Sunday, April 8, 2018

Relevance is the Fuel of Learning

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of focusing on the why as it relates to learning.  Here is a piece of my thinking that I shared:
The why matters more than ever in the context of schools and education.  What all one must do is step into the shoes of a student.  If he or she does not truly understand why they are learning what is being taught, the chances of improving outcomes and success diminish significantly.  Each lesson should squarely address the why.  What and how we assess carries little to no weight in the eyes of our students if they don’t understand and appreciate the value of the learning experience.
The paragraph above represents the importance of making the educational experience relevant.  In a nutshell, relevance is the purpose of learning. If it is absent from any activity or lesson, many, if not all, students are less motivated to learn and ultimately achieve.  Research on the underlying elements that drive student motivation validates how essential it is to establish relevant contexts. Kember et al. (2008) conducted a study where 36 students were interviewed about aspects of the teaching and learning environment that motivated or demotivated their learning. They found the following:
"One of the most important means of motivating student learning was to establish relevance. It was a critical factor in providing a learning context in which students construct their understanding of the course material. The interviewees found that teaching abstract theory alone was demotivating. Relevance could be established through showing how theory can be applied in practice, creating relevance to local cases, relating the material to everyday applications, or finding applications in current newsworthy issues."
Getting kids to think is excellent, but if they don’t truly understand how this thinking will help them, do they value learning?  The obvious answer is no. However, not much legwork is needed to add meaning to any lesson, project, or assignment.  Relevance begins with students acquiring knowledge and applying it to multiple disciplines to see how it connects to the bigger picture.  It becomes even more embedded in the learning process when students apply what has been learned to real-world predictable and ultimately unpredictable situations, resulting in the construction of new knowledge.  Thus, a relevant lesson or task empowers learners to use their knowledge to tackle real-world problems that have more than one solution.  

Diverse Learners respond well to relevant and contextual learning. This improves memory, both short-term, and long-term, which is all backed by science. Sara Briggs sums it up nicely:
"Research shows that relevant learning means effective learning and that alone should be enough to get us rethinking our lesson plans (and school culture for that matter). The old drill-and-kill method is neurologically useless, as it turns out. Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what help build neural connections and long-term memory storage."
In the words of Will Durant based on Aristotle’s work,” “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”  The point here is that consistent efforts must be made to integrate interdisciplinary connections and authentic contexts to impart value to our learners. Relevance must be student based: the student’s life, the student’s family, and friends, the student’s community, the world today, current events, etc. 

When it is all said and done, if a lesson or project is relevant students will be able to tell you:

  1. What they learned
  2. Why they learned it
  3. How they will use it

Without relevance, learning many concepts don’t make sense to students.  The many benefits speak for themselves, which compels all of us to ensure that this becomes a mainstay in daily pedagogy. 


  1. Great article. Important to keep this in the back of our minds as we plan lessons and how we intend to approach instruction for our students.

  2. I'm wondering if we ever ask this question about the professional development that we create/plan for our staff. Teasing out the middle section of what is relevant can be incredibly difficult as we deal with mandates and other requirements.

    Eric, how would you (or would you) shift these questions to work with staff?

    1. I wouldn't shift the questions at all, but instead develop a context for professional learning where participants are able to clearly answer them at the conclusion. The key resides in educator agency (choice, voice, advocacy), job-embedded elements, and follow-up.

  3. Wonderful and very insightful write up.The challenge is training the facilitators to understand this and see that it is taken into the classroom.