A recent study, as illustrated by the Washington Post, evaluated whether universities should be held more accountable. It stated that colleges have been largely exempt from the accountability movement sweeping through public elementary and secondary schools yielding the No Child Left Behind Act and other initiatives. Within the article there is mention of backlash and many themes arise such as the ambiguity of evaluating "successful" education, and how to quantify (or qualify) what is working and what is not (De Vise). This issue isn't so much about effective tests, or getting the right money to the rights schools; it is essentially about the why and the what of today's current educational system, and the why is more important than the what in learning every time (Page).
Good evaluations and questioning of student outcomes ultimately result from our concept of the purpose of school. Some may see school as an institution primarily responsible for preparing a child to enter the workforce, while others feel that attending school should be an experience that helps facilitate citizenship, character, critical thinking, and leadership skills among other things. Beyond these two ways of thinking are inevitably countless others. Regardless of the perspective of the role of education, however, it is unlikely that anyone feels children and young people should be experiencing hours of what seems to them to be irrelevant lecturing or instruction. And yet, with the current state of testing and attitude of standardization--that is exactly what is happening even in the face of overwhelming research that opposes it (Strauss). Said author Daniel Pink, "In education systems tilted towards standardized tests, grades, and 'if-then' rewards, students often have no idea why they're doing what they're doing. Turn that around by helping them glimpse the big picture. Whatever they're studying, be sure they can answer these questions: Why am I learning this? How is it relevant to the world I live in now? Then get out of the classroom and apply what they're studying . . . Think of it as the fourth R: reading, writing, arithmetic and relevance" (179). It is not only an issue for the students, however; many teachers are faced with the challenge of addressing different needs and appeasing expectations as diverse as uninformed parents and fearful political leaders. Relevance is essential on all fronts.
This fourth R that Pink introduced is more than just a current popular trend in education--it is a scientific fact that appears time and time again in studies across the nation to be important to effective learning. Students obtain more knowledge and retain further information when they actively participate in the learning process and when they can relate to what is being taught (Akey, italics added). Relevance is essential to learning because of how the brain takes in new information. Teacher and writer Bill Page explains, "The brain works by linking things to other things. Memory relies on patterns, concepts, meaningfulness, relevance, and associations. New knowledge must connect to previously learned, relevant, and meaningful experiences and knowledge. Lack of meaning makes it difficult to study for and pass tests. Students learn isolated facts only by rote memorization—relating it to stored learning using pneumonic or memory gimmicks" (Page). Learner's brains are also impacted by the manner in which those who are experts in a particular field share their knowledge. In relation to what Bill Page discussed about the linking that goes on in the long-term memory of the brain (this process is also called "retrieval" in the literature), Ruth Colvin Clark writes about additional challenges:
Expertise in all domains relies on extensive patterns stored in long-term memory-- patterns that enable experts to make much better use of the limited capacity of working memory. But sometimes those patterns get in the way. Have you ever watched a subject matter expert teach a class? Quite often they overload the learn ers' working memory with too much content, with unfamiliar terms, and with lengthy lectures. Experts just don't realize that their memories can hold and process information much more efficiently than novices. (33-34)
Who is at fault then? The expert teacher who is oblivious to the fact that the students' working memory is overloaded, or the student who just can't seem to focus and work hard in class? The answer is: neither. No one is "at fault", the simple truth is that everyone desperately needs to be taught the basic fundamentals of how the human brain learns new information.
Beyond the functions of the brain, relevance in learning is often received with higher levels of satisfaction among students than ambiguous instructional methods. While addressing problem-based learning in the medical field, Clark asks, "What might account for the popularity of problem-based learning? I think the main reason is relevance. A medical student has already studied years of science and is now focused on a career objective. By engaging with patient cases early on, the instructional environment is more in tune with their career goals" (68). Clark is talking about medical students, Pink is focusing on children's education, and Page speaks merely to students in general, and they all come up with the same connection: relevance. In this argument I too will focus on the fourth R of education and illustrate how this quality is the fiber that binds effective education together. Three points make up my argument: relevance promotes engagement, relevance increases motivation, and teachers who make relevance a priority become servant leaders who change the world.
