Knapp and Associates (1995) conducted a two-year study that examined classroom instruction in high-poverty schools. Their particular focus was on instructional practices that promote children's understanding and that build meaning into the learning experience:
"Children derive greater meaning in their school-based academic work from three sources. First, when they are actively engaged in the attempt to make sense of things they experience in school, they are encouraged to be meaning makers. Second, they derive meaning from seeing the relationship of parts to the whole, rather than being left with only parts. Opportunities to connect one concept or one skill to another increase their conceptual grasp of what they are doing, whether it involves communication, problem solving, appreciation of artwork, or carrying out projects. Third, they find meaning by connecting new learning experiences to their existing body of knowedge, assumptions, and meanings, much of which is rooted in their upbringing and cultural roots. We refer to teaching that seeks to maximize these three things as 'teaching for meaning.' " (pp. 7-8)
Because meaningful instruction has been successfully used in suburban settings, the researchers wanted to know if a focus on meaning would have a place in high-poverty settings. Approximately 140 classrooms in 15 schools in three states (California, Maryland, and Ohio) were involved. During the first year, grades 1, 3, and 5 were studied; in the second year, grades 2, 4, and 6 were studied. The study focused on three subject areas--mathematics, reading, and writing--because these subjects account for the majority of instructional time in elementary grades.
After a close analysis of instruction and student learning, the authors concluded that meaning-oriented instruction produces superior learning to the more traditional skills-oriented practices and works as well for low-performing as for high-performing students. They state:
"The findings of our research form an integrated three-pronged argument about teaching for meaning in high-poverty classrooms in elementary schools. First, teachers who emphasize meaning construct and maintain rich and responsive academic learning environments. These environments are simultaneously orderly and varied; in managing them, teachers respond actively and constructively to the students' diverse cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Second, these teachers give meaning a high priority in their mathematics, reading or writing instruction by posing cognitively demanding tasks from the earliest stages in learning, teaching discrete skills in the context of their use, and connecting academic learning to the children's experience base. Approaching instruction in this way produces superior learning of 'advanced' skills and comparable or better learning of 'basic' skills by both high and low achievers.
Third, teachers are likely to attempt and sustain this form of teaching given the right combination of conditions and supports. At the school level, these conditions include subject-specific instructional leadership, a climate of peer support, and organization of the school day to permit uninterrupted blocks of instructional time. At the district and state levels, policies governing curriculum, assessment, and professional development must strike a balance among pressuring for change, guaranteeing some autonomy for teachers, and providing professional resources." (pp. 184-185)