What do we mean by ‘relevance’?

Also cross-posted at LKMCo

Relevance has become a bit of a ‘sneer’ term of late. But what do people mean by it? There seem to be two meanings. One, is when you teach a whole topic simply because you think students will enjoy it or it fits their current preoccupations. That is not relevance. That is ‘entertainment’. If students are merely repeating information they already have, or are  clearly not pushing/revising the boundaries of their skills, knowledge or comfort – then you’re right to call it out.

But the second way of sneering about ‘relevance’ is when people say it is ridiculous to make a difficult concept more relevant by starting from ideas that a student already know as a ‘way in’ or linking learning beyond the classroom.   That seems ludicrous.  A story from my hero, Seymour Sarason, explains why this sort of ‘relevance’ is vital:

“Let me tell you about me and my first course in algebra. I was a good student and not only in algebra. Algebra came easily to me. It was also very uninterestingand downright boring. I never understood and no one ever bothered to explain why we had to learn algebra. Well, one day I screwed up enough courage to ask our teacher why we had to learn algebra. When I asked that question, the rest of the class broke out in applause. The teacher became visibly upset. He quieted us down and said that he wanted to finish the lessons of the day that tomorrow he would try to and answer the question. The next day he started the class by saying; “I’m going to present you with two choices, and you have to decide which of the two you will choose. Keep your choice to yourself. The first is that on the first day of next month I will give each of you $1 million. The second is that on the first day of next month I will give each of you a penny, on the second day I will double it, that will get doubled on the third day, and a doubling will go on each subsequent day of the month. Think about it for a few moments and make your choice.” Everyone opted for the million dollars and, of course, we were shortchanging ourselves. He then went on to demonstrate the law of compound interest and the formula for it. To say that we were astounded is to put it mildly. All of us were interested in money, and I can honestly say that was a peak day in my school years. What I thought I knew was wrong. What I needed to know I now wanted to know, and the more the better. I shall ever be grateful to that teacher at how he made formula important and interesting on that day.

He was a superb teacher and that is where I plan on starting: getting more teachers like the one I had in algebra.

This sort of  relevance is really really important. Relevance sparks interest. A great teacher can make anything relevant. I would argue teachers need to make it relevant if every single kid in a class is going to learn (it’s a modern miracle to find 30 constantly internally motivated teenagers). But relevance is not synonymous with ‘making it easy’ – which is how it seems to be being used all of a sudden. Maybe that’s because some people shirking the difficulties of teaching like to use relevance as an excuse (“it’s not relevant to these kids”).  But we can’t let the inaccurate use of a word by a few people become a global thing by mimicking them. All knowledge can be considered relevant to everyone, a teacher’s jobs is finding the key to helping the student realise that too.

11 thoughts on “What do we mean by ‘relevance’?

  1. Yes, absolutely, your skill as a teacher is to help your students understand why learning something matters, and this can only be done by showing them its impact on their lives. Anything can be made to feel/seem/appear ‘relevant’ by a great teacher. Often a surprise element helps, as in the example you give.

  2. I’m not sure that I quite agree with you. I accept your first point about relevance as entertainment. However, I do think that there is another legitimate objection to the concept and that this is not simply about “sneering”. If you place too high a priority on relevance in maths then you end up being contrived and effectively lying to the students; pretending that the maths that they are studying will somehow be useful to them in the future. This is one of the problems with reform maths. I expand on this point ad nauseum here http://websofsubstance.wordpress.com/2013/02/12/the-role-of-the-mundane-in-science-and-maths-education/

    1. But….it must be relevant to *something*, otherwise why did anyone come up with it at all?! It doesn’t necessarily have to be relevant to every day life – but it should at least relate to something beyond the page. For example, I would have found learning about sine (plus cos & tan) a heck of a lot easier if someone had explained how they related to radio waves, because then I could have quieted the 20% of my brain that spent all of its time going (“WHAT EVEN IS THIS?”) and I could have used *all* of my brain to focus on the maths, rather than spending a good portion of it just trying to figure out the difference between maths and magic.

      Another example – I recently spoke with a mathematical physicist who explained what he did. It was the first time anyone had ever really explained the power of *balancing an equation*. Suddenly I realised that by rearranging maths equations you can get clues for what to look for when seeing particles, and once you can figure out what particles are doing then there’s *all kinds of awesome* that can happen. Which is not the same as ‘relevant to life’ but knowing that at least made me feel like balancing equations was relevant to something, and wasn’t just busy work. Can’t tell you how much better I would have been at maths with even just marginal nods in the direction of “this is what this is for”….

