Make Learning Relevant

On my end of year survey, I asked students to rate my class on a scale of 1-5. At that point, students knew to be honest when giving me feedback. They knew I wanted the truth as much as it may hurt. I was happy to see that 98% rated it a 4 or a 5. That’s a stat I’m proud of. I work hard at creating my classroom. Some days I feel defeated. It’s encouraging to see such feedback. And don’t worry, some of the other questions showed me the honest truth about certain lessons they didn’t enjoy.

I believe one of the reasons they enjoy my class so much is because of the relevance it has to their lives.

“When they discover the relevance, their energy for and attention to the task will soar. Getting their attention is about interest; keeping their attention is about relevance.”

Beers and Probst, Disrupting Thinking

Our students beg for relevance. Whether they shout out “why are we doing this?” or sit and comply, students need to see the relevance of what they’re learning.

When I became a teacher 5 years ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I was inexperienced and overwhelmed, but my intentions were right. I wanted to create an interesting, relevant and enjoyable experience for my students. I didn’t want them to experience school as I had. I played the game that we’re all too familiar with. I read for school. I wrote for school. I did my homework. I answered questions the teachers asked. I memorized facts, took the test and then forgot them days later. In other words, I was compliant.

Compliance does not lead to learning. Being forced to do something you don’t enjoy is bad enough. It’s even worse when you to have to do it everyday and get a grade for it.

As a child I was intrigued by computers. I started playing around with them, building my own, and learning everything I could by just doing. No one told me to learn more about computers. No one graded me or checked my comprehension. It eventually grew into a set of skills that I use everyday, even as a teacher. This knowledge is a product of my curiousity. It’s a product of learning about something that mattered. Something I found relevant. It’s not something I learned in school.

When we find something relevant, we have this urge to get better and better at it. It’s what drives me to read and write so much about education. While many people look forward to relaxing during the summer, I find joy in reflecting on the past school year. I revise some things, get rid of others, and plan out new ideas.

Anytime I’m planning out lessons or activities, one of the first questions I think about is, “how can I make this relevant for my students?” It’s more than likely the first question they’re thinking about. In my classroom, it means allowing students choice in what they write or read. It means showing them real world examples of how a certain skill will help them. Sometimes it means scrapping a lesson and creating something new. Sometimes it means going against what I’m supposed to do, because I know it’s in the best interest of my students. And because I know students learn best when they see relevance in what they’re doing.

Earlier last year, we wrote Amazon reviews. We spent the beginning of the unit figuring out how important online reviews, how influential they are and why they matter. I knew we couldn’t start writing until they saw the relevance. Luckily, many of my students use Amazon to purchase things. Plus, they had the chance to write about an item that meant something to them.

Creating lessons that all students find interesting is time consuming. Creating relevant lessons requires a lot of effort on our part. Unfortunately, some of us have less autonomy than others. Some of us have preset curriculum we must follow. Others are stuck in their old ways. But despite the challenges, despite the effort required, despite what we’re “supposed to do”, we need to create learning experiences that students will find interesting and relevant. Our students deserve it.

When there’s a lack of interest and relevance, students see no point in trying or caring. Some will comply and do their best, others will just coast by with the bare minimum and even worst, some will act out and eventually get labeled as problem students.

Relevance makes our jobs easier. It creates engagement. Cuts down on disruptions. It creates a connection between what we do in school and students’ lives. Most importantly, it makes them excited to learn.

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