature scholar, it's important to note that providing examples from other fields that include examples personally relevant to the students is important. Making these connections is challenging, but worthwhile!) As you read through the following examples, try to make connections to examples from your own discipline/field of study.

Let's return to Fish and Abrams. While Abrams would argue that Fish's theory makes communication (and understanding) impossible, Fish says, "understanding is always possible, but not from the outside" (p. 303). When a reader comes to a text (or a speaker interprets an utterance, or a student experiences new learning), she will interpret it by teasing out the meaning based on the context in which the text, utterance, or learning appeared. Absent context, she will "place" it in a context based on past experience, even though that context may lead to a misunderstanding of the "meaning" of the text, utterance, or learning.

open book    Fish tells of a colleague who was approached, on the first day of class, by a student who asked, "Is there a text in this class?" His colleague immediately put that into the context, or category, of "questions that students ask at the beginning of the semester" and quickly replied, telling the student which anthology to purchase for the course. That's not what the student "meant" though. She had taken Stanley Fish's course (and explored the idea, among others, of whether a text even "exists" before it is "read" by a reader). Her question was an attempt to discover the instructor's point of view about literary theory, not a question about which text to buy for the course. When Fish's colleague realized that the student was one of "Fish's students" he was able to "revise" his understanding of her question by putting it into this new context (because he knew all about colleague's ideas). But what would happen to the instructor's understanding of the meaning of the student's question if he could not put it quickly into this new context? Without this new context, he would have to go with what he has. Fish used this anecdote about the student's text book question in a discussion about literary theory, but his ideas can also help us understand how learning is context-dependent. Referring to literary theory, Fish writes, "meanings are the property neither of fixed and stable texts nor of free and independent readers but of interpretive communities that are responsible both for the shape of a reader's activities and for the texts those activities produce" (p. 322). Our interpretation here is that by "texts those activities produce," Fish does not mean the text itself (the one the author produced), he means that the reader/listener/learner is "producing" the text/learning (as he reads, listens, learns) by constructing meaning. Furthermore, the meaning constructed depends on the individual and the interpretive community in which the reader exists (both part of the context). The construction of individual meaning is embedded in context. We should think about the implications this has for our classrooms. Do we provide a context for content (and, therefore, possibly new context students can use to create meaning)? Are we keeping in mind that in the absence of this context, students will create meaning based on past experience? Are we remembering, as we develop assessment strategies, that the construction of individual meaning is embedded in context?

Annette provides a funny example from her own life that illustrates this concept. As a child reading Old Testament stories in the King James version of the Bible, she was perplexed by the description of circumcision as the cutting of the foreskin. She had no idea what the foreskin was so she connected it in her mind with the forehead and pictured people running around with huge scars on their foreheads from their circumcisions! This meaning made sense to Annette in the context of the Bible stories because circumcision identified the people as Israelites, and to her mind, the identification was visible to all who saw them.

Let's move away from literary criticism (and circumcision) and return to our movie theme with one more example that may help clarify the concept of meaning being context-dependent and individual. Lev Kuleshov, a filmmaker in charge of the USSR State School on Cinema in the early 1900s, is well-known in cinema studies for his work with the montage. Due to shortage of materials and to their interests in developing theories of cinema, Kuleshov and his colleagues began experimenting with "found footage." In one experiment, Kuleshov edited together footage of an actor (the same, expressionless image of the actor's face) with objects/images. One image was a dead woman in a coffin, and a second image was a child playing with a teddy bear. Audiences interpreted the expression of the actor differently in each case. They said the actor in the coffin film strip touched them with his deep sorrow. They thought the actor in the child/teddybear film strip conveyed happiness with his smile. Again, each shot of the actor was the same exact shot! The audience attributed meaning to the expression of the actor related to the other other images appearing with the actor. In other words, the shots of the actor acquired additional meaning in relationship to other shots.

Once we realize that the construction of meaning is context-dependent and individual, we have to ask ourselves, as teachers, if our students are learning what we think they are learning. It's interesting to think about what happens when we "teach" a lesson. We sometimes make assumptions about the teaching and learning that may be false. For example, in a grammar lesson using color-coding (a wonderful, brain-friendly strategy helpful for learners with visual strengths), we might think that students are learning how to write sentences using a subject and verb, but they might instead be learning how to color code, or only that "verbs are red and subjects are green," or which markers are the best buy. Huh? How is that helpful? Is the meaning these students are constructing anything like the meaning we THINK they are constructing? Here's a funny story that will help make this point. While working on this project, I quizzed my husband, Gary, about what he remembered, if anything, from the seventh grade. Without hesitation, he answered that he remembered his seventh grade social studies teacher (let's call her Mrs. Smith). Smiling, I prepared to listen to a heart-warming story about a dedicated teacher and her influence on a young boy's intellectual development. I was wrong. Here's the story Gary told me:

Mrs. Smith was not more than five foot tall, but had a great figure, including very large breasts. When she wrote on the chalkboard, she stood really close to the board, pressing her chest against it as she stretched up to reach the top of the chalkboard. As she wrote, her breasts left big circles in the chalk dust!

