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?

One response to “[Ir?]Relevance.

  1. Good thoughts.
    In answer to your last question:
    Since you are the only one who can change yourself — my question to you is: are you the student or the teacher?
    Whichever one you are — then it is more your responsibility. If the teacher, to do something that is relevant to yourself, and encourage as much as you can others to see the relevance, or if they can’t find the relevance, then to do something else with their time that is more relevant.
    If the student, then find the relevance in what is being taught (usually the instant you start to participate more, this happens), or choose to do something else that is more relevant, with your time.
    If you don’t think an assignment in a class is relevant, then tell the teacher that you don’t think it is, explain why, and explain what you would like to do instead.

    Those are my first rambling thoughts anyway. 🙂

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