Monday, June 20, 2011

When "relevance" is effective

Throughout this blog I've repeatedly lamented the relentless attempt by educators to make things relevant to students' lives and to the real world. In reading assignments, this deprives children of windows into exotic worlds. In writing assignments, it deprives them of imaginative ventures in fantasy. In math, it limits their engagement with rigorous, abstract math problems.

But there is a way to move beyond All About Me and still keep things relevant--in a good way. Indeed, this kind of relevance is at the heart of good teaching. Rather than making things relevant by keeping them close to home, why not make things relevant by taking children there? In other words, rather than only asking "How is this like your life?", instead say "Imagine if this life were your life." What would it be like to live as a nomad in Arabia, or as a child-prince(ss) in ancient Japan, or as a monk in England, or as a knight?

Tellingly, the best way to facilitate this kind of personal connection isn't to make the material as similar to the child's life as possible, but to make it as vividly detailed as possible--especially in all the exotic ways it differs from the here and now. And isn't this, after all--this imagining of other worlds--what a good education is all about?


Happy Elf Mom said...

Very true! In the past though when I was a kid, you just had to learn stuff to learn it and relevance to you was not even considered. Pendulum swung too far the other way. :)

Nancy Bea Miller said...

Good post! Very true.

Brian Rude said...

This is a very good point. Relevance may be important, but there are different kinds of relevance. I concluded many years ago that one very important type of relevance of a given task, or problem, or assignment, or even project, is the learner's ability to handle it. In the teaching of math, with which I am most familiar, a very important form of "relevance" of a given problem is that it give practice on the immediate concept that the learner is learning. There is an alternative to this type of relevance, which we might call "real life" relevance. Real life relevance sounds like it ought to be important, but my experience leads me to conclude that it is not.

I have expanded my thoughts along this line in an article, "Problem Based Learning and the Nature of Mathematics" on my website. It's at