Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Relevance, revisited

In the course of various recent discussions I've had, I've started to suspect that when some people speak of the importance of relevance, what they actually seem to have in mind is accessibility. A colleague of mine observed, for example, that The Great Gatsby isn't sufficiently relevant to many of today's students because they know little about the Jazz Age, the concept of nouveau riche, etc. And I agree. But the problem, as I see it, isn't that the book is irrelevant to what students know from personal experience. The problem is that students lack the background knowledge they would need to make sense of the book.

There are entire genres of fiction--namely, Sci Fi and Fantasy--that are largely irrelevant to the circumstances of students' personal lives, but that nonetheless are often quite acessible, in part because the books themselves must provide the necessary background knowledge. The Harry Potter series manages to be both highly irrelevant and highly accessible (the more so with its easy-to-relate-to child protagonists). In addition, of course, to being highly popular. Indeed, the popularity of the Harry Potter books stems, in part, from their combination of total irrelevance and total accessibility.

One place where irrelevance and inaccessibility converge is in books whose main characters a child cannot relate to. For growing numbers of children, this is yet another problem with The Great Gatsby. (It baffles me that, in our current Age of Relevance, this book has remained such a staple of high school literature).

In my earlier post on relevance, I wrote that "rather than making things relevant by keeping them close to home, why not make things relevant by taking children there?" As long as there's enough information about what "there" is and how to get there, even the most exotic book can be accessible--especially if there's a main character to whom the child can relate enough to imagine him/her as her proxy.

Another relevant sense of relevance is relevance to what you already know--a much broader category than relevance to your personal life. At kitchentablemath, Catherine Johnson cites Larry Squire on a new study about memory consolidation:

We learn and remember better when new material can be related to what we already know. Professional athletes can remember details of particular plays that occurred in a long match. Experienced poker players can reconstruct the card distribution and betting sequence that occurred in previous hands. This is possible because these individuals have a rich background of relevant experience and therefore can organize new material into meaningful and orderly patterns.
But this is an argument not for making everything relevant to students personal lives, but for expanding what they know: for teaching them a rich body of interconnected facts in various core subjects that they revisit year after year.

As a study reported on in yesterday's New York Times suggests, a core knowledge-focused curriculum (as in the curriculum designed by E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation) has a second benefit. It leads to substantial gains in reading comprehension. Comprehension depends on accessibility; teaching content goes hand in hand with teaching reading.

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