kids playing checkers

The Myth about Teaching Relevance

For nearly a decade now, a pedagogical shift in education has occurred along the lines of teaching relevance. Many educators and studies contend that relevance of course content is the chief variable in creating engaged, motivated and self-regulated learners. As educators, we have all heard students gripe with sentiments similar to, “but, how am I going to use this in life?” only to rebut with some remark that either 1) demonstrates how they may use such content in the future, or 2) underlines that, “it is not about the content, it is about the tools that you are gaining by learning.” I personally don’t have a problem with either one and even use them from time to time. In fact, while I agree that the content we teach should have relevance, I feel that the entire pedagogical thinking behind the word “relevance” is utterly flawed.

In education, we tightly suture the term “relevance” with “relatedness” or “relateability”. And from this, we form a dichotomous logic that denounces any form of course content that is not relevant to students’ lived lives. We think that if a question, task, or project is not related to some aspect of our students’ lives then they will somehow be less engaged and won’t be grounded in their learning as much as if they had a task that was “relevant” to them. Sorry to say, this logic is flawed.

You know what’s more relevant to kids? Checkers. A game that has no “real world” connection and no use, but kids love it. You know what else is relevant to kids (or at least the kids in my class the last few years)? Playing a game called “Bump” where four or five kids throw a tennis ball to each other and while they do that their feet must be in the air. They literally stand in a circle and catch and simultaneously toss a ball while jumping. If they have the ball in their hands while on the ground, they are “eliminated”. THAT is relevant to them. And do you know what is most relevant to kids? Success. Knowing something or being an expert at something is relevant to kids. Why do you think they play the same game or watch the same movie over and over again? Most kids play video games all day because there is some reward at the end; some new level or some prize, not because it is “relevant” to their lives.

My point is that educators/adults need to slow down when considering and implementing new policy that speaks about students without hearing from students. Most adults don’t know what’s cool or relevant to kids. They write these long-winded math questions about rock bands thinking that students will be more “engaged” when they read it. Most students couldn’t care less what the question is about. They only ask, “What am I going to use this for?” when they are struggling. They are struggling because the way we are teaching the content is wrong. We are teaching wrongly when we assume that bringing in some relevant content is a magic wand to student engagement.

When students understand something, it becomes engaging and relevant. Thus, teachers need to focus more on the structure of the lesson and not on the actual content of the lesson because teaching relevance is a myth. (That may be a stretch but at worst it’s misunderstood). The obsession over teaching relevance needs to stop because we don’t even have the right definition of relevance in the first place.


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Comments 30

  1. Leah K Stewart (@LearntSchool)

    Couldn’t agree more Matthew. It was always super cringe-y when my teachers tried to artificially change something through their own lens of what “students” are interested in. At the same time they’ve just reducing us all to members of an demographic group. As long as society still groups students by age and post code into a class, it’s much better if a teacher only shows us what they (the teacher) cares about, then let each student decide if it’s interesting and therefore relevant. Teachers spend allot of time in student’s heads. It means we never get to know the teachers.

  2. Robert Clegg

    Checkers and Bump are simple games. Wait, isn’t basketball just putting a ball into a basket? Look at all the strategy, statistics (fantasy, drafting, shooting percentages), arguments over Steph Curry’s shooting form and analysis of projectile motion, debates over Jordan vs. LeBron …

    Success, points, scoring, leaderboards in games are extrinsic motivators. The author might like to look at the game industry stats and see the breakdown of demographics on what games people play. How would you explain why girls don’t want to play Call of Duty if “success” is the driving motivation or relevance? If that’s the case, the demographics around games/genre/game type should be evenly distributed. They are not.

    I’d love to see how kids “mod” the game of bump. Should we keep it simple? What else could we add to the game? would it work on computer? How is it different from basketball? Are all pro-sports really simple games? How have they become so complicated?

    Would a discussion around minority representation in athletics be an interesting topic relating game, strategy, pedagogy, persistence, goals, motivation …?

  3. Robert Clegg

    Secondly, using checkers and bump is a straw man. Just because two games don’t “work” doesn’t mean other games can’t. That’s a straw man fallacy in logic.

    The author should check out the 2006 study that showed a video game called Dimenxian which doubled the performance outcomes compared to classroom instruction alone.

    Even more fascinating in this study, the game had no connection to any licensed property or existing title/characters. The medium itself instantly, and I do mean instantly, engaged the students. One might ask how it achieved relevance that created persistence over a long duration – long enough to increase performance significantly and substantially.

