Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Tyranny of Relevance

Edublogger Joanne is off on a cruise (lucky!) and has not one but two capable stand-ins.  I read this today:
In other words, if you can persuade kids to stick with something that’s initially difficult or not palpably fun, you see their interest grow over time. But if you give up, you encourage the “relevance” crutch: you feed their demand for studies that feel good and seem to meet their needs and wants, right now. “Relevance” and “fun” are not exactly the same, but in their shallowest form they become close to synonymous. When omnipresent, they become that shallow.

It takes a lot of energy to get students to stick with something in their studies that doesn’t immediately grab them–but it’s worth the struggle. Then they become capable of a larger range, and they overthrow the tyranny of relevance.
The tyranny of relevance.  Hmmm, I like that. The embedded link is to the author's own blog on the subject, where she states the following:
The polarization of education discussion is sad—but even sadder are some of the points of consensus. Across ideologies, educators insist that education should be immediately and obviously relevant to students’ lives. Those of a narrow utilitarian bent maintain that a lesson should have a specific, explicit, measurable objective and that students should be constantly working toward that goal. Students should know exactly what they are learning and should always have a “task” to perform; by the end of the lesson, they should be able to demonstrate attainment of the objective. By contrast, “student-centered” educators hold that the lesson should shape itself around the students’ opinions, interests, needs, and desires. Though opposed on the surface, the two camps commit the same error: they reduce education to what can be immediately grasped and used.

Of course education should be relevant to students’ lives; of course students should not be endlessly frustrated in their search for meaning. But what sort of meaning? Promoters of relevance have taught children to expect quick connections to their lives, whether they are making a “text-to-self connection,” completing a “Do Now” exercise about a childhood memory, or “sharing out” at the end of the lesson. As a consequence, when students don’t see the direct application to their lives, they not only stop paying attention, but start disrupting class or ask for something interesting to do. On the one hand, there is something honorable in this protest; on the other, it can be shortsighted, especially when the students don’t wait to see what a book or lesson holds.

The students did not create this situation; they were brought up in it. They have been taught, day after day, to expect their learning to apply to real life. The idea that a theorem could be interesting for its elegance or its relation to another theorem—that is remote from their consciousness. A few students enjoy patterns, possibilities, shades of meaning; they enjoy coming to understand things that were dense or distant before. But many hold to the doctrine—which the Church of Present-Day Relevance preaches—that the teachers are supposed to make things clear, fun, and useful this very minute.
I can't address the issue of relevance without yet another reference to Paolo Freire's flawed ideas and Bertrand Russell's and Will Fitzhugh's insightful ones. Put simply, there's more to the world that what interests a student in the here and now.  If we indulge only what interests or what is relevant to the student, we do them the disservice of failing to provide the broad education that we're supposed to.

Our job is to open minds, not to reinforce their closure.

(Now go read my post at the last link.  Go ahead, it won't take long!)

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