In education, the term relevance typically refers to learning experiences that are either directly applicable to the personal aspirations, interests, or cultural experiences of students (personal relevance) or that are connected in some way to real-world issues, problems, and contexts (life relevance).
Personal relevance occurs when learning is connected to an individual student’s interests, aspirations, and life experiences. Advocates argue that personal relevance, when effectively incorporated into instruction, can increase a student’s motivation to learn, engagement in what is being taught, and even knowledge retention and recall. The following are a few representative forms of personal relevance:
- Individual choices: A teacher might ask students to write about the United States presidency, but then allow them to choose which president they will study. A student with a personal interest in hiking and the outdoors might select Theodore Roosevelt, for example, because he was a naturalist and conservationist who led scientific expeditions and helped establish the first national parks.
- Product choices: If a particular learning standard is being taught, such as “conduct historical research using original sources,” a teacher might allow students to demonstrate their research skills by creating different products. For example, a student interested in filmmaking might create a short documentary using archival photography. A student interested in music and technology might produce an audio podcast in the style of an old radio-news program or presidential address. Another student who aspires to be a writer might choose to write a historical essay or short work of historical fiction that incorporates period facts and details.
- Varied content: In a news and journalism course, for example, a teacher might ask students to monitor and analyze news stories about current world events. Students might be allowed to choose an area of personal interest—e.g., politics, environmentalism, science, technology—and monitor news reports in those areas as relevant events unfold. Even though students are studying different news topics, the course teaches students about effective reporting techniques, how news is created, how to analyze news coverage, and how effective news stories are structured, for example.
- Cultural connections: In a world-history course, a teacher might allow students to investigate certain historical topics or time periods through a culturally relevant connection. For example, during lessons on imperialism and colonialism, students from different cultural backgrounds might choose to write essays that explore the effects of imperialism and colonialism from the standpoint of their racial, ancestral, or cultural heritage.
Life relevance occurs when learning is connected in some way to real-world issues, problems, and contexts outside of school. Life relevance is generally intended to equip students with practical skills, knowledge, and dispositions that they can apply in various educational, career, and civic contexts throughout their lives. As with personal relevance, advocates contend that life relevance can improve engagement, motivation, and learning acquisition. Life relevance may also intersect in a variety of ways with personal relevance. The following are a few representative forms of life relevance:
- Skill acquisition: While instructing students, a teacher might incorporate practical skills that students can apply throughout their lives. For example, students might be asked to use technology to create a variety of products that demonstrate what they have learned, such as audiovisual presentations, websites, software programs, databases, or spreadsheets. While the students are learning history, science, or mathematics, for example, they are also acquiring technology skills that will be useful in adult life.
- Practical context: When teaching abstract mathematical concepts, a teacher might use practical life contexts to help the concepts “come alive” for students. For example, students might be asked to follow a favorite sports team and conduct mathematical analyses using team statistics. Similar teaching strategies could be used with a variety of different data, such as demographic, economic, or financial data.
- Current events: In a unit on presidential elections in a social-studies course, students might be asked to monitor campaign advertising on radio, television, and the internet, and then research the accuracy of the statements being made. Students may then write an analysis of how campaigns manipulate the presentation of facts to influence voter opinions about a particular candidate or issue.
- Community connections: In a government course, a teacher might draw comparisons between national governmental functions and how the government works in the local community. The teacher might ask students to study local politics, interview elected officials, and put together a citizen-action proposal that will be presented to the city or town council. As students learn about local politics, they get a more concrete understanding of how government works at the state or national level.
- Career aspirations: In a business course, a teacher might ask students to develop a business plan for a proposed company. Students pick an industry that interests them—such as fashion, video games, or cooking—and then they research existing businesses in the field, determine how they will raise start-up funding, create a marketing campaign, and pitch their final proposals to local business leaders. While learning about business and economics, students also learn whether the career path is a good fit for them, and they acquire practical skills that will help them when they enter the workforce.
Educators may use a wide variety of educational strategies to increase the relevance of what is taught and learned in schools—just a few examples include 21st century skills, authentic learning, career-themed academies, community-based learning, differentiation, learning pathways, personalized learning, and project-based learning. It should be noted that while there have been growing calls nationally for schools to increase their emphasis on teaching relevant concepts and skills, relevance in education is not a new concept—teachers have been integrating relevance into their lessons and teaching since formal schools were created, albeit to widely varying degrees. In addition, career and technical education programs have long been focused on career preparation.
While few arguments are made against the concept of greater relevance in education, there is often debate about the degree to which schools should address relevance and the best ways to go about it. In particular, there may be debate about or criticism of the specific strategies and practices used to increase relevance, some of which may be met with misunderstanding, skepticism, or apprehension. For example, in recent years many educators, policy makers, educational organizations, and philanthropic foundations have called on schools to focus on the “new three Rs”: rigor, relevance, and relationships—i.e., to make sure that (1) students are held to high expectations and challenged academically and intellectually, (2) what gets taught reflects both personal and life relevance, and (3) educators form strong relationships with students and get to know them and their specific learning needs well. While some may express concern that the new three Rs will replace the original three Rs—reading, writing, and arithmetic—advocates would argue that the “rigor, relevance, and relationships” concept does not in any way displace the necessity of teaching students how read, write, and do math. Still, the perception that students are not “getting the basics” is fairly widespread in the United States, and efforts to change or improve schools are often perceived to be in conflict with more traditional forms of education, which are associated in the public mind with “the basics.”
Other critics may argue that striving for greater relevance will introduce too much choice or flexibility in terms of content (what gets taught), process (how it gets taught), and products (what students do or produce to show what they have learned). Reforms, in this view, may “water down” courses, not teach the most important subjects, or fail to adequately prepare students. Increasing relevance in teaching may also require teachers to make significant changes to the ways in which they have traditionally taught. For example, lessons may need to be entirely reconceived or teachers may need to learn new instructional techniques. Given the numerous ways in which relevance may play out in schools, it is important to acquire a strong understanding of a particular school’s academic philosophy, how its program is structured, and what results it’s achieving.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.