From general to specific

Sequencing for meaning

Hey 👋

Say boo to November. Today, we’re cracking open a new series on meaningful learning, inspired by Sarah Cottingham’s new book on the concept…

Big idea 🍉

One of the main goals of school is to build meaningful learning. But what is it? And how do we achieve this?

The short answer (popularised by David Ausubel) is that making learning meaningful is largely the result of building connections with what we already know. The more connections we forge, the deeper our understanding and the more durable our memory. The opposite of meaningful learning occurs when we learn things by rote and build isolated islands of knowledge.

“In rote learning, we acquire isolated facts and rules that we can parrot back on an exam but that we cannot necessarily use.”

— David Ausubel

How can we build meaningful learning? There are 3 main strategies:

  1. Sequencing ideas from more general to specific.

  2. Activating prior knowledge before introducing new.

  3. Generating connections between new ideas and old.

For now, let's just focus on #1 (we'll come back to the others shortly).

Ausubel argues that knowledge tends to be organised hierarchically, and that the most efficient way to help someone learn is to sequence curricular ideas from the more general to the more specific. For example:

  • History Begin a unit on WWII by first discussing the broader concepts of conflict and reasons nations go to war, before delving into the specific events and key people.

  • Biology When teaching about cells, start with its role as the basic unit of life and the distinction between types of cells, before diving deeper into organelles and processes.

  • Literature If studying Romeo and Juliet, begin by discussing the Renaissance and the nature of tragedies, before digging into the plot and characters.

This approach has the potential to accelerate learning because (A) general concepts act as a contextual ‘anchor’ for subsequent ideas, making them sticker, and (B) they provide advance organisation for subsequent ideas, making them easier to access in the future.

Nuance → Critics argue that an understanding of the general is better achieved through multiple (and varied) specific examples, but there is no reason why both approaches can’t be used in combination.

Caveat → Not all subjects are hierarchical in disciplinary structure, and so this approach may not be so relevant in some contexts.


• Meaningful learning is largely about making connections.

• One way to achieve this is by sequencing ideas from general to specific.

• This can help students to anchor and better organise their understanding.

Challenge → To what extent do you sequence from general to specific? Where else in your curricula might you try this out?

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A bientôt.

Peps 👊