1. Relevance Promotes Engagement
Relevance is important for a number of reasons; one being that it fuels engagement in learning. Why is engagement important? Because "Only engagement can produce mastery [which means one] becomes better at something that matters" (Pink 207). A flight instructor could teach essential maneuvers and emergency procedures to new pilots, but unless he or she is engaged in the learning process, the relevant material to the safety of the aircraft and those on board could be in great jeopardy of never being learned or executed. Academic disengagement continues to be a problem within the U.S. school system (Crumpton & Gregory). While the reasons for this truth are diverse and plentiful, the fact remains that the repercussions of disengaged students generates a significant impact on society as a whole. In studies done on low-achieving high school students, researchers are finding that without seeing the value in education, low-achieving high school students face the proximal risks of disengagement and low achievement, and the more distal and debilitating risks of grade retention, dropout, restricted job options, and low wages (Battin-Pearson et al.; Jimerson). It is inferred that without relevance in the classrooms of America, along with students becoming engaged in understanding how the material applies to their lives, the nation's economy will continue on the path of frustrating mediocrity that has been at the center of debates for nearly a decade. What can be done to increase engagement in the classroom and thus impact the overall welfare of the education system? Implementing the fourth R of education is a start, and this can be done by closing the gap between what students perceive they are learning in the classroom and what they will need afterwards, and by using popular culture in instruction.
An important step to making education more relevant in general is to address the gap between what students feel they are doing in classes and what they feel they need to be doing to be prepared for "the real world." Said one scholar, "One reason students fail or are disinterested is because they don't see the connection between today's lesson and what they really want to do someday. The more we can close that gap--to illustrate classroom relevance to their world--the better we can engage students and keep their interest. The prospect of getting a job and working 40 plus hours per week for the next 40 years doesn't exactly breed excitement in this generation (Masters, italics added). This concept of closing the gap in the classroom does not have to be only the teacher's responsibility, but parents and friends, civic and church leaders, and other influential adults can take part in changing the culture of education. Scholar Rebecca Black feels that even in areas such as fan fiction and social media there are many opportunities for learners to develop as they engage with materials. She explains, "It might be tempting to dismiss activities such as fan fiction writing as leisure-time pursuits that have little relationship to academic content . . . Lessons based on popular culture can offer a wealth of opportunities for encouraging students to critically engage in broader discussions about the ways that mass media construct various cultural, gender, and social roles; promote particular representations of the world; and position youth as consumers"(Black). Instructors should not feel that important, evidence-based teaching methods are obsolete because young people are getting bored. The key is to help students see the relevance in what they are learning, and often popular culture-- something young people are almost always fully aware of--can be the gateway to creating the desired relevance and engagement in learning situations.
While not all scholars are embracing "edutainment" models as effective teaching pedagogy, it is challenging to argue that such practices do not generate engagement and thus present students with relevance for their education. If it is something as small as finding clever opportunities to integrate TV, movies, or pop culture into lesson plans (Masters), teachers and trainers can connect the new generation of students with relevant media which in turn will promote engagement. The connection between engagement and relevance is not a fad in educational research. A research team concluded at the end of a study, "Drawing connections between information taught and real life—such as everyday life, social issues, and personal concerns of the age group of students—is highly effective in engaging students in the lesson"(Heller et al.). A different study focused on struggling teens found that regression analyses show "students who found coursework personally relevant had increased engagement . . . Importantly, this relationship was mediated through intrinsic motivation"(Crumpton & Gregory). Faculty members (parents, leaders, and anyone who is acting in a teaching role) should challenge themselves to reach out to students by regularly incorporating pop culture into their instruction. Maybe an example from a recent movie or. . . possibly posting a weekly career spotlight of someone under 30 who is successful within the field . . . Students will pay attention and be more inspired to learn than ever before (Masters). As mentioned before, never should the focus fall on pop culture as the end goal of learning. When used appropriately in classrooms settings, such media and methods can strengthen the connection between what students are doing as learners, and what they will need to do once they are out of school. As learner's perceptions of that gap closes, and teachers use engaging teaching tools and methods, the relevance of the material goes up along with engagement and another essential attribute: motivation.
