How to make space for relevant classroom learning

Grand Beach, Manitoba photo by Barry Dyck

At this time of year, many teachers ponder how they will motivate and engage their students with required course content. Clearly, no teacher sets out with the goal of making their teaching irrelevant, yet that’s what we hear from many young people.

“This is boring. What do I have to do this for?”

As a teacher, I know how these comments feel like a knife in the gut and elicit an emotional response.

“I get paid to teach this, and you have to take this in order to graduate, okay? You can choose to fight it or accept that it just is what it is.”

It’s not okay though.

It reminds me of when my sons were growing up and we’d put some vegetables on their plates and tell them, “If you want to have dessert or leave the table, you have to eat your vegetables.” Did we create a choice or a compliance problem? (The problem got bigger if they ran away from the table, creating their own option!)

What if irrelevance is built into the system?

I get the idea of required courses, a core of knowledge and skills everyone should have. And then I see a friend’s grade 10 son having to answer 60 chapter questions on a class novel for his required English credit, and I shake my head in disbelief. Really? How is this required “learning?”

Who should decide what is important and for whom? I’m sure many of us can think of other topics for courses young people should be required to learn and I’m guessing most of those topics would be focused on things we think are important and interesting.

Teachers (and principals) are in a bind though. In the predominant school framework, teachers are expected to deliver content, most of it pre-determined by others, in discipline-centered classrooms of same-aged kids.

What should students have to learn anyway? Learn how to repair a car? Code an app? Cut hair? Drive a bus? Coach a sport? Give a speech? Make a documentary? Balance a chemical equation? Stock shelves? Raise a child? Quit a bad habit? Calculate the volume of a sphere? Play an instrument? Meditate? Consume less?

Can you imagine if kids would create their own personally relevant learning opportunities?

I can. And so can many other educators who are doing things like genius hour, innovation time, and makerspaces.

Too many fear trying something new because they don’t want to fail, to make mistakes. That’s called failure by omission.

You fail to make a difference by not trying to make a difference.

Rather than trying to make something relevant, relevance needs to be part of the system itself. Too much “relevance” is about the need to pass a required course to earn the required credits to graduate. The student is bound to the we-know-what’s-best-for-you system. This is part of a mechanistic, linear world view.

Relevance is an emergent phenomenon. It is organic. It is personal, emotional and contextual. I’ll stay motivated and engaged if I find something relevant. When it loses relevance, I’ll probably stop doing it.

It’s easy to just blame “the system.” If I can’t drive my car because I have a flat tire, it isn’t the car’s fault, it’s the fault of the tire. The properties of a system are defined by how the parts interact; the properties of the system are not in the individual parts. A new tire won’t give me a better car. If the system has irrelevancies built into it, changing the parts alone will not solve the problem.

If we want to solve the problems of relevance, motivation and engagement, we need to dissolve the problems by redesigning the system so the problems no longer exist.

So how can we create relevance in a system of compliance with pre-determined goals?

As an individual teacher, here are some ways to get started making space for relevant learning:

  1. Stop doing what isn’t working. Do more of what is working.
  2. Shift mindset: Show what’s relevant rather than try to make something relevant. If you’re trying to make things relevant you’re probably seeking compliance. Hint: If you say, “You need to learn this because you’ll need it next year” you’re probably more focused on compliance. Showing involves experiencing.
  3. Start with the willing students. Evolve individual learning plans and assist in locating resources. Feed off their energy.
  4. Cultivate “loving relations.” Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana, defines love as “the act of allowing another to be a legitimate other.” Love and relationship are what make us human. “People who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging,” says Brené Brown. It’s pretty hard to find relevance if one doesn’t feel connected or cared for.
  5. Embrace diversity. Here on the Canadian prairies, new classes are sometimes referred to as a new crop of students. Forget monoculture and learn to do permaculture. We are interdependent. Sameness makes us susceptible to disease.
  6. Game the system for learning rather than teaching. A group of teachers created a just-in-time gaming and programming course based on student demand and used an existing course title to give a credit. The bureaucracy of curriculum development lacks the agility and adaptability required, so do what it takes to support and credit student learning.
  7. Stick with it. There are times when making space for relevant learning will feel like one step forward and two steps back. Keep doing it and you’ll soon start to dance, even though it may not look pretty. You never know who will follow.

Also published on my blog.