The article describes a theory-driven approach to meaningful learning in primary schools, based on the Vygotskian cultural-historical theory of human development and learning. This approach is elaborated into an educational concept called ‘developmental education’ that is implemented in the Netherlands in many primary schools. In this approach, meaningful learning is conceived of as a way of learning through participation in cultural practices emulated in primary schools, which integrates both cultural (conventional) meanings and personal sense of the pupils. The major mission of this developmental education approach is to engage pupils in the creative production of culture in ways that give them access to the culture’s collective memory, mastery of communicative means, and prevent alienation. The article argues that such a type of non-alienating, meaningful cultural learning can be realized optimally when pupils learn to play relevant roles in cultural practices (called ‘imitative participation’) and are assisted to critically appropriate the tools and rules that are required for the accomplishment of these roles. As a case for the illustration of the potentials of the approach, the development of abstract thinking in primary school is analyzed and clarified. Abstract thinking is here taken (following Cassirer) as a way of consistently conceiving from a specific point of view and related to the role a person enacts.

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