2. Relevance Increases Motivation
It is not uncommon to hear unmotivated complaints ringing off the walls of local high schools about math assignments that don't seem to have a purpose or whining that an English teacher required a useless paper. Perhaps these murmerings are characteristic of young people and will always exist. However, no matter how much one might want to yell at the teens to 'get over it and just do your homework', science explains, “motivation is fundamental to learning” (Hinton, Miyamoto, & Della-Chiesa). Thus, regardless of how the teacher, administrator, parent, political leader, or coach views the material that must be taught, no real learning will occur without motivation in the student. What is the general current state of students and learning? One scholar reports, "Adolescents complain that they are more interested in and learn more from their own explorations with the media and the Internet outside of school than they learn in their content classes" (Magnifico). Currently the topic of the Internet and learning is one of the most hotly discussed issues in education, the implications are in many ways hard to evaluate at this point. However, it is clear that students struggle to find motivation or even relevance in conventional classrooms when they feel like they can learn what interests them on the Internet. Part of the solution is using tools that learners are interested in (such as new media, TV, or the Internet). In addition, teachers can use relevant problem-based methods and help students keep a growth mindset. Focusing on these three things will unlock the door to motivation and enable vast amounts of student learning to flow through it.
As mentioned already, students' motivation often plummets in classrooms because they would rather use their own media or "digital texts, such as websites, television programs, video games, and trade books. However, identifying the appealing elements of these alternative texts could assist teachers in designing instructional activities that are relevant to and motivating for today’s students" (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood). This doesn't necessarily mean teachers should be embracing every electronic device and allowing students to play around every class period; the emphasis should be on the motivation and relevance that come when students use tools they are familiar with. One math teacher found he was constantly pushing up against this very issue. He explains, "I have found myself bemoaning the fact that students spend more time on their game consoles than on their math homework." It seemed that no matter what he did, students would always choose their electronic hobbies over his assignments. However, the math teacher later realized that this could be a strength in his classroom if he focused it correctly. He continues, "Today’s students are part of a gaming generation that possesses a new set of skills on which teachers can capitalize" (Gasser). In his article Gasser discusses his use of creative problem solving, relevant math problems (such as determining the appropriate car that has the best gas mileage when given a set of different numbers), and the use of problem-based instruction. This final method of teaching deserves more attention.
At the beginning of this paper a quote by Ruth Colvin Clark illustrated the popularity of problem-based teaching in medical schools because students saw the relevance of the material to what they would be doing as a profession. This model can also be effective for other students whether in math, writing, science, or a variety of other subjects. By creating a problem that is believable (or realistic to the student approaching it) and relevant, students will not only engage with learning--their motivation will increase. Thus the question of how to design motivating instruction has an answer, like this one provided by Guzzetti: "Instructional strategies such as small-group discussions to solve a problem or predict an outcome allow for giving and getting different perspectives to consider and evaluate and promote critical inquiry. These approaches allow students to be at the forefront of their own learning and become dominant in the teaching-learning process" (Guzzetti). While problem-based learning methods are not always the best, researches have found that student's motivation and learning go up. Perhaps it is more than just motivation, but also the presence of relevance that influence these methods.
