I'm seeing a lot on the webwaves these days about how whatever fall looks like, it needs to be relevant. If we're going to expect students to learn something, we had better make sure it's relevant — otherwise they won't do it and there's no value in them doing it. This is common thinking, and I think it's problematic if our goal is to produce optimal mastery outcomes across the school day and thereby equitably promote the long-term flourishing of all students.
So first, where does our relevance-mania come from? A few sources come to mind.
- Oftentimes our understanding of student motivation is fuzzy, vague, and evidence-poor, so we're susceptible to over-simplifications of motivation.
- We lack a clear, robust framework for understanding and applying the research on student motivation, and so we settle for buzzwords (and may relevance avoid that tragic fate).
- We are rarely given the opportunity of PD that lets us examine or learn about the most up-to-date research on student motivation.
- We dread the “when will I ever use this?” question from our students, especially when we get to those units that are not immediately applicable to all of our students' lives.
- We've surmised or been explicitly taught that if something isn't relevant to our students' lives then it is not worth teaching it to them.
So, point one: we come by our overemphasis on relevance honestly. I'm not pointing fingers here.
The problems with overemphasizing relevance as the key to student engagement
Here's the thing: an overemphasis on relevance undermines our students' intellects, their mastery of our disciplines, and their ability to morally engage with people who are different from them. “Relevance as King” also tragically overstates our ability to identify what will be relevant to all students, almost ensuring that we'll leave one group or another behind.
First, an obsession with relevance impoverishes our students' chances at reaching their intellectual potential. Cognitive science has been settled, at least since I began my career, on the evidence-rich idea that the more a person knows in a given domain, the easier it is for that person to solve problems, think critically, comprehend texts, comprehend speech, and learn more things in the given domain. I examine this and its classroom implications in chapter three of These 6 Things, and Dan Willingham presents the science specifically in this article for the American Educator from 2006. The facts are clear: learning about the height of the Malian empire in the fourteenth century or the way Shakespeare uses puns in Romeo and Juliet or how Darwin's theories work is just not immediately relevant to many of my students in small town West Michigan. But at the same time, knowledge of these things directly contributes to my students' ability to flourish in subsequent classes and engage in conversations later in life (or as David Didau terms it, their “cleverness“).
Or to put it negatively: skipping an “irrelevant” unit in third grade all but ensures that a student will struggle more on a related unit in fourth grade.
The point isn't to snarl at students, “Who cares if it's irrelevant!? Learn it anyways!” The point is to understand how motivation actually works so that students can learn more things — the earlier the better so that the learning can begin to snowball.
Second, our students are not going to reap the choice fruits of our disciplines if we deprive them of learning things that may at present seem irrelevant. It's really common to say that the goal of a history class is to have students think like historians, and the goal of a science class is to have students think like scientists, and so on. But here's the thing: if one can simply think like a historian after having a teacher teach them how to do so in sixth grade, say, then what's the point in anyone pursuing a PhD in history or science years later? Haven't they already been taught to think like a historian? Does the path to a PhD just involve loads more practice in thinking like a scientist — is that the only reason it works?
The answer is that even though we can — and often should — teach students the kinds of things that historians think about when analyzing documents or reviewing textbook passages, there's no shortcut to enabling them to actually think at the level that historians do. The path to expertise just is a rather long one. In history, it involves the hard-won acquisition of all kinds of historical knowledge — first surface-level knowledge, then deeper knowledge. The path to expert-level thinking is a path through lots of initially inflexible things — things that don't have broad application. This is a somewhat annoying reality of being a human creature v. some kind of demigod.
(Here's Willingham on inflexible knowledge, and here he is on the idea of teaching students to “think like an expert.”)
Now, again, some of you are busy and won't read to the end, so let me give a spoiler: none of this means we ought to eschew, abandon, or disdain attempts to make education more relevant to children — especially adolescent children who are particularly friendly with the “When will I ever use this?” line of thinking. Relevance is a beautiful, useful, and humane tool!
Third, when we teach our students that they deserve to only be taught what's relevant to them, we also teach them that moral disengagement is an acceptable way to live. As I said the other day: moral disengagement is on the rise, and it's pretty clearly a cancer to the flourishing life. If the educators in my life are telling me all through school that my learning must suit me and my tastes and my interests and my identity, then why in the world would I seek to put myself in the shoes of someone different than me? Why consume news from beyond my algorithmically relevant Facebook feed or my parents' favorite cable news channel? Or I live in a town of mostly white people, and when I grow up I don't plan to leave — why bother grappling with the history of racism in America?
All I'm saying here is that it's plausible that overemphasizing relevance could reap some unintentionally bad fruit. After all, our students don't just learn what we consciously teach them.
My point is that relevance won't work as the shortcut that I think we all would love for it to be. The flourishing life just does seem to depend on learning things — lots of things — in childhood that may not be immediately relevant at the time of learning them. It seems a wiser, humbler path to teach a curriculum like David Didau argues for at the end of his (admittedly difficult) manifesto book: one that is broad, culturally rich, powerful, and coherent. Apart from a K-12 curricula like this — which almost no school districts presently possess, opting instead for the curricular status quo of piecemeal programs that vary by building, grade level, and/or discipline — we literally cannot know what will be relevant to our students in the future, and so our decisions about what and how to teach depend largely on the whims of the day.
Our children deserve better.
But remember: none of this means that relevance is irrelevant!
Relevant lessons are still great! Hooks aimed at relevance are smart!
I'm just saying relevance can't be king. Overemphasizing it will undermine our students' long-term flourishing outcomes because it'll minimize their access to knowledge of the world that is broader than their experience, and it will make it harder for them to be motivated in subsequent situations where relevance isn't immediately obvious. Instead of over-simplifying motivation to “relevance + nothing = everything,” I think our teachers are smart and savvy enough to handle an evidence-rich, robust framework for understanding, analyzing, and doing something about student motivation.
I'm hosting a webinar on this topic tomorrow — the replay will be available immediately after I'm done, and I'll keep it up indefinitely. Details here.
I also have a course on this framework that has empowered 1,000+ teachers around the planet, all grade levels. Registration is open for summer and beyond. Details here.