Relevance is not synonymous with ‘easy’

13th May 2013

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 and 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. Relevance and rigour are two different things. All knowledge can be considered relevant to everyone, a teacher’s jobs is finding the key to helping the student realise that too.