Been ruminating on this one for a while (isn’t it funny how deep personal understanding of a word can make it at once more crude and more perfectly appropriate?) anyway, I’ve been ruminating on relevance. And I’m becoming convinced that more than interest, more than engagement, more than challenge or even feedback, relevance is the key to motivation in education.
rel-e-vance : relation to the matter at hand : PERTINANCE
per-ti-nent : [from L to reach, belong] : to belong to something as a care or concern or duty, to have reference to, to be appropriate or suitable for application.
Relevant material is suitable for application to the matter at hand. Relevant instruction carries with it care and concern, a duty to relate to the matter at hand. So, what is the matter at hand? I think it’s deceptively simple. In that way that makes it really easy to answer that question in a workshop (or a comments section) and yet still be baffled when it comes to actually doing it. I think the “matter at hand,” for students of all ages all over the world is simply LIFE.
The matter at hand is taking over the family business. It’s getting in to college, recovering from an addition, caring for a goldfish. It’s feeding 5 kids, fighting a repossession, responding to an inspiration, responding to a threat. It’s amortizing and annotating and apologizing. The matter at hand is LIFE.
Relevant material is suitable for application to life. Relevant instruction is concerned with life.
In the course of this musing (as carpenters with only hammers are famously prone to do) I have begun to see many of my biggest teaching peeves as so many faces of irrelevance: The oblivious lecturer who fails even to relate speech to slides, let alone to students…The dogmatic instructor who dismisses anything outside the relations he’s already established…The one to whom the theory of his field is the only matter with a right to be at hand.
As a student in those situations, it’s hard to relate–to the subject or the instructor.
The other part of this though (and I find this over and over too–if I look deeply enough at something that irks me, I’m bound to find my part in it) is that if relevance is really as simple as relation to the matter at hand, then the more matter I have “at hand” as a student, the more curious and engaged I am, the more connected I become to the people and processes of the world, the more there is to my LIFE, the more instruction will be “relevant” for me.
Is relevance then as much the responsibility of the student as the teacher?