Learning For Meaning

tree ‘ Sed vitae discimus’ , a famous and widely found citation attributed to Seneca (a Roman Stoic philosopher around 65 AD). It says: “it’s life from which we learn, understand” . It is taken from a letter of correspondence  on ethical issues with Lucillus, and actually it was Lucillus, who took this position. Seneca opposed to it and alternatively coined Sed scholae discimus (from ‘…’ we learn, understand). The term ‘scholae’, however, has several meanings:  investigation, teaching, discourse, and also school.

Now why all this explanation as a start? Firstly, because the citation has been (mis)used enormously, secondly, it has been interpreted from a great many perspectives very differently (1), and thirdly the issue lies at the heart of teaching and schooling: i.e.,  how can education provide meaningful learning. To tease you as a reader a bit more with Latin: Seneca stated as well ‘Vita sine litteris mors’, (‘Life without ‘..’  is dead’); again litteris may mean several things: education, extensive reading, but also comprehension.  Seneca thus favored schooling, education as a meaning making activity above what otherwise would remain a wide variety of impressions.

Armed with this erudite knowledge we may appreciate the outcomes of a study on relevancy of service learning for experiencing a meaningful educative time. Service learning deploys a form of practical education in which what has been taught is applied and adopted in real life authentic situations. The Chinese study compared a service learning treatment with regular teaching and found substantial, positive effect on problem solving ability, and behavioral engagement in students. It was concluded then that teachers should provide students with authentic, ill-structured problems to promote engagement and transfer (2).

What would Seneca have said? Probably that authentic experiences without proper knowledge would be futile, to which Lucillus might respond that knowledge without proper embeddedness in veracity is empty. On par, again. We therefore cannot solve this bipolar opposition. However, the study does reveal an interesting opt out. It found that classroom behavioral engagement of students mediated the effects, which more or less means that students who took an active part and were enthusiastically involved took most out of the teaching activity offered. I.e., it is not so much what you learn but more how you learn that matters to be it considered meaningful. Meaningful learning has much to do with being able to relate to the things you learn. So Seneca was right after all by saying; Vita sine litteris mors (‘A life without “learning” [is] dead’).


The Effects of Service Learning on Student Problem Solving: The Mediating Role of Classroom Engagement Fangfang Guo, Meilin Yao, Cong Wang, Wenfan Yan, and Xiaoli Zong. Teaching of Psychology 2016, Vol. 43(1) 16-21

sagepub.com/ DOI: 10.1177/0098628315620064



  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non_scholae_sed_vitae
  2. http://plpnetwork.com/2011/04/21/what-do-we-mean-by-authentic-learning/



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