Teachers are constantly being pressed to create curriculum that is ‘relevant’ to their students. We must make lessons that connect to ‘real life’ in a fun and engaging way. But not too fun. Oh, and they have to cover all of the necessary standards.
Most would agree that a relevant curriculum is essential for student success. However in practice, relevance in the classroom is a delicate balancing act with many obstacles to navigate. In this post, I will be discussing what it means to be ‘relevant’ in the classroom as well as the many barriers that make achieving relevancy a struggle for many educators.
Two Types of Relevancy
Most attempts at relevancy in the classroom can be thrown into one of two general categories: curricular relevance or personal relevance. Neither type is necessarily more effective than the other and most teachers implement both types in their classroom. However, it is important for us to define these types as the barriers teachers face differ according to the type they are trying to implement.
Curricular relevance is at the center of most discussions regarding relevancy and is what most teachers strive to implement. As the name suggest, curricular relevance is when lessons integrate and/or are based around themes/material students are interested in outside of school. For example, a high school history teacher may have students ‘world build’ for a new “Assassin’s Creed” game based on the time period and location of their unit of study. Though the focus is still around understanding the time period in question, the method students go about learning is based around a popular video game series that many students are interested in.
Of the two types of relevancy, curricular relevance is probably the hardest to achieve. Where it may not be too challenging to find popular things to use, the teacher still has to be able to integrate it in a meaningful way. The key thing to remember is that even though something is ‘popular’ and most students can relate to it, not all students will be ‘fans’ of the material and/or know a lot about it prior to the lesson. In order for the lesson to be successful, the teacher must use the popular material enough to grab students’ interest, but not so much that students must have prior knowledge about the popular material, or even be interested in it, in order to be successful. In my example, as long I provided students with a guideline of what I wanted to see in their ‘world’, they would be able to accomplish the task whether they are into the video game or not.
In addition to integrating the material in a non-exclusive way, the teacher must also make sure that the material is clearly connected to the content being taught. If the line connecting material and content is unclear, it
may serve to confuse students more than help them. Even without considering other barriers, curricular relevance is a challenging, yet rewarding, balancing act.
Personal relevance refers to how the teacher themself relates to their students. In order to achieve personal relevance, the teacher has to be aware of ‘trending’ material and comfortable engaging with students about it. This can either be in the context of a conversation or as a side note during a lesson. In either case, students find the teacher more relatable and as a result, become more invested in what they are being taught.
Though pretty straightforward in its execution, personal relevance has its own fair share of challenges. What students find ‘cool’ is constantly shifting and developing. For students, staying up-to-date is natural as they grow right along with the trends. However, teachers are not as naturally engaged.
When relaxing at the end of the day, we like to watch, read, and play the things we find interesting and fun. For students, this means engaging with the latest trends. For teachers, this means engaging with what they (or their families) like. Though there may be some overlap, there is still a gap between teachers and students as teachers are not as engaged (particularly with younger grades) with the media centers that attract their students and drive what is considered ‘cool’. In order to attain personal relevance, a teacher must go out of their way to engage with the material their students enjoy. But they can’t just look into one area of interest, they have to be aware popular developments in a wide array of categories to reach all students. As teachers do not spend their downtime using many of these sources, this never-ending process can take hours.
But personal relevance is not just about knowing popular trends, the teacher has to be able to engage students about them as well. Whether it is in the context of a lesson or conversation, the teacher must be able to use the material in a way that seems authentic to students. The more ‘planned out’ it seems, the less students will respond to it. Where projecting authentic interest may come naturally to some, it can be a real struggle for others.
Technology Does Not Equal Relevance
Another huge initiative in the teaching realm along the same vein as relevancy is the push to integrate technology in order to meet the needs of ‘21st century learners’. Since the ‘modern student’ has access to technology at home, technology and curriculum dealing with its appropriate use should be present in schools. Students love using the various devices they are given access to, but how does that play into relevance?
Technology can be used to make a relevant lesson, but technology does not make a lesson relevant. Electronic devices have the power to engage students in a way that books can’t, and it becomes easy to rely on the technology rather than the structure of the lesson to drive students’ interest. The problem with this structure is that it is the technology, not the academic content, that students remember most about the lesson. This is not to say that students are not learning during these lessons however, since the goal of creating relevant curricula is to help students connect to academic content, they are undesirable in the relevancy lense.
Despite its potential flaws, technology can still be used to make lessons ‘come to life’. Many websites, applications, and functions exist that can be used to enhance an already engaging lesson. From a relevancy standpoint, the goal of technology should be to provide an interesting ‘means to an end’ for students. In other words, students should be excited about completing their work using the technology rather than about using the technology to complete their work.
The relationship between technology and learning is relatively new and teachers are still learning how to effectively integrate technology in their classroom. As we continue to move forward, we will develop a better understanding of the function technology should have in our classrooms.
Barriers to Relevance
As with most things in education, there are many elements beyond the teacher and their classroom that serve as barriers to relevancy.
Almost all of the academic content teachers cover in class is prescribed by the standards that have been determined by the State (or Common Core). Though these standards do not tell teachers how to teach the content, they do say what needs to be taught in the span of a year and mention what kind of connections students need to be able to make. In an academic environment where standardized tests rule, the prescribed standards are the key to success. In addition to the written standards, individual schools and/or districts may adopt their own initiatives or philosophies that guide teachers to handle the content in specific ways.
Though the aforementioned standards and initiatives can provide a solid base for good academic practices, they can be a barrier to curricular relevance. The more ‘prescribed’ a lesson/unit is, the harder it becomes for teachers to create relevant curriculum. Teachers become so focused on ensuring their lessons cover everything they are supposed to and are fashioned in a way that follows school/district initiatives/philosophies that little time or space is left to insert relevant themes. Some prescribed curriculum tries to be open and encourages teachers to use certain relevant topics however, it is a secondary focus of the curriculum and what is deemed relevant changes much faster than the standards do.
It may seem a little odd to point at parents as barriers to relevance. After all, they’re one of the groups pushing teachers to make their lessons relevant and engaging for their students. However, the line between an engaging lesson and having pure ‘fun’ is extremely blurred for this group.
As the entire push towards relevancy shows, there has been a shift in teaching philosophy that is changing the relationship between students and teachers. Between this shift and the rapid development of technology, what relevancy looks like and the way students are engaging with academic content has changed dramatically from the time their parents were in school. Because most parents did not grow up receiving this type of education, some may find it difficult to relate to it and understand its effectiveness. This has prompted a lot of backlash from the parent community, claiming that the curriculum is too ‘fun’ for students and by extensions, is not challenging enough. This backlash further affects what teachers are able and willing to try in the realm in relevancy.
Can Learning Be Fun?
As I close out this entry, I want will leave you with the question of whether or not learning can be fun. On the surface, most would agree that it can be and we should infact strive to make it so. However, when it comes to implementing a ‘fun’ lesson, that lesson is often criticized.
I personally believe that when a lesson is fun and engaging to students, they are able to learn complicated concepts without even realizing that they have learned them. Because the lesson flows so seamlessly into their interests, they have trouble separating what they have learned and what they already knew when they are describing the lesson to others. This is the goal of relevant teaching. However, if you were unaware of the starting point, it would be difficult to see the growth. In fact, you may think there has been no growth at all.
So yes, I believe learning can be fun and engaging. However, in order for ‘fun’ learning to be accepted, we must first be willing to accept and be able to describe the subtle nature of that learning.