However, even with strong relevance, motivation can often be swept aside when learners see themselves as failures or "not smart" and they refuse to approach a subject. Gasser faced such issues in his math classroom, finding that often students lost motivation and interest in the materials because they just were not good at math. He stated, "We need to produce a climate where failure is viewed as an experience from which to learn and not one of which to be ashamed. Creating such an atmosphere is not easy, especially with students who have been raised in a culture of competitiveness"(Gasser). His comments are revealing about the society learners are submerged in and how that affects the acquistion of knowledge. Carol Dweck, a professor at Stanford who has studied this perspective of failure that Gasser saw in his classroom wrote a whole book about the concept (Dweck). Because his book focuses exclusively on motivation, Daniel Pink provides an excellent overview of Dweck's findings on perspectives of failure: "If you believe intelligence is a fixed quantity, then every educational and professional encounter becomes a measure of how much you have. If you believe intelligence is something you can increase, then the same encounters become opportunities for growth. In one view, intelligence is something you demonstrate; in the other, it's something you develop" (121). In short, many see themselves at a certain level of intelligence, and they feel that no matter what they do they will not be able to increase it. This "fixed mindset" is the thorn in the flesh of relevant and motivating learning structures in today's society. If nothing is done about it, relevant material that is both engaging and motivating has no influence on the lives of the learner. In the end it is the person who fills the role as teacher--be that parent, leader, friend, or classroom teacher--who can assist the learner to open their mind and heart--a "growth mindset"--to the relevant material before them. In order to generate such a mindset, however, students need teachers that care deeply--even to the point of becoming a "servant leader."
3. Teachers who Make Relevance a Priority Are Good Hosts & Servant Leaders
This argument focuses primarily on the role of relevance in education. Engagement and motivation are natural and important stems of relevance when addressing learning in formal situations. In addressing the role of the teacher, little has been said about the actual practices the teacher must use to ensure that relevance is a priority. How can teachers prioritize relevancy in the classroom? This important question is essential to be answered by every professional instructor, but will not be answered in detail in this paper. Rather, we will look at a few broad ways that people who fill the roles as teachers can do this. While years of discussion, experience, and wisdom are behind these issues, this article merely seeks after a few meaningful traits that instructors can adopt to encourage relevance in learning. Among these qualities are two specific attributes: teachers can strive to make learners comfortable by being a good host, and they can become what Robert Greenleaf calls a "servant leader."
The first of the qualities that can assist teachers is to be a good host. This may sound somewhat out of place, especially when the fact is that usually the term "host" refers to "a person who receives or entertains guests at home or elsewhere" (Host). However, when trying to interact and influence people, young or old, it is important to receive them in a way they feel comfortable and can open themselves up for learning. Clark encourages, "Promote deeper learning by speaking in a conversational manner using first and second person and polite phrases" (117). If students are frightened, disrespectful, angry, or confused when interacting with the teacher, then there is little chance that teacher can assist in the learning process of the student. This concept applies to settings other than a conventional classroom. This hosting idea spans all teaching "jobs" such as parenting, coaching, or leadership of any kind. With e-learning and video conferencing, hosting should still have a presence. Clark is very clear that "When communicating instructional content in texts, on computer, or in the classroom, adopt hosting techniques by using appropriate social cues that make you accessible to your learners" (119).
The second quality that can assist teachers in creating environments of relevancy is by striving to become what Robert Greenleaf calls a "servant leader." These two seemingly disagreeing terms make up a dichotomous title of what learners need in order to be willing to engage and learn relevant materials. What is a servant leader? Greenleaf explains in his book Servant Leadership, “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant—first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served" (13). It is the natural instinct of most people to abuse power once they have it. Teachers become the de facto leaders by the fact that they have knowledge their students do not. When the very first priority for that teacher is to communicate their wisdom successfully to the learner, then they become servant leaders. They choose not to lead or teach for compensation, title, reward, or status, but for the benefit and well-being of those they care for. Throughout history, teaching as a profession has been known for this sort of mentality, and it must continue to be that way. It is important, even in these times of harsh teacher evaluations and reforms (as mentioned in the introduction to this paper), that the profession and identity of teaching be grounded in servant leadership. An article published in Educational Leadership magazine that highlights quotations from students who had positive experiences with servant leader-like teachers. Brittany, a five year old from Michigan talked about an opportunity she learned from. The subtle guidance and teaching from a loving instructor can be observed when reading the following statement.