    Secondly, kids who had extremely low motivation dove in and started playing. They met the algebra challenges because they were woven into the story and gameplay – relevant within a fictitious context! How ’bout that!! Pretty cool.

  4. Robert Clegg

    “Most teachers don’t know what’s cool” – this doesn’t disprove that content isn’t a great motivator. It just highlights the fact that content development is a creative art.

    Wouldn’t everyone going to music school have a top 10 hit?

    Wouldn’t everyone going to drama school win an Oscar?

    Wouldn’t everyone studying creative writing be able to write a multi-million dollar screen play?

    Why does academia think that anyone can be creative?

    1. Post
      Matthew R. Morris

      You are right (partially) about your first point. The FACT that teacher’s don’t know what engages students doesn’t disprove that content isn’t a great motivator. However, that is only part of my point. My larger point is that the content being taught cannot outweigh the actual objective of what you want students to learn. Using sports to teach math is great for boys. But it is not going to make them understand addition or multiplication (for example) if they are not TAUGHT the strategies of performing these operations. Content is irrelevant if a student can’t decipher the meaning of the skill being taught.

      And secondly, academia believes that anyone can be creative because any CAN be creative. It is people that share your train of thought that foster some fake sense of a caste system of intelligence. This is the problem with schooling in the first place. People aren’t born creative, they develop it. And anyone can.

      1. Robert Clegg

        Hi Matthew, thanks for the reply –

        I’d go a step further, the content is the context in which the math has meaning. Teaching a strategy on how to add or multiply numbers is an industrial age goal, it’ mechanical. Understanding when to add or multiply and why is embedded in context. This is the meaning kids need to really embed the learning and make it relevant in other areas of their lives. It is that context, that need for meaning that then drives the student to learn the mechanics.

        We’ll save the “anyone can be creative” debate for another time. The reality is, educational software and content is competing in a world of entertainment where people have worked really hard on their creative skills to create competitive products. Not just anyone can make content and expect it to engage at a deep meaningful level (whether they are gifted or years behind in the trade – as most teachers are since they’ve focused on teaching).

  5. Robert Clegg

    The conclusion of this article begs the question, another logical fallacy.

    “When students understand something, it becomes engaging and relevant.”

    Well, how do they understand something in the first place? It must have already been engaging and relevant!

    The author needs to account for motivation in his theory of learning. I saw no pedagogical differences outlined arguing any differences between relevance based learning and the just teach better or not wrongly approach????

    1. Post
      Matthew R. Morris

      “How do they understand something in the first place? It must have already been engaging and relevant”. This is my point! The notion of relevance and engagement to kids is more vast than I think you understand. That is why you are missing my point. Engagement comes from success. What is relevant to a student is finally “getting something”..just like a game of checkers, it is relevant and engaging to them because they can pick it up and EXCEL at it, not because it is the most interesting board game.

      1. Robert Clegg

        I think our differences lie on the spectrum of teaching simple concepts, or prep for tests, vs. deeper learning and complex learning.

        Yes, you get a child to play checkers, heck, you can get them to do a chemistry equation and “get it”. But does that turn into a deep drive to continue, to explore?

        I think this is where “persistence” and “grit” come into the equation. You won’t always have success. And many times, there are no answers.

  6. Robert Clegg

    Also lurking in the background of this discussion is this conflict between “teaching for the test” (short term recall) and life long learning. Forcing a student to learn something for a test has a different pedagogical approach than inspiring someone to learn on their own way past any test.

    While the author mentions the “pedagogical thinking behind this is utterly flawed”, only a definition of terms was presented. What are the pedagogical differences?

    1. Post
      Matthew R. Morris

      Thinking on how to engage learners and the current notions out in the field is what I am talking about here. Teaching students how to long divide by simply giving them easy ways of doing it trumps a “relevant” question about dividing up a sports team. The conflict between short term recall and life long learning was not the discussion in this post.

      1. Robert Clegg

        I would still like to understand your theory of motivation. Understanding you are talking about simple tricks for division, there still is an underlying motivation as to why kids are bothering to pay attention to you, behave, focus, etc.

        Do you think this type of pedagogy conflicts with creating self directed learners or inhibits complex learning in anyway? Will kids be addicted to or expecting simple tricks all the time? I believe this is the theory driving adaptive learning engines.

