Forming meaning

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Exposition… explanation… ‘I do’…

The parts of the lesson where we introduce new ideas, concepts or processes may be the most perilous of all. They may determine the fate of the new memory trace (at least until recall) (Albo & Graff, 2018).

Let’s say I’m teaching Romeo and Juliet and I’m explaining what’s meant by ‘star-crossed lovers’.

If my pupils are paying attention and therefore, if they are encoding (forming a memory trace) related to what I’m saying, even then, this trace is fragile – prone to forgetting.

What’s more, if pupils form the new knowledge, I can’t be sure they’ve taken away the meaning I was trying to convey!

In some ways, teaching pupils a new idea is akin to attempting the intact delivery of a delicate ornament across potentially perilous terrain… blindfolded.

Two main problems we face when trying to get pupils to form new ideas are –

  • Fragility: newly-formed memories can be prone to forgetting.
  • Meaning is in the mind of the beholder: all pupils take away a different understanding of what you say.

How can we teach to potentially mitigate for these problems?

(1) Structure learning around key concepts

At a curriculum level, key concepts are the unifying ideas in a subject/domain (Ausubel, 2000; Willingham, 2009).

For example:

  • Population in geography,
  • Cells and organisation in biology,
  • Probability in maths,
  • Contrast in art.

Key concepts function like planets in the subject’s solar system: knowledge that meaningfully links to them remains in their orbit. They therefore have two main benefits:

  • Stabilising influence: new knowledge taught in relation to key concepts becomes less fragile.
  • Supporting bodies of knowledge: organising knowledge around key concepts efficiently stores lots of ideas, meaningfully linked in a body of knowledge. *

There are also less inclusive key concepts useful within topics:

For example, before studying ‘Romeo and Juliet’, I plan to introduce my class to the key concept ‘fate and destiny’. When I come to teach my class knowledge related to this concept, such as what ‘star-crossed lovers’ are, I plan to link it to their understanding of ‘fate and destiny’. By linking to the key concept they already know, this new knowledge becomes meaningful and stable (Ausubel, 2000).

Key takeaway: selecting and sequencing curricula around key subject concepts may form the basis for building meaningful bodies of knowledge.

(2) Make instruction meaningful

What does it mean to make instruction meaningful for pupils? To understand this, we need to consider how meaning is made.

When relevant aspects of new material you are teaching meet related ideas in pupils’ minds, meaning emerges (Ausubel, 2000).

The problem is, the ‘related ideas’ each pupil uses to understand what you’re saying are at least somewhat different (from each other and from what you meant) because none of us have the exact same prior knowledge. This means each pupil makes at least a slightly different meaning (perhaps even a wildly different meaning) from the one you intend.

Think of it like light refracting through a prism: you deliver information in one direction but when it meets pupils’ existing ideas, it takes a different course.

What does this mean for instruction?

We need to exert some control over the ideas pupils use to understand the new material. Enough control for them to form a meaning within an acceptable range.***

For example, if I explain the phrase ‘star-crossed lovers’ and a pupil connects ‘crossed’ to ‘cross’ (i.e. angry) and thinks Romeo and Juliet are feuding, it is not in the acceptable range.

So how do we exert some control over the meaning pupils make?

When we introduce the new idea, we need to pick up the specific thread of pupils’ prior knowledge and stitch it into our explanation.

Take my explanation of ‘star-crossed lovers’:

The thread I pick up is pupils’ knowledge of fate and destiny. I do this by reminding them of the importance of astrology and that some of the audience may believe in the power of the stars to govern people’s destinies. I stitch this together with the new concept ‘star-crossed lovers’ by saying that this means Romeo and Juliet’s stars are misaligned: their love is fated to end in tragedy.

In this way I pick up the thread of what pupils already know and stitch it into the new idea.****

We might think that this explanation is a good attempt at making the new idea meaningful.


Meaning is not held in my explanation. It’s held in the heads of my pupils.

That’s why pupils need to meaningfully process the new information.

