Scripted lessons and standardized testing often get students nowhere. In contrast, positive psychology teachers connect academic lessons to life lessons. Children and adolescents learn to express emotions, build strengths, improve relationships, and contribute to the greater good while learning to read, to write, and to calculate. They learn to extract meaning from their lessons by connecting their learning to what they know about themselves and others. They learn to value whatever they are doing no matter how grand - or simple - and imbue it with personal meaning.

Meaningful learning is emotional learning that sparks student feelings and rallies student strengths. The positive psychology classroom explicitly teaches students to: 1) express personal values and strengths through action, 2) explore personal values and strengths through literature, art, music, religion, nature, and legacy learning; and 3) exercise personal values and strengths by making positive choices in every situation.

How do you transfer these ideas to your classroom? There are five ways to make lessons and learning more meaningful. 

  1. Make learning relevant, practical, experiential, and useful to the student.
  2. Ensure that students work together as a team to share knowledge, exchange ideas, solve problems, complete projects, and collaborate to accomplish an authentic task.
  3. Insure that the lesson has a larger influence and makes a contribution that extends beyond the student’s immediate reach. Construct learning that promotes big picture thinking, offers service to another person, or teaches children about someone who is different from them in some way.
  4. Focus on legacy learning so that lessons connect to those who came before them and those who will come after them, and the mutually reciprocal influence of the past and future in their lives.
  5. Offer structured learning choices so that there is some measure of personal freedom, investment, and commitment to the lesson and the learning.

Meaningful learning is dependent on the quantity and quality of the emotional connections children and adolescents can make to the learning.  Meaningful lessons are dependent on the personal contributions that they can make to the greater good using their strengths. When students ascribe inherent meaning to the lesson, or subscribe to the intrinsic meaning of it, they are more likely to accomplish the goal. What matters is important and what is important is what matters to them. Teachers help them figure it out.

Positive psychology helps students to fill in the blank: “This feeling, strength, relationship, task, or learning is important and meaningful to me because ______.”

Knowing what is important to learn and why it is important to learn it shapes the meaning of the lesson. Knowing what is meaningful directs students’ attention and intention toward more purposeful feelings, thoughts, actions, and learning.

 So that your students do not get nowhere.


Read: Victor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning

Read: Restoring Meaning to Teaching

Visit: Riverside School ‘I-Can” project in India.

Watch: Veggie Tales It’s A Meaningful Life


I would love to  hear from you. How do you assist students in assigning meaning to the lesson? Do you think it is important for students to engage in purposeful learning? Do you use an experiential approach? Do you use a project-based or problem-solving approach that is independent and inquiry based? Do you develop service or legacy learning opportunities? Have you explored the digital curriculum available that teaches meaningful topics using multi-media formats? What is an example of a meaningful unit or lesson that you have developed?

My upcoming book, Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom, is the first in a series intended to help teachers build positive psychology classrooms.

About the Author

Patty O'Grady, Ph.D.

Patty O’Grady, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Tampa committed to transformational education. She is the author of Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom.

You are reading

Positive Psychology in the Classroom

Positive Psychology of Mindfulness

Magic Minds and 3 M's of Mindfulness

Wednesday's Child #1

Random Positive Psychology Conversations June 2015