The Myth about Teaching Relevance

kids playing checkers

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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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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