Saturday, September 2, 2017

Do Not Make Lessons Relevant

This article is actually from 2014, but it touched a nerve that has been raw since I was a student in the 1970s. The author is talking about the issue of students asking "Why do we need to learn this anyway" and after setting up the problem, he drops this:

The best solution to this problem is to make every lesson relevant to each student. However, given the impossibility of achieving that goal, I offer a few teaching tips that can mostly make that dreaded question about relevance a thing of the past. 

And to make matters worse, the link to this article called it "Three Ways To Make Your Lessons Relevant."

No. No no no no no, and also, no.

The instant you decide you want to "make" your lesson relevant, you've lost, because you have admitted that the lesson is not actually relevant. After all, you don't look at the ocean and say, "We'll have to find a way to make that wet." If your spousal unit says, "I'm looking for ways to make myself like you," that is not a good sign.

Yeah, that's wet.

Your lesson should BE relevant, and you should know why it is relevant. And if your students ask why it's worth their time, you should be able to answer that question.

Put another way-- if you don't have a good reason for teaching the lesson, then why are you teaching the lesson? Note: "Because we always have" and "Because that's just one of those things teachers do" are not good answers. "Because I've been told I have to," is not much better, but in the current day and age, it is sometimes the honest answer.

So any time you find yourself trying to think of a way to make a lesson relevant, take a step back and instead ask yourself why you are teaching that lesson at all. As teachers, we have been given stewardship over a sizeable chunk of our students' lives. The most fundamental responsibility we have is to avoid wasting any of that precious time.


  1. It helps if new material is naturally relevant to students, but surprising, inspiring, and flat out interesting or thought provoking work too. Emotion is one of the teacher’s best friends when hoping to impart new knowledge or ideas. When new material is none of these, boredom, daydreaming, or misbehaviors are sure to follow. When I teach students that the Sun losing 5 million tons of mass per second – this isn’t relevant to their everyday lives but certainly is surprising, interesting, and thought provoking.

    The absolute importance of stimulating student’s minds with surprising, relevant, and/or interesting material is the absolute strongest argument AGAINST the over-reliance on “learning standards”.
    Standards are not just limiting, but tend to be dry and emotionally empty.

    Student: “When am I ever going to use this?”
    Teacher: “This? You mean your brain?”

  2. It is the job of the teacher to pull their students into new worlds – not to force fit new material into what they already know and like. Forcing relevance is the antithesis of good teaching. Sticking religiously to state standards, to only what’s “on the test”, or never straying from “the textbook” makes for a pretty uninspiring and dull experience for their students.

  3. "The instant you decide you want to "make" your lesson relevant, you've lost, because you have admitted that the lesson is not actually relevant."

    That's not really quite what it means. The lesson may in fact be relevant, but the student may not know it yet. The fact that a 15 year old thinks something is dippy does not mean that it is. Just like the teacher in your previous post was teaching you important lessons as a kid, and you didn't quite realize what those were until you were an adult.

    I tried to read the book Night with my classes, and unfortunately, too many students didn't seem that interested, even though I thought they were wrong. I showed them videos on Neo-nazis and a great documentary called Accidental Courtesy, which most of them actually did like, to try to make them understand hatred and supremacy still exist. This summer, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia-the same state I taught in. What I taught did have relevance, even if they didn't all buy in at the time. I couldn't convince many of them to buy in, but I hope some of them made the connections this summer.

    1. Relevant means connected or important to. I think the key is what Peter says about knowing why you think it's important and why you're teaching it.

  4. Or think of the great scene in Karate Kid with Mr. Miyagi teaching Daniel "wax on, wax off". Daniel doesn't think it's important, but it is.

  5. I had a non-pc answer to "when will I ever use this stuff." I'd look seriously at the student for a few seconds and then say "You - probably never." Everyone in class laughs and we move on and the question never comes up again. I think you need a particular personality to get away with that tactic.

  6. I immediately thought of Tilly Smith. In 2004, she was a ten year old student from England on Christmas vacation with her family at a beach resort in Thailand. While out on the beach, she saw the signs she had learned about in school which meant that a tsunami was imminent. She and her dad warned everyone at the resort and 100 lives were saved. They don't have tsunamis in England. She might have well asked her teacher when she was ever going to use THAT information.