      1. I think you are applying a different standard to maths than you would to, say, poetry or music. It is of value in its own right and does not need to relate to something else in order to gain value. I think I explain the origin of this thinking in my post. Of course, where it makes sense, good examples of application can improve teaching. I remember my GCSE English teacher explaining how alliteration is used in advertising – but nobody suggested that this was the point of learning about poetry. I think that most people involved in maths who promote relevance do actually want maths to be related to student’s everyday lives – see my quotes. You may be stretching the definition a little to aid your point.

        1. I feel exactly the same about poetry – you couldn’t have picked a more perfect analogy! If all things are valuable in their own right why don’t we teach “watching football” at school? Or nail art?

          1. So, you judge poetry on its utility? I suppose that this is a legitimate, if rather joyless position. I never said that all things are valuable in their own right. I believe in the canon; a culturally negotiated body of knowledge that people can share. In this schema, not all knowledge is equal and some of the decisions about what should be included are quite arbitrary. Yet, the benefits of sharing a common body of culture and the enrichment that it brings are worth the project. To go back to your point, if things have value because they relate to other things then doesn’t this become circular? Are there any absolutes?

          2. This isn’t about the way I judge poetry, it’s about whether or not a learner is helped by having a connection made to their own interests. Which I think they are. [And for the record, a few years ago was the first time I finally understood poetry, because during a reading I finally *felt* something as I heard the words – and those feelings were their own kind of utility].

            I’m not convinced that you can make a learner value something simply because it is ‘in the canon’. Imagine: you say to me “you need to learn this, it’s valuable because it’s in the culturally negotiated body of knowledge that people share” and maybe I think “but I don’t want to share in your body of knowledge, thanks. my own knowledge of Justin Beiber and Harry Potter is fine”. What then?

            In essence *all* knowledge is valuable on its own. But my aim when teaching is to do what Sarason says, get people thinking “What I needed to know I now wanted to know, and the more the better”. And the best way I can find to do this is by relating it to the things that interest, terrify, excite, consume, worry the students in front of me. When you get that connection that’s when learning most likely happens *and* they value the knowledge too thereby wanting to learn more. Total win.

  3. Just realised @websofsubstance that we might be on about slightly different things. You’re asking about the ‘value’ of knowledge, but I’m talking about how you make it valuable to someone else. I think that’s because of the way I answered your question about poetry – sorry for any confusion. With poetry my original comment was more making the point that if someone had spent time at school explaining to me some different ideas about the importance of poetry it would have helped. As it was all I was ever told was “but it’s so beautiful” and “it’s so clever” and I didn’t think it was either – to me it seemed smug and boring. So I opted out of listening and spent the next 15 years telling everyone “I hate poetry”. Perhaps if someone had got me to look at things another way I might have bought in sooner.

    1. I am in favour of good teaching and I have always stated that I am in favour of highlighting connections – it is often in connections that understanding arises. However, if you read the Tytler quote, you will see an argument being advanced that curriculum content should be restricted on the grounds of relevance. These are the argument that perhaps people “sneer” at. I just don’t think that maths and science teachers apologising for their subject all the time and contriving relevance where it does not exist (and again I think you are using the word more broadly than most do) is at all convincing to students in the way that you suggest.

      1. I think we agree then. My first point in the blog was that “relevance” in terms of only teaching what is easy is unacceptable. BUT relevance in terms of connections – which I think is a great way of putting it – is absolutely key. No need for anyone ever to apologise for their subject but I’m unwilling to believe that something – anything! – that must be taught in our classrooms doesn’t have a connection (relevance) to something they care about, even if it’s not immediately obvious.

  4. I really sympathise with your feelings about poetry. I hated the literature I did at school, and I think it’s a real problem. I have some sympathy for the canon, but to this day I’ve only read one Victorian novel, for GCSE. But I’m a proper reader – I like poetry, I like Shakespeare, I read all sorts of “difficult” books. So if someone like me can fail to click with the Victorians, then I’m sure many others will, too.

    (It was Mrs Bennett – I *hated* her, on the page and on screen; and Dickens just never clicked. Wait, I have read A Christmas Carol. And Frankenstein. So I have read a few, but I haven’t liked any.)

    Like you say, that’s a real problem. How can a reader write about the qualities of a book if they honestly (and I think legitimately) can’t see them? Looking back now, I think Austen must be great, because no-one in literature has ever infuriated me like Mrs Bennett. Back then, I thought it was bad writing because it was driving me away from the book. I don’t know how you get past that in English classes.

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