    2. KW

      I completely agree with you. This might be one of the reasons that I’ve been finding all of this “children love checkers” discussion confusing – I always hated checkers. I never liked things that had one right answer (by contrast, bump sounds like a lot of fun!). To me that was boring. I always liked things that were more difficult, that had grey areas, that were too complicated to sum up neatly. I liked learning for the sake of learning and hated teachers that only wanted you to get to the right answer or duplicate their process or stance. This meant I didn’t care if I excelled at things because in my world, winning was boring. I have had many students who are like me. And I have had many students who like things to be black and white. Learning who your students are is crucial to knowing in what style of learning to teach them.

      1. Post
        Matthew R. Morris

        ” I have had many students who are like me. And I have had many students who like things to be black and white. Learning who your students are is crucial to knowing in what style of learning to teach them.”

        This is the fundamental point. Thank you, Karen.

  7. Robert Clegg

    The author argues that the “structure” of the lesson is more important than the content. If that were the case, wouldn’t we all be math majors? What explains the 70% drop out rate of males due to failing math ….?

    I use math because it’s the essence of curriculum abstracted from content. If there’s any curriculum that has to be tried and truly “structured”, it’s got to be the teaching of math, scaffolded almost ad nauseam! (hence the introduction of adaptive learning engines, err, with games and animations??).

    This appeal to “structure” rears its head in the creative arts. Isn’t writing a hit song, screenplay, novel just a matter of following structure?

    But here in math, there’s no content! Just do the math!! Nowadays, “Do the Code”. If you just do the code you got a six figure job in Silicon Valley… oh, wait, that’s extrinsic motivation.

    So why learn math or learn to code? Oh, shoot, I’m not allowed to ask why… that would be addressing my motivation. Just cover that over with structure.

    The theory of motivation is missing here.

    1. Post
      Matthew R. Morris

      the drop out rates have much more to do with hegemonic practices than anything else. Let’s get that straight first of all.

      And coding: we need to stop making coding the holy grail when all it does is create a new crop of “workers” and not “bosses”

      1. Robert Clegg

        So you are arguing that cultural hegemony is an evil that is causing dropout rates rather than the “structure” of the lesson plan? If that’s the case, why is anyone learning math anyway?

        My point wasn’t that we should all be coders, it’s that if structure cured all in learning, we’d all have a skill that could earn us cash while we created our own startups.

        Kids are coming out of school with no skillz. Imagine being able to code, make cash, and be free to create what you want. I only used the code example because it’s pure structure in both pedagogy and content. The theory of motivation is required to highlight why this in not the case.

        You seem to have hinted at something when you mentioned cultural hegemony. I’d be interested to think about the anti-motivational factors causing someone not to learn something.

      2. Robert Clegg

        In 2004 I released a video game and multiplayer network to teach algebra. When kids sat in front of it and began to play, all cultural hegemonic influences, poor self conception, and any other excuses and obstacles to learning were IMMEDIATELY bypassed and kids dove in to start learning.

        I imagine the relevance of the 3d graphics, sound, design, and characters had everything to do with it – because it was instantaneous. It was like it was speaking their language.

        Relevance is key to transformative learning. You wanna get past hegemonic influences? Then investigate what goes on in a story based action adventure video game that teaches content.

  8. Robert Clegg

    Why wouldn’t you scaffold the playing of checkers into chess? Or some other mod or creative adaptation of the game of checkers? And integrate math concepts there?

    Why was this not an option?

    1. Post
      Matthew R. Morris

      Why do educators feel the need to take everything that students love and turn it into some “learning activity” that fits the teacher’s needs? I actually work in a school so I know that if I take a checkers game they play on their down time and try to turn in into a learning exercise, chances are – kids will not play checkers for that much longer..

      And secondly, there is plenty learning going on when one student is playing another student in checkers. Some learning that is just as important than the things we think are important.

      1. Robert Clegg

        So I find it interesting that something can de-motivate kids to not play checkers. It goes towards a theory of motivation that’s missing.

        And yes, I agree, you can take the fun out of things for kids by making it a learning experience – which gives me an interesting thought as to the products I happen to be making. They use science fiction and stories that aren’t really connected to prior experience. They also don’t “work for everyone” meaning, not everyone likes the content, which for me is okay because these are intended as supplemental or home products.

        ps – I actually worked in a school too. I think we are working towards the same goal.

  9. Robert Clegg

    What if we taught kids how to program using basketball or football content? Make the beginnings of your own Madden game … Get some real content from xyz coach or player….

    While technically I learned how to program in a couple college classes, it wasn’t until I made a connection between creating a program to teach basketball and coding that really spurred me on to learn coding.

