Sunday, April 12, 2015

Make learning relevant without the 'hard sell'

If you feel like you need to explain to your students why your lesson is relevant, then maybe you need to rethink the learning culture in your classroom. It's not that relevance isn't important. We all know that students long to know why certain content matters. "Why do we have to learn this?" is a question every teacher has faced. But the problem is that explaining relevance is almost never good enough. The reasons for learning should be more obvious and compelling. Our schools need to make learning irresistible. If a teacher must explain why it's relevant, perhaps students lack the desired ownership for learning.

Often teachers do their very best to explain all the reasons their lesson is important. They will give examples from the 'real world,' or they will explain that the material is required for next year's class, or to get into college. Some teachers may even (understandably) explain that it's important because you'll need it for the state test at the end of the year. I'm sure that is met with a few snickers from students who question how standardized tests benefit them. All of these reasons may be legitimate to some extent, but I believe they will do little more than placate students who question the relevance of learning.

For many students, there is a major disconnect between school and life outside of school. It's as if they check their real lives at the door to enter an alternate reality known as the school day. In this alternate reality, they are expected to keep quiet, power down (devices), provide right answers, and comply with constant directives from various adults. It's no wonder our system has created passive learners who play along with the game of school but are lacking passion and true engagement for learning.

So instead of trying to use the 'hard sell' to convince students of relevance, perhaps we should restructure the flow of our classrooms to create greater engagement. If students are driving more of the learning, they will find what they are doing relevant because it matters to them. When teachers invite students to join them as co-learners in a classroom filled with inquiry, teachers don't have to explain why learning is relevant. Students take a greater role in developing questions they wish to explore. Students are authentically interested in learning because they have questions that need answers. They are in the driver's seat, at least to a degree.

In classrooms with greater authenticity and relevance, there are several contributing factors to more student ownership. 

1. Students are discussing ideas and leading conversations.

2. Students have options about topics and projects they want to pursue.

3. There are multiple pathways to demonstrate knowledge and skills.

4. The classroom is connected to current issues in the community and world. Students are encouraged to solve real problems.

5. Technology is used to provide a way for students to pursue inquiry and connect beyond the classroom.

In the classroom that empowers student inquiry, the teacher still plays a critical role in supporting students' sense of relevance. But instead of the 'hard sell' approach, where the teacher tells students why something should be important to them, there is a more subtle and effective way. Learners find greater relevance when they better understand how new knowledge connects to other things they know and do. The 'soft sell' for teachers is to show students how learning fits into various contexts. Teachers, in this manner, help students recognize how what they are learning connects across disciplines, to current issues, to possible careers, or even to the learning explorations of others in the class.

The following article describes the importance of the role of the teacher in adding context:

Teachers' Most Powerful Role: Adding Context from Mindshift

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