The “why” matters

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We don’t talk enough about relevance.

In one study of more than 300 teachers, motivation researcher Jere Brophy found that only 1.7 percent of them clearly explained the relevance of their lessons to students. The rest may have assumed that relevance doesn’t matter; after all, the students are required to learn this stuff.

But it does matter. When I spend my precious time taking a class, attending a workshop or going to a meeting, I expect to learn something important. If the instructor starts rambling about something of no significance to me, like how to use the “nudge” tool in Microsoft Word (and yes, this has happened to me), I feel angry and cheated. Don’t waste my time.

Our students feel the same way. They aren’t spending their own money to take our courses, but they are giving us some of their precious time. Are we using it in a way that is critical to them?

It’s easy for us to fall back on the cliched “You’ll need to know this in the future” or “Because it’s in the standards,” but teenagers, especially disenfranchised ones, don’t find these reasons compelling. Who says I need to know it? Who put it in the standards?

Those are tough questions because many times, as teachers, we didn’t write the standards. I never decided that every student needs to learn how committees function in the legislative process or why the U.S. entered World War I or whether quotation marks come after a period.

And yet, it is our job to make sure that what we are teaching is meaningful to students. We can’t hide behind subtle threats like “you’ll wish you knew this some day.” So how can we do it?

We need to embrace models of teaching with relevance at the core. One way is to focus on doing — and give kids the chance to apply the skills they are learning to immediate real-world pursuits.

Steve Mariotti, founder of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, did this by teaching his students in Brooklyn and the South Bronx how to start their own businesses. The students, many of whom were resistant learners, responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to do something meaningful for themselves. Along the way, they learned planning, organization, sales, presentation skills and much more.

I have seen the same thing happen with students involved in the Junior Achievement  Company Program. At local and national competitions, I have met students from all kinds of backgrounds who immersed themselves in the process of imagining, developing and selling their own products — and found it the most meaningful experience of their school careers.

Another outlet is school journalism. Newspaper staff kids will work and work and work at improving their writing because they know their story will appear in print, and other people will read it, including the administration. Other teachers are sometimes frustrated because newspaper kids put journalism ahead of everything else, but think what they’re learning! They are totally engaged in a creative process, and it involves writing, assertiveness and team-building skills they can use in the workplace some day.

When you can’t transform a class into a hands-on workshop, there are other ways to build relevance. I’m thinking back to a World War I lesson, which I was fortunate to inherit from my supervising teacher, Bill Jenkins, at Wichita North High School.

Bill had developed an in-class simulation of the “Nye Committee” hearings, and each student had a small assigned role to play in the decision-making process. Some were congressmen with a particular leaning; others gave testimony, portraying people like Eugene V. Debs and J.P. Morgan.

The simulation was fun; the arguments were built in; and in the debriefing, the students were remarkably astute about what they had learned. I can’t remember precisely what was said, but one discussion closed with students concluding that “everyone in the United States needs to pay attention and understand the reasons before we decide to go into a war.”

They got the relevance.

When we are planning lessons, we have to put relevance front and center. And if we can’t figure out why a particular lesson is relevant, then maybe we shouldn’t be teaching it.