Helping out with the younger kids and teaching them to read made me feel good because I could tell that us bigger kids were making them more comfortable than when they went with the adults. I remembered how stressful it can get to not know how to pronounce words or letters. After we had been working for a couple of days, they were getting the hang of it. They finally whizzed through a whole little five-page book, and we all got so excited. I would never have thought in a million years that I would help someone do something as special as that. I will never forget that moment. ("What Students Want")
This example is one of untold millions, and these kinds of stories must continue or else students will not be affected by relevant material--even if it is motivating or engaging. Several studies have found that students who noted that their teachers were supportive and cared about their success were more likely to be engaged in the classroom and perform well academically (Heller et al.; Akey). While supportiveness and care can be challenging to monitor and evaluate, it should be understood that these qualities of servant leadership are a part of the key attributes teachers ought to be striving for. Greenleaf, aware that these ideals are no quick fix or simple answer explained, "At its core, servant-leadership is a long-term, transformational approach to life and work—in essence, a way of being—that has the potential for creating positive change throughout our society" (Greenleaf, "Servant Leadership Within" 16). Students need not only relevant course materials and exciting content, but parents and teachers, leaders and guides, who feel the student is relevant to society and the future of this planet. Learners of all types need instructors who are good hosts in the classroom, and lead by serving in both example and attention to the potential of the student.
This argument approached a wide variety of issues, practices, and subjects that are connected to the educational process. Though many concepts were explored, there is a large need for further research. Health education researchers summarized this need at the end of a particularly detailed study concerning active and passive learning strategies in large group settings, "While both educational theory and common sense argue that active learning strategies should lead to improved learning outcomes over traditional didactic lectures, experimental data directly comparing active to didactic teaching strategies using the same content and learners are scarce" (Haidet et al). There is a need to further investigate the methods of teachers who engage students with tools such as social media and the Internet, as well as the academic impact of students that are more motivated to learn than others. Relevance has been--and will continue to be--an important quality to understand and promote in learning centers around the world. While the research has room to improve the academic understanding of how relevance helps learning, methods of appreciative inquiry (AI) act as guideposts for educators as the field of learning is molded by the revolutionizing wheel of the information age.
In their anecdotal, yet heavily researched-based book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath explain a process of appreciative inquiry that leads to the saving of countless lives. They relate the tale of Jerry Sternin, a man who is sent to Vietnam on a shoestring budget in 1990 to solve the problem of malnutrition and starvation among children (27). At first feeling overwhelmed, Sternin was clueless as to how he should proceed. After questioning the villagers for data and visiting their homes he realized it would be impossible with the time and money he had, to go about the whole process in ways previous experts had attempted. Like the field of education, there were simply too many reasons that things could go wrong so children were not getting the nourishment needed. Sternin finally came to the conclusion to look for what was working, and what families were getting all the necessary vitamins. He began asking to see those families that had children who were not lacking the essential sustenance or contracting disease. This method of AI, focusing on the solution rather than the problem, led to a few small and simple adjustments that increased the level of health in the region dramatically. Positive psychology methods such as the one Sternin used in Vietnam have been followed in countless other venues across the world, and it is time to bring such practices to the schools and houses of learning in the United States. It is so easy to focus on all the possible reasons America's schools are not performing. These causes are the focus of many political debates, the topic of blasting press articles, and the theme of documentary films. "But as one top executive summarized, 'If you focus on (an organization's) weaknesses, (it will) lose confidence.' At a very basic level, it is hard for us to build self-confidence when we are focused on our weaknesses instead of our strengths" (Rath). So it is with education. The more we focus on the bad, the more challenging issues we will have to "fix". Thus further research in regards to relevance and how it promotes engagement, motivation, and shaping teachers to become hosts as well as servant leaders, is necessary. Better understanding the role of the fourth R of education can change the course of America's learning system, especially when looking to those that are already doing it and replicating their successful examples to the best of our ability in every kind of classroom possible.
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