Relevance?

This post was inspired by several discussions I have had with my college freshman daughter and other readings over the past several months. While not a 4.0 student she has always done well. Her first trip home from school was during their fall break. We sat talking about her classes one night and she expressed her disappointment with most of her high school education. She said they really hadn’t prepared her well. Our conversation went something like this:

“What do you mean they didn’t prepare you for college?”

“I haven’t had one multiple choice test. None of my professors stands up in front of the class and follows a PowerPoint. There are no weekly vocabulary quizzes and a list of facts to memorize. They give essay tests and I don’t mean essays that you can answer in a few sentences. They don’t walk you through the textbook and point out the facts you need to memorize for a test. They expect you to read, think, discuss, and write. Why don’t the teachers in high school or even middle school do any of that? Do they think we can’t?”

Now fast forward to this week and she is telling me about her classes. She says these classes are kicking her rear end but she loves them. She was excited to talk about some of the topics they had been discussing in class and more than willing to discuss some of those topics with me. She stated that while most of her professors have very different points of view than she does (like her parents, she is conservative), they challenge her to think and look at the world a little differently. I of course think that is great. However, during this conversation she again says that she was not taught some things that she should have been. When asked, she began telling me about a discussion in which her professor complained about their lack of knowledge about geography. This became apparent to her as they discussed some world events.

I thought about this for a minute and referred to our previous discussion in the fall. I asked her if she thought teaching her to memorize places on a map would have been successful or if now that she had a reason to know more about some of those places the information became more important to her to learn? I asked her if it was more important for her to be able to find the information when it became relevant? She admitted that it might have been meaningless to her if not connected to topics she is currently studying.

Relevance seems to be the key. Now I know this isn’t a new concept, but do we as educators really understand what it means to be relevant? Are we making the learning relevant to our students? How? I ask myself these questions all the time. This week I realized that maybe I wasn’t doing a very good job of making my students learning of the Vietnam war and the 60s relevant to them when a student asked me why she needed to know this. Class stopped right there and we had a great discussion about past events and their connection to current events. This of course led to a discussion about how some of these current events can and do impact our lives. I thought I had made that connection but obviously not. In fact, I am still trying to help them see connections.

As a social studies teacher I have of course been glued to the news concerning Egypt and the Middle East. How do I make that relevant to my eighth graders? Why do they care about events a world away? That is our real challenge. I can remember sitting in my living room crying as I watched people literally tear down the Berlin Wall. I had had the opportunity to visit Berlin and pass through Check Point Charlie as I visited East Berlin. It had meaning to me! My textbook has never giving me real meaning, it sure won’t give my students meaning. The text (that sits on my shelf) is not relevant to my students. It is up to me (and you) to help make it relevant! How do you make your students learning relevant?

Reading recommendation: Life as we Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. This is a great science fiction book for any science teacher.

Tech Recommendation: Quicklyst a simple note taking application. Quick, easy, and effective. What more can you ask for?

Must Read (Professional Reading): Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning

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