Unthinkable: Why ‘meaning’ should be part of the school vocabulary
Students should ask ‘what’s the point?’ rather than ‘how many points?’
Shane Hanna: “The space for explicitly exploring values in schools is limited. What about those for whom school and the Leaving Cert don’t fit?” Photograph: Getty images
In our productivity-obsessed world, pausing and asking “What’s the point?” can seem heretical.
Every year a new batch of school-leavers enters college and a new group of graduates enters the workforce, as though the purpose of it all is implicitly understood. Where are the opportunities to stand back from this conveyor belt and scrutinise the “meaning” of one’s education or labour?
Shane Hanna, a teacher at Villiers School in Limerick, sees a gap in the education system that can perhaps be filled by logotherapy – the study of meaning. For his master’s in guidance counselling (completed in 2014), Hanna examined the “attributes that contribute to responsible decision-making” and developed “a meaning centred framework” that could be used in schools.
He has since developed this framework through studies in logotherapy and philosophy, a commitment that dovetails with plans by Villiers to introduce an international baccalaureate (IB) diploma programme from September.
While the IB model is associated with critical, interdisciplinary thinking, Hanna says the search for meaning can and should be incorporated in all education contexts. He quotes American psychologist Walter Mischel, who wrote that “without compelling goals and drives, executive function can leave us competent but aimless”.
Says Hanna, a member of Philosophy Ireland campaign group, “It is meaning which provides [us with] direction.”
How can one broach the subject of meaning, or purpose, in schools?
Shane Hanna: “One of the phrases Viktor Frankl uses that stood out from my studies is this idea of ‘broadening an individual’s field of vision’. Sometimes we can all get wrapped up in our own issues and we can’t see beyond the moment.
“I think teachers have the opportunity to help students to see beyond the moment, to see beyond simply the learning of content and instead to see how this content is actually relevant for them – that there is a purpose to what they learn in school, that it is meaningful.
“That’s the challenge for teachers, in particular, within our existing educational system, which is outcome-oriented and points-focused.
“My dad, who was a principal in a school for students from disadvantaged areas in Limerick, always said that students were only disruptive when they weren’t interested in what was being taught – when they saw no purpose to it. He also said that if you know students, their families, their backgrounds, etc, you will then know how to deal with them. Both things have always stuck with me.
“The challenge for teachers is to get to know students individually and tailor material and lessons accordingly. This becomes like an ‘educational encounter’, to steal a counselling term. Think about how schools remove students’ individual identity using uniforms, exam numbers, etc, and the well-documented impact that anonymity has on our ability to make pro-social decisions.
“Schools and teachers therefore have to make a real effort to acknowledge the individual sitting in front of them. Otherwise, there are plenty of cracks for students to fall through.
“Once the individual is recognised, students can then be guided towards appropriate tasks that are individually relevant and meaningful yet educationally worthwhile. The teacher has ‘broadened their field of vision’ to show them the relevance of what they are doing. The obvious difficulty for all teachers is time: How can you manage this with a full timetable, with corrections etc.?”
School leavers tend to think of their future options in terms of aptitudes, interests or job market trends. Should they think instead about the values they hold and base their college choices on this?
“I think the space for explicitly exploring values in schools is limited, which is why I believe the student has to be at the heart of the educational process. This is what has led to my interest in the role of philosophy and my interest in inquiry-based teaching, such as the IB programme.
“A separate but related issue for me is the values that our existing system instils – perhaps unconsciously – in our students. Is their value defined by the number of points they achieve? What about those for whom school and the Leaving Cert don’t fit?
“The role of individual responsibility is also something that interests me. Responsibility has almost become synonymous with culpability, which is a real pity. As a result, teachers and students are afraid of getting things wrong or taking risks.”
When is ‘meaning’ best discussed with students, and under what circumstances?
“I actually try to do it by stealth; I don’t really mention meaning that much. To be honest, I think I have been thinking about ‘meaning’ for so long, studying ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’, that I’m worried it will sound trite if I use it with students. The reality is, however, the more I have looked into the role of meaning, the more profound I have found its effects to be.
“Teachers know when they have connected with a class or a student. It doesn’t happen every class or with every student, but most people can remember that one teacher who they clicked with. Programmes like Jigsaw’s ‘One Good Adult’ reflect this.
“One approach I do use in the classroom is in terms of poetry. I always say to my students that poetry is like life: it is meaningless unless we can find some meaning in it. A good question is also, ‘What can we learn from this?’ And then be brave enough to sit out the silence before someone answers. Because, in the silence, students are thinking.
“The starting point has to be the student themselves however, and how they perceive a poem, text or a situation. And then it comes back to broadening their field of vision.”
Ask a sage
Question: Does retail therapy work?
Epicurus replies: “Nothing is enough for the man for whom enough is too little.”