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Making strong learning connections matters in all our teaching. It is among our highest priorities as educators, because without it we have no learning.
Think about what happens when you yourself learn something successfully. Almost instantly, there is connection and relevance to you. You make a valuable association with a need that must be filled or a goal to be achieved. Ultimately, it dawns on you that the knowledge you want to learn will benefit you in some way. This makes sense, since one of the main reasons we seek to learn is for personal development and benefit.
As a teacher, however, you've taken on an added responsibility. Simply put, it is to help others benefit from learning, namely those who'll continue to develop our society. When we are long gone, the quality of learning connections we give our students will influence their decisions for years to come.
It’s absolutely impossible for our students to learn without experiencing connections to the concepts we teach them. We can achieve this through providing both context and relevance. Without connection there is no interest, and interest always precedes meaningful and authentic learning. So it's essential that we are making strong learning connections to help them develop the thinking habits they need to succeed.
Awareness & Connection
In our book Mindful Assessment, we provide an assessment framework for the Essential Fluencies. In this framework, awareness and connection were at the bottom of Bloom's Taxonomy. The reasoning behind this is to show how making strong learning connections is the start of any learning journey. It happens with these two factors:
- Awareness—This is absolutely essential to learning anything. We can't conceive of or recall anything we aren't even aware of. It sounds obvious, but we don't always consider how crucial this is to learning. Awareness and conscious knowledge of the existence of something gives it meaning and substance.
- Connection—Without connection, learning can't occur because it's difficult to learn something that doesn't connect to our interests and needs. Connection paves the way for critical thinking, and having a stake in learning concepts that carry both context and relevance.
The line separating teaching from learning is between connection and remembering, and it's where learning actually begins. This is why taking advantage of making strong learning connections early on matters so much in our teaching. We use them to provide access to new knowledge and skills, and can then leave the learning to the learners.
How We Make Our Learners Bloom
After awareness, connection determines which of Bloom’s taxonomic levels the learning can reach. For example, if learners have a low level of connection, they are basically practicing passive compliance. It's like being engaged just enough to pass the course and nothing more, and this kind of learning presents little or no value to the learner.
A low-level connection generates learning that stays at the lower end of Bloom’s Taxonomy. At best, students would be remembering, understanding, and maybe applying the knowledge. Beyond that, soon after the content is learned it will likely be discarded and forgotten.
However, when we achieve a high level of connection through tasks that promote responsibility and ownership, the outcome is different. In making strong learning connections with activities that foster relevant skills with applicable value, we create higher-level thinking. It's this relevance factor that leads to high degrees of learning ownership.
The process of making strong learning connections can happen in so many different ways. Consider some of the suggestions below.
How to Get Connecting
- Saving the Day: Pick topics for learners to share in groups. Have them investigate the history of one global issue that we struggle with, and pinpoint why it's a problem that remains unsolved. Next, have them generate one starting point for beginning transformational change.
- Looking Locally: Find clear links between the lessons you design and things that are transpiring in your local community, and even get them actively involved with community individuals.
- Seek Their Help: Get your learners' input on your next lesson design. Work with them to agree on projects, assessment criteria, timeline, milestones, ongoing assessment activities, and more.
- In the Field: Have students help organize your next filed trip, and assign groups to perform separate learning quests or lesson-related scavenger hunts.
- Get Messy: Allow students to build something physical, be they models or dioramas or actual working machines that serve a unique purpose or solve a specific problem. Use whatever levels of tech you have on hand.
- Try Makerspaces: Work with students and administrators to build and equip a makerspace in or outside the school.
- Talking Tech: Use Twitter for quick quizzes and polls, Facebook for group project management, or LinkedIn to connect with industry professionals in the students’ chosen field of interest.
When learners own their learning, they own it for life and they will use it again and again. Therefore, by focusing on making strong learning connections first, we've provided learning of great value to our students.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Feb 13, 2019, updated September 21, 2021