    Moving the players on the screen is animation skill. Defining their reactions to other actions is logic and math.

    Sports for young black men is not just skill, it’s an incredible amount of decision making through spatial recognition. NBA 2k is a lot about statistics … Embodying that into a well designed game is great meta-cognition.

    I created a playbook for Michigan Basketball in 1989 that ran the players through the plays and tested them (yeah, Championship year ; ) ). In ’91 I created a quarterback training simulation for he Minnesota Vikings. Happy to discuss if you think this type of content would engage some sports focused kids into gaining some other tools for use in their life.

    1. Post
      Matthew R. Morris

      With the coding thing here: Coding is important but not the only thing important in the technological revolution that is well underway. It is new wave “using school to prepare students for the assembly line work force”. Same thing school was used for in the industrial revolution re-packaged to suit the needs of conglomerates. Coding brings nothing knew to education and the detrimental ways it has been used to service the elite class.

      1. Robert Clegg

        In Silicon Valley and the Bay Area there’s a completely different vibe. Coding is seen as a way to create your own startup, get your ideas out there.

        Yes, there’s a lot of “get a great job” with coding out there. But you gotta start somewhere, learn from within a startup. That’s the cool thing. You can get in a startup as a learning experience while making great cash to fund your own …

        … there should be a website that teaches math by structure alone so all kids would have instant success and mastery. No content required, no external costs, pure code …

  10. Maha Abdelmoneim

    Hi Matthew,
    Thank you for a thought provoking post. First of all, I really like that you’re challenging one of the current trends in spite of it being popular and getting a lot of publicity, not because I don’t believe in the value of relevance but because I think it’s important to always endeavor to do the “right” thing not what is fashionable.

    I agree with you that “relevance” may be badly interpreted and implemented and therefore I think the problem lies in how the idea of relevance is being used. In my experience both as a learner and as a corporate trainer relevance always made a difference and these are two examples:

    First example: my niece (11 years old) usually hates having to do homework, reading or doing math for school. I recently invited her to help me with a homework that I was doing for a Coursera course. We were to create a small game using Scratch. She liked the idea of creating a game, she like being creative, she enjoyed the idea of helping me do MY homework. For that she sat and listened to me explain about how it worked, tried things for herself, she sat and read sometimes lengthy instructions and explanations when we searched for help, she listened to, read, understood and used some math and geometry concept in order to do the necessary calculations we needed for the game. So as you said there are things that she enjoyed doing and she wanted to succeed, and for that, content that would’ve normally been boring to her became necessary and part of the whole thing in the same way that repeating something over and over is sometimes necessary to succeed in a video game.

    Second Example: At a multinational organization that I worked for as a trainer, one of my responsibilities was to train batches of high school leavers/graduates so that they were ready for the jobs they were hired for. They were fresh out of school and being in a training room made them feel and behave as if they were back in school. The training program was designed to be very participative and interactive with some research and project elements, but I could see that they were still not engaged at all. The content was very relevant to the job but not to them because they didn’t experience the job. We changed the design of the program, we broke it into smaller chunks spread out over a longer period of time, with each chunk followed by an on-the-job training, which was made an integral component of the program. The change was drastic. From the first time they went for a short on-the-job training they came back with much higher level of engagement, looking for answers to questions and problems, sharing experiences and seeking to learn more of what would help them perform well on the job.

    I don’t think there is one magic bullet for effective teaching and learning, and I think it is wise to be wary of fads, but I would hate to discount a good idea because some are using it badly. I am not a regular blogger :) but this is a post that I had written some time back for a course I was taking online reflecting on some opposing ideas /opinions to do with Education especially online education. .

    I am sorry this comment became so long that it looks like a post :) , but I would be very interested in knowing what you think of my way of looking at Relevance. :)

  11. john orr

    It is NOT one or the other. I think as teachers, and/or supervisors we forget it is both and more! You can’t reach relevence or success. Both are important and depending on the context and the content; more or less important!

    1. Post
  12. Peter D. Lenn

    Right on, Matthew! We’ve conducted learning how to learn programs for one million students, high school through college. As you say, what works is success. Coaching students as they do the mental exercise to master lessons is motivating. In addition, as you move up the learning curve in a subject, your learning rate increases. You get smarter, and school gets easier. It is much easier to maintain an A average than a C average, once you get on that track.

  13. Dyson

    When students understand something, it becomes engaging and relevant. Thus, teachers need to focus more on the structure of the lesson and not on the actual content of the lesson because teaching relevance is a myth.

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