On to Relevance

My last post discussed motivation, in depth. As some may remember, motivation is one part of my formula that I use to analyze education. The other is relevance, and that will be the focus for today. As a quick refresher, here is the formula.

Relevancy is an exceptionally challenging aspect of achieving engagement, because it is something that can change very quickly and also has a number of different aspects to it. However, like motivation, there are two overarching types of relevance we can focus on to conceptually understand it. The curriculum must be relevant to the student and also it must be useful to the world.

Why doesn’t anyone get my television references?

In order for education to be truly relevant, we must develop curriculum that incorporates the experiences and interests of students’ and uses them as springboards for learning. Recent studies in the journals  NatureScience; and Mind, Brain, and Education all have shown that

[s]tudents need a personal connection to the material, whether that’s through engaging them emotionally or connecting the new information with previously acquired knowledge (often one and the same). Without that, students may not only disengage and quickly forget, but they may also lose the motivation to try. [edutopia.org]

Doing this well can often be a challenge. In my own class, I often struggle to find popular culture references that I relate to which overlap with my students’ experiences. For example, I often am tempted to reference the West Wing, which in my opinion is an amazing show to use as an educational tool. However, when polled, I quickly discovered that none of my students had ever seen let alone heard of the show — a finding even more shocking when you learn that they are juniors and seniors in college.

Often times I joke in class that unless I couch everything in references from the Jersey Shore, anything I teach will be lost on them. While I enjoy the challenge of using videos of Snooki being punched in the face as a starting point for intentional torts; the universe of gym, tan, laundry does limit what I am able to teach. But, effective teaching requires that we do identify and utilize those metaphors and experiences which our students can relate to.

Some teachers have identified innovative ways to capitalize on students’ own interests to cultivate learning. Pat Yongpradit, a teacher in Maryland, uses computer science education as a vehicle to engage female students in the STEM subjects.  Similarly at the MIT Media Lab, the High-Low Tech group encourages students to combine their interest in fashion and design with technology. I spoke about the power of games in my last post, and some innovators are pushing to incorporate games into every part of education to stimulate learning of complex and challenging topics. A great Prezi that outlines the potential of using games has been made by Maria Andersen.

What is the point of learning this?

In addition to being relevant on a personal level to the recipient, the curriculum or lesson must also be relevant with regard to be useful in the world. Students are able to quickly realize when a specific kernel of knowledge will or will not be useful to them in the near-term, long-term or never.

One of the classic tensions with regard to this is in the field of mathematics. Students today have been raised in a world inundated by calculators and computers — a world where the abundance of computational power cannot be questioned. In this world, the notion of learning how to do rote computations by hand would naturally seem silly, as most students realize that the minute they enter the real world they will simply use computers to solve these problems. Conrad Wolfram, the founder of Wolfram Alpha, discusses this issue at a recent TED talk.

As Wolfram states, the field of math could not be more critical for the global economy, but yet the current approach to teaching it by and large ignores the reality of how the next generation will actually interact with numbers and data. Another example can be found in the continuous decrease in enrollment in computer science courses, despite the fact that the economy is being driven more and more by the Internet and other high-technology industries. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) has highlighted the dearth of computer science education offerings at the elementary and secondary school levels across America. Innovative schools and organizations are tackling this problem head on. One in particular is Computers for Youth, a non-profit that works with schools and also in the students’ homes to promote computer literacy in some of the biggest cities throughout the country. Yet, even these programs may not go far enough, as the gap between basic computer proficiency and a true understanding of how software works is large.

What is our goal?

At the core, we must ask the question what is our actual objective when teaching. Is it to accomplish a discrete set of lessons? Or is it to cultivate a longstanding desire to learn in a student? I firmly believe it is the latter, and if so that means we must look at education differently, using subjects as a vehicle to maintain and increase one’s innate curiosity (and accordingly his or her intrinsic motivation). Doing so requires that we are more responsive to the interests and expectations of our customers (i.e. students), and the most effective way to accomplish this goal is via technology. Social technologies in particular provide means for an ongoing dialogue between educators and students and also between students and the world. George Couros, an elementary school prinicipal, articulates this concept well.

Here is something that hasn’t changed though: the best teaching is always built upon relationships.  Think back to your own favourite teachers.  They were probably people who knew quite a bit about you and made you feel that you were a unique and special individual.  The fact of the matter is that they did this probably for most students they encountered.  They were people who you felt believed in you and inspired you to do great things, maybe even to become a teacher.  They always seemed to go the extra mile to ensure that you knew your strengths and cared deeply about your passions.  No matter what technology comes into our classrooms, nothing will ever replace a good teacher.  Nothing.

Now, take that good teaching and equip it with the advancing technology we now have at our fingertips.  This is the game changer for educators.  Preparing our students not only to be digitally savvy, but leveraging these technologies to help them create, communicate, connect and collaborate will prepare them to be contributing citizens to their future.  When we were in school, bringing the “TV” to the classroom was one of the best days ever.  Now we have the opportunity to bring the world to the classroom every day.  I would be excited to have this opportunity as a learner, but I am even more excited as an educator.  We have the means to create this revolution in learning where our students not only learn, but connect with people around the globe.

I hope that Couros is right.