(3) Meaningful processing through rehearsal

As we’ve seen, new meaning emerges when relevant bits of the new material interact with what pupils already know. This takes some mental work (cognitive processing) by pupils.

Cognitive processing that connects new ideas to old ones to form new meanings we’ll call meaningful processing.

Some of this meaningful processing happens as we deliver a well-crafted explanation (if pupils are paying attention).

But after our explanation, there still may be pupils who –

  1. Know they’ve struggled to understand what you’ve said.
  2. Think they’ve understood but actually haven’t.

This means we need to give pupils the chance to meaningfully process what we’ve said in a low-stakes way. We could use a verbal and/or written rehearsal task:

I might say, ‘Now, write down what you understand by the term ‘star-crossed lovers’ in your own words.’

This isn’t retrieval practice because it’s far too close to when they first encountered the information (Sherrington explains the difference citing Furst’s brilliant blog). Plus, I’ll provide lots of support.

It is meaningful processing through rehearsal: pupils make connections to what they know and you can check the meaning made is within the acceptable range. Dr Jo Castelino writes a brilliant blog on verbal rehearsal in science.

Rehearsal may be particularly important when you’re explaining a new concept using lots of individually meaningful words (i.e. familiar vocabulary to pupils).

For example, let’s say you explain what osmosis is using terms pupils are familiar with such as ‘low concentration’, ‘high concentration’, ‘solvent’ and ‘diffusing’. Pupils may hear familiar, individual terms and assume they understand the whole concept, so they don’t bother with meaningful processing.

Factoring in rehearsal after this could ensure they do meaningfully process the concept.

One more point about rehearsal. We don’t want pupils to just repeat what we said verbatim. This is a tell-tale sign they aren’t meaningfully processing the new material (Ausubel, 2000). It suggests that they are trying to rote learn what we said.

We want it in their words. This may mean temporarily sacrificing some precision. I think that’s o.k.: we’re going for accurate, not necessarily precise at this point. Precision can be improved once meaning is established. This is why rehearsal seems an apt term.*****

In summary, forming meaning is precarious. We can make it less so by –

  1. Structuring learning around key concepts.
  2. Making instruction meaningful.
  3. Building in meaningful processing through rehearsal.

*Much better stuff has been written on the use of key concepts in curriculum planning than I could ever write. For example, Mary Myatt on concepts.

** Ensuring we respect the limits of pupils’ working memories when we teach is crucial to supporting pupils to form memories. There’s loads of excellent research and blogs on how to do this. Instead, I focus here on how to introduce new ideas to make them meaningful (which in itself, manages cognitive load).

*** We can never have full control over what pupils think about when we teach new material and we wouldn’t want to. Especially for some topics, different interpretations lead to discussion, debate and further learning. However, we do want pupils to gain a useful understanding of what we are teaching them. When I say ‘form’ meaning, of course, we can only infer this through assessment.

**** You can see how a carefully sequenced curriculum would really help teachers to do this.

***** What constitutes accurate but not necessarily precise will be different depending on the subject/topic and the object of learning in that lesson (Ausubel, 2000). For example, science teacher may accept an accurate description of osmosis that is grammatically incorrect (therefore imprecise), whereas to the French teacher teaching grammar, being grammatically incorrect is inaccurate.


Ausubel, D. P. (2000). The acquisition and retention of knowledge: A cognitive view. Springer Science & Business Media.

Albo, Z., & Gräff, J. (2018). The mysteries of remote memory. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1742), 20170029.

Castelino, J. (No Date). Rehearsal in the classroom. Dr C’s Science Classroom. Rehearsal in the classroom – Dr C’s Science Classroom (

Furst, E. (No Date). Understanding ‘Understanding’. EfratFurst.

Myatt, M. (No Date). Concepts. Mary Myatt.

Sherrington, T. (2022, January 16). Rehearsal first, retrieval practice later – an important distinction. Teacherhead.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. Jossey-Bass.


8 responses to “Forming meaning”

  1. Reblogged this on Longsands LPD.


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