The seventh grade, adolescence -- think of the context and the learners. It's not a stretch to figure out what had the most lasting impression on the boys in Mrs. Smith's class. That's not to say they don't recall anything else they learned, but this silly example helps make the point that we can't always be sure what our students are learning and/or retaining.

chalkboard with "A"   One more example will be familiar to all classroom teachers: How often do students come to you saying things like, "I'm not sure what you are looking for in this paper/assignment/whatever." What are they learning in our courses if they are saying things like this? Is the focus on learning the material/concepts or on learning what the teacher "wants" in exchange for a grade? How do we identify and shrink the gap between what we hope students will learn and what they are actually learning? How do we assess what students have learned? The answers to these questions will be explored more fully below, but here are some basic suggestions: 1. We should think carefully about setting the context for what students are learning. 2. We should help students build bridges to prior learning and to what they are learning in their other classes. 3. We should develop assessment strategies that help us close the gap between what students are actually learning and what we hope they are learning.


What do we mean when we say "meaning"?

Clarifying "meaning" as used in "the construction of individual meaning" is our next step. Howard Gardner, in Intelligence Reframed, describes the type of understanding learners might achieve when multiple intelligences theory is used as a pedagogical approach to teaching a complex subject such as the Holocaust. Gardner describes multiple entry points (narrational, quantitative/numerical, foundational/existential, aesthetic, hands-on, and social) for engaging the learner and centering the student within the topic, and then describes the understanding this approach can achieve. He states that "students exhibit understanding when they can invoke [ ideas they've explored] flexibly and appropropriately to carry out specific analysis, interpretations, comparisons, or critiques -- and, especially, to perform their understandings with respect to new material, perhaps as new as today's newspaper or tomorrow's technological or biological breakthrough" (p.160). This is the type of understanding that leads to the construction of individual meaning.

The "meaning" described above probably reminds you of the upper levels of Bloom's Taxonomy, the well-known model learned by teachers for many years. Whenever "new" theoretical models are developed, we run the risk of being called a current fad. However, we are quick to point out that much of our work is based on the "tried and true" that we know, as good teachers, works in the classroom. Our model for teaching in the community college supports using what has worked in the past supplemented with new ideas/approaches. We are fine-tuning, though, by taking a close look at WHY what works, works, and by using our model to design new approaches for the community college classroom that have a sound pedagogical foundation. In addition, it's fascinating to explore how "old" theory such as Bloom's Taxonomy is supported by current brain science research! (Sousa, p. 251). Bloom's taxonomy, you'll recall, helps clarify the difference between difficulty and complexity and serves as a tool for designing approaches that help students move to higher levels of thinking. As a quick review, here are the levels:

Knowledge: recall of information (memorization and recall of previously learned material)

Comprehension: the ability to make sense of previously learned material

Application: the ability to use learned material in new situations

Analysis: ability to break material apart in order to understand the whole

Synthesis: ability to put parts together to form something new

Evaluation: ability to judge material based on specific criteria (Sousa, p.253-255)

In addition, as teachers, we know that the "expert" is fluent in his or her field and can make connections between concepts within that field and make connections to other disciplines. The "expert" can move smoothly between the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy and function easily at the highest levels. When we use the words "construction of individual meaning" in our theoretical model, the word "meaning" refers to this level of expertise. The unique learner, interacting with the supportive environment, constructs individual meaning by connecting to past experience/learning and making connections to other learning occasions and future learning. The student who can make these connections fluently is engaging in meaningful learning.

Renate and Geoffrey Caine, in Making Connections, point out, however, that much of what students learn is "surface knowledge" or memorization. It's important to note that memorization of information is a necessary step toward becoming an expert, but it's just that -- one step. Creative, "meaningful learning," as described by the Caines, consists of two types of meaning: felt meaning and deep meaning. Felt meaning is the usually joyful "ahah" moment we experience during a moment of understanding as pieces of a puzzle fit together or a relationship between disparate parts or concepts come into focus. Deep meaning is "whatever drives us and governs our sense of purpose" (p.105). The sum of felt meaning plus deep meaning plus information is the "natural knowledge" enjoyed by the expert, and, according to the Caines, the "objective of education must be the expansion of natural knowledge" (p. 110).

At this point, please note that what we are teaching might "make sense" but not "have meaning" to students (Sousa p.49). For example, students might be perfectly capable of manipulating a math formula such as the formula for determining area in class (it "makes sense") but be incapable of invoking the appropriate math formula later, when involved in a home improvement project, to figure out how much carpeting they'll need to cover the floor of the living room! This disconnect represents "surface knowledge" that has not been connected to "natural knowledge." Current brain science supports these ideas. For example, David Sousa, discussing research by Macquire, Fritz, and Morris, explains that "brain scans have shown that when new learning is readily comprehensible (sense) and can be connected to past experiences (meaning) there is substantially more cerebral activity followed by dramatically improved retention (Sousa, p. 48). This is key for teachers: again, helping students connect new learning with past experience will help them construct individual meaning. Furthermore, connecting abstract knowledge (such as a math formula) to a meaningful context/use (figuring out materials needed for a home improvement project) helps students construct individual meaning. It's important to note that the meaningful context/use for the abstract knowledge should be meaningful for the INDIVIDUAL LEARNER rather than for the teacher. If the student has no interest in the home improvement project, the individual connection is not successful. That's our challenge - figuring out how to help students make meaningful connections so that they can construct individual meaning.

What do we mean by "construction of Individual Meaning? (You are here.)

Construction of individual meaning is improved when students make connections.

Construction of individual meaning improves when students pay attention (and paying attention can shape the brain).

Construction of individual meaning improves when students think about how they learn (metacognition).

Construction of individual meaning is improved when instructors create appropriate assessment (including self-assessment) for complex tasks.  

Construction of individual meaning improves when students develop their creativity.

Construction of individual meaning improves when students develop their ability to identify patterns.

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