The importance of relevance

Writing a blog post to state the obvious may seem like wasting time in a world where no resource is as scarce and valuable as time.

Nevertheless, that’s exactly what I’m aiming to do here.

The obvious statement promised would sound something like:

To effectively learn anything, the learning “content” in question must seem relevant to the learner

Most (if not all) of us have experienced asking and being asked “why is this important? Why must I learn this?”

In some occasions, the answer is readily available, and we may actually receive or come up with a satisfactory explanation ourselves, managing to understand or convey understanding of the actual relevance.

Oftentimes, though, no such handy answer can be found, and a less agreeable way to end this difficult situation would be to refer to the curriculum or one’s own authority along the “because I say so”-model.

I know - chemistry IS important!

“Why is this piece of chemistry important? Why must I learn this?”

“Because I say so”

I don’t mean to pick on chemistry in particular, but it is probably the subject I myself have had the hardest time understanding; the question surfaces in every subject, I suppose.

On one hand, we as educators along with the educational system we work within, must rely on curriculum and some more or less reasonable perceptions of what is important, and what is not. Much of what is considered important from this perspective is, sadly enough, often at odds with our student’s answer to that same question.

It may thus seem, that we are left with a grim choice between A) forcing through curricular demands, ignoring our students or B) giving in to student’s more or less informed whims and wishes.

This is not the case, however.

As educators, we have the opportunity to design learning scenarios, where the presumably irrelevant becomes relevant.

Not using any kind of dark magic, torture or heavy-handed persuasion, but merely drawing on our imagination.

A theoretical quickie

The basic idea is that learning can be promoted in other ways than using the widespread “separation of content from where this content could be applied”-approach.

The late John Dewey talked about exactly this when he argued for learning and education to be more oriented towards “learning by doing”, as he famously expressed it.

More recently, this has been explored in elaborate ways by Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger in “Situated Learning” and again by Wenger in “Communities of Practice“.

These ideas are one of the reasons it is really interesting to uncover the potential of “using texting as a tool for improving the writing and spellling proficiencies” or crafting Creative Partnerships, enabling “children and young people to develop the skills needed to play an active leadership role in school  l ife”.

By linking the “content” or learning goals to things and situations that actually make sense to our students, we illuminate why the learning goals themselves make sense as well (given that they actually do, which is not always the case when looking at different curricula). Instead of maintaining the educational tendency to isolate subjects and remove them from the world, we have the opportunity to go in the opposite direction, creating “situated learning practices”, where students actually understand the underlying reasons of learning what we want them to learn.

Games as learning scenarios

And then, like magic, I return to games, as is so often the case.

Games are “learning machines”, as expressed by James Paul Gee. When playing games, we learn what is required in the specific context of the game. What we must learn is not considered removed or irrelevant, because it must be applied to overcome the challenges of the game.

This is what David Williamson Shaffer and his Epistemic Games Group are showing us, when they develop and implement their “brain games”. Instead of teaching inside the confines of single subjects removed from the world, they challenge their students by tasking them with real problems solved by real professionals:

Similar things are being done by the Scottish “Consolarium“. They aim to “always talk about the benefits of creating learning opportunities that are situated within the cultural framework of learners” and showing “how ‘traditional learning’ such as writing could be made even more appealing, relevant and purposeful to learners”.

A last example would be Tim Rylands, and his Myst sessions, where he uses the game to encourage more creative writing and speaking among students. Playing Myst in the classroom, it suddenly becomes relevant to explore language in order to describe the fascinating universe:

Designing for relevance

So really, none of this is revolutionary, to say the very least. It is, however, tremendously important and equally difficult at times.

I absolutely believe that games hold great potential in our endeavor towards making education ever more relevant. I also believe that no game will do this by itself. A very important point implicitly made by Rylands is, that even the best of games need creative teachers to frame them within the learning context.

That makes us designers; not designers designing commercial products, but designers designing better educations. In these better educations, we understand and respect our students, their aspirations, needs and interests.

We design for relevance.

Don’t just repeat; rephrase!

I’m doing all kinds of stuff, both when working and when trying not to.

It often proves hard to find a common denominator encapsulating my activities; to briefly explain what I do.

One attempt, however, might emanate from the idea of challenging the “established order of thinking”.

This is not to say that things “established” never work or only work partially. It is just that I consider it important to seek new ways, to explore new grounds, and to attempt to approach problems from different angles.

I would probably offend no-one by stating that traditions and habits die very hard in the world of education. Many processes are carried out as they are because that’s what we’re used to. Again, some habits are valuable and should be maintained. Others, however, are no longer appropriate, and should be substituted by something else. I try to work out what the “substitutes” could be.

Don't just shout it out - recompose the message (credits: view from 5'2"' http://www.flickr.com/photos/viewfrom52/)

Last summer I was talking to this Finnish girl living in Denmark, who complained about a pattern in her communication with Danish people. Now, she’s actually quite good at Danish (for a Finnish girl, that is), yet from time to time, words or sentences got lost in translation, and she naturally asks for a reiteration. The crux of the matter is, that most people just repeat what they already said – the same all over again, even though it’s exactly what caused the confusion in the first place. All right, but faced with the fact, that the message is not yet understood, the most patient of people try again. The same thing, repeated like before – this time only LOUDER.

I’m not making this stuff up. Please, enlighten me, what should it help to shout things that were not understood when spoken?

This conversation made it unmistakably clear to me that the alternative path is the solution. In the specific situation, alternative words, phrases, synonyms; approaching what was not understood from a different angle, combining words in new ways in order to convey the message in a more understandable fashion.

This seems like a valid metaphor to me; when something is broken, or just not working as it’s supposed to, don’t simply do the same thing once more.

Be creative – do something else.

Don’t just repeat yourself; rephrase the entire message, deliver it differently (or stop talking altogether).

Anything else is just a waste of energy.