I have long thought of religion as necessary to having meaning. Many experiences in explicitly religious settings (e.g. worship services, rituals, church camps) have been powerful for myself or others present. A friend once explicitly connected meaningful experiences and religion when defining one of her passions, a statement in which my religion-meaning conflation was confirmed. When another friend spoke of seminary learning as building a relationship to the facts/opinions presented in class, I began to wonder whether all education was formed through meaningful experiences. My thoughts logically questioned whether non-religious experiences could be meaningful. This concept has changed the way I perceive my work: I see myself now as collaboratively creating meaningful experiences with my students.
I had heard the phrase “meaningful experience” before, and have used it myself, but I hadn’t fully understood the concept. Neurologists report that humans’ long-term memory storage, the hippocampus, prioritizes memories evoking or accompanying large emotional reactions (such as meaningful experiences). Experiences of amplified emotional reaction, no matter the emotion, are important in defining our life stories – our internal narratives. So impactful experiences makes our brains mark them as important, giving us a sense of what was meaningful in our lives. I previously hadn’t explicitly linked “important” to “impact” or “meaningful,” but I see now that they are conceptual synonyms.
As a nontraditional educator, I am in the process of redefining what education is. In school, I saw the formal education system as the only place to become “educated.” Knowledge learned outside that system was “life lessons,” “common sense,” “street knowledge,” but not “education.” Notice that education and learning aren’t the same thing. I didn’t realize that I, or anyone else, saw meaning in what we learned, that even when working on our education we learn through finding meaning in experiences.
I worked for a church camp before working for Outward Bound (OB), where staff change lives through challenge and adventure. Through both experiences some training framed the work as “teaching,” wherein the instructors are the locus of teaching, learning, creating meaning. However, I perceive my work differently after the revelation that learning anything requires meaningful experiences. I now locate teaching, learning, and meaning creation within my students’ peer relationships, their relationships to instructors, their relationships with the course setting. My responsibility is to create opportunities for the students to safely explore these relationships in a way that makes sense to them.