4 Reasons Why “Relevance” Can Limit Student Engagement

Educational relevance

If we had the ability to look into the brains of educators we’d see this notion rolling steadily through cells in the frontal lobe. Looking for relevance allows us to interest our students. It allows us to coerce them into learning something new or, at least, something the powers-that-be consider important for them to know. If we stopped brain-watching and instead listened into a typical teacher education seminar on curriculum and planning we would also encounter this term. It is the plight of the teacher to help students connect with topics. Faced with this task, looking for relevance seems like a logical thing to do. By connecting students with something—by “hooking” them as teachers so often call it—we assume that we are more likely to be able to teach them and that they, in turn, will be more likely to learn.

Now for some educational heresy.

I want to try to convince you that relevance is not as useful a concept for learning as we think it is.

Looking for relevance and then combining it with the kinds of objectives-based approaches to teaching that run rampant in our schools, is actually a recipe for educational disaster or, in the very least, boredom. Let me lay out 4 problems with relevance and then suggest 4 reasons why teachers should seek emotional significance instead.

4 Problems With Seeking Relevance

There are at least four problems with looking for “relevance” as a means of engaging students in learning.

1. Relevance often excludes the extraordinary or unique.

Looking for the relevance of a topic in relation to students’ lived experiences connects back to the widespread belief in education that we should start with what students know in order to engage in learning. I would hazard a bet that many students are in fact tired of what they know of their daily experiences and would much rather encounter and envision other possibilities. In short, relevance doesn’t allow us to begin with what students can imagine as being possible. We ignore their imaginative lives and the sophisticated ways they make sense of the world.

2. Relevance is too often defined in utilitarian terms.

So, for example, we encourage students to learn something because it will serve a particular social purpose; it will help them to participate in the workforce (the “get a job” argument), be an active and responsible citizen (the “Canadians should know something about the history of Canada” argument), or appropriately interact with their peers (the “learn this skill and you will be a better communicator/friend/ reader/writer” argument). It is not that these reasons are totally unimportant. The problem is that the utilitarian significance of a topic is not necessarily something that engages students on an emotional level. Indeed, some of the future-oriented reasons we associate with relevance have little immediate importance to students.

3. Relevance isn’t always very easily found when it comes to some topics.

Consider, for example, mathematical concepts or historical knowledge. How does one apply relevance to particularly abstract topics without somehow compromising the complexity of the topic? (e.g. Algebra) How does one teach historical topics such as Ancient Civilizations when relevance is the guide? Sure, one could identify the different ways in which Algebra infuses students’ daily lives or we could trace the influence of certain features of the Roman Empire through to the governance we have today. The problem is that both of these ideas dilute something of the ingenuity of the mathematical concept and the vividness of the historical era. The challenge for teachers is to engage students in meaningful and memorable ways while maintaining, as much as possible, the wonder inherent in the topic itself.

4. Seeking relevance connects to the widely held belief that good teaching requires “hooking” students.

The idea of connecting students with a topic is not the problem; indeed the necessity of this connection is what I’m arguing for. The problem with thinking about how to “hook” a student—besides the obvious image in my mind of some poor student hanging limply from a line like fish out of water or, perhaps less gruesome, some poor kid with a large cane hooked around its neck—is the belief that this is an initial requirement for learning. One “hooks” students and then one gets on with teaching.

This kind of thinking fails to acknowledge that all learning requires emotional and imaginative engagement.

Engagement—defined here as when we feel some emotional connection in response to a topic and, often, our ability to imagine possibilities is evoked—lies at the heart of learning. So rather than a hook, we are seeking to create learning experiences that engage students’ emotions and imaginations in more profound and long-lasting ways.

4 Benefits To Finding Emotional Significance

1. Emotional significance is the avenue to imagination.

Teaching can now begin with what students can imagine about the world as opposed to what they already know.

2. Emotional significance is universal.

The emotional significance of a topic reflects something all students can share immediately with a topic and with each other in the classroom; all topics can be taught in ways that bring out emotional dimensions. Leaving students feeling something for the topics they are learning is, in some ways, the greatest kind of connection we can hope for. All topics can be taught to all students if we employ the tools that tap into their emotions.

3. Emotional significance allows all topics in the curriculum to be seen as stories to tell as opposed to inert bodies of knowledge.

Seeking emotional significance means that, like the reporter sent out to get “the story” on something happening in the community, we do not create a fiction when we teach the curriculum, but we ask ourselves what the story is. By answering this question for any topic in the curriculum—whether mathematical concept, historical event, scientific principle—we create an emotional connection through which students can share, with the topic and those people involved in it, a common human emotion. They finish a lesson or unit feeling something for what they are learning.

4. Emotional significance as the foundation for teaching allows us to put the “hooks” away.

When educators plan their units with students’ emotional and imaginative lives in mind, they put the “hooks” away. No more dangling fish. Instead, teaching is framed in an emotional context from the start. Students learn about topics in ways that employ features of their imaginations that they already use to experience the world around them. So, teachers of young children shape their topics in story-form that evoke abstract binary oppositions, and that contain vivid images evoked from words, jokes and humour, rhythms and patterns, and metaphor. Teachers of older students shape their topics in story-form that reveals what is heroic about the knowledge, its human dimensions, its wonder and its weird, wild and wonderful features. These are all examples of cognitive or learning tools students are using to make sense of the world around them everyday, everywhere.

Final Thoughts…

Think for a moment about a really memorable learning experience you had in your elementary or secondary school years—perhaps an activity you did. What was it? What knowledge was gained through this experience? What we tend to most often remember from our past educational experiences are those times when we were most emotionally and imaginatively engaged. Unfortunately, many things we learned in school are not memorable for us. Take this a step further, teachers, and you have your reality check: without engaging your students’ emotions and imaginations in learning, much (if not most) of what you teach your students will be forgotten. Of course, the human memory has its limits. My point is that even if your teacher managed to teach you something long enough for a test—and if you manage the same for your students—it is unlikely you will recall that information today. It may have been “relevant” at the time, but not memorable.

We live in an age when there is no shortage of sources of information and technologies for accessing knowledge. The technologies might be new and, certainly, the scope of access students have to information is colossally greater than it once was but our problem remains: how do we make the knowledge we are teaching students meaningful? What good is the information on the internet if we don’t have a way to remember it? If we want to resolve this problem—or, at least, have a fighting chance of addressing it—we need to re-imagine the notion of “relevance” in terms of emotional significance. With emotional significance as our aim, we will shape the topics we teach in ways that employ the main features of our students’ emotional and imaginative lives.


How To Make All Learning Meaningful & Memorable:  Teaching as Storytelling,

The Danger of Designing Lessons for “Thinkers”

Tools of Imagination Series: Tips For Imaginative Educators


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