The possibility of making sense

earthquake-imgConnecting learning and life sometimes sounds like a useful accessory for the real business of learning in the classroom. But relevance to life is what makes learning possible.

Emerson (1983, p. 1088) reminds us that we need a reason to learn:

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake, on ghastly diagrams of cloven mountains, up-heaved plains, and the dry bed of the sea.

Frank Smith (2004, p. 182) adds that we need materials or activities out of which we can make sense:

It isn’t nonsense that stimulates children to learn but the possibility of making sense; that’s why children grow up speaking language and not imitating the noise of the air conditioner.

All too often, we struggle to motivate, monitor, and assess learning because students aren’t learning, or worse, the classroom feels lifeless. But that struggle is futile if we don’t face the real problem, that learning needs to make sense, to have an intrinsic purpose for the learner. Paraphrasing Wittgenstein (1958, II, iv, 232), the existence of a repertoire of teaching methods “makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us.” But the real problem in many formal learning situations is that there is no reason to learn, and “problem and method pass one another by.”

See more about purpose in learning in my post on Education for what is real.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1983). Essays and lectures. Des Moines, IA: The Library of America.

Smith, Frank (2004). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read (6th Ed.).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958). Philosophical investigations, third edition (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.

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