Saturday, August 3, 2013

My Existential Moment and Why Teachers "Making It Relevant" in the Classroom Bothers a Cognitive Scientist

Recently I made the discovery that lead me to believe I was completely off track when it comes to how I view education.

Daniel Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, came to BYU campus when I was finishing up my final semester there this spring. He shared some really interesting and refreshing concepts related to the brain and how people learn.

To give you an example of some of the kinds of things he shared check out this interesting and important concept from his book Why Students Don't Like School: 

It is a good book.
Researchers have examined student opinion surveys of their college professors to find out which professors get good ratings and why. A two-item survey would be almost as useful as the thirty-item survey, because all of the questions really boil down to two: Does the professor seem like a nice person, and is the class well organized?" (p. 50)
Although K-12 students don't complete questionnaires about their teachers, we know that more or less the same thing is true for them. The emotional bond between students and teachers --for better or for worse -- accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won't be much good either." (p. 50-51) 

So what do I mean when I say I may be on the wrong track? Well, what is the name of this blog? The Relevant Classroom. Yup. And I talk all about how relevance is so important and we need to turn to popular culture media more often because that is what kids are consuming so we must help them connect their entertainment to the real world. My somewhat idealistic agenda sounds nice, but the problem is it may not only be ineffective--my goal to make everything being taught in the classroom relevant to students could very well be destructive to student learning.


Professor Willingham writes (and I sort of trust him since he does the research and cites it all very clearly): "Trying to make the material relevant to students' interests doesn't work." He goes on to say:
Content is seldom the decisive factor in whether or not our interests is maintained . . . so if content won't do it, how about style? Students often refer to good teachers as those who "make stuff interesting." It's not that the teacher relates the material to students' interests - rather, the teacher has a way of interacting with students that they find engaging. (p. 49-50)
As I read this I experienced a mini rocket ride through the stages of grief. What?! Making material relevant to students' interests doesn't work? How can that be? This guy is nuts. Oh, and yes it turns out he doesn't believe there is such thing really as learning styles, or at least they aren't worth bothering about. I went to my wife and explained that I might have to trash my blog, or at least the title of it, and that basically my whole passion is ruined.

Professor Willingham is a Cognitive
Scientist at the University of Virigina -
and he is a pretty great thinker
But, I decided to keep reading. And came across this more thorough description of Willingham's insights on relevance in education.
"I've always been bothered by the advice 'make it relevant to the students,' for two reasons. First, it often feels to me that it doesn't apply. Is the Epic of Gilgamesh relevant to students in a way that they can understand right now? Is trigonometry? Making these topics relevant to students' lives will be a strain, and students will probably think it's phony. Second, if I can't convince students that some material is relevant, does that mean I shouldn't teach it? If I'm continually trying to build bridges between student's daily lives and their school subjects, the students may get the message that school is always about them, whereas I think  there is value, interest, and beauty in learning about things that don't have much to do with me. I'm not saying it never makes sense to talk about things students are interested in. What I'm suggesting is that student interests shouldn't not be the main driving force of lesson planning. Rather, they might be used as initial points of contact that help students understand the main ideas you want them to consider, rather than as the reason or motivation for them to consider these ideas." (p. 65)
As I read this I thought, "Yes! Exactly." Relevance does have a place, but it is a strategic and limited one. I still think Daniel Pink is right when he says relevance is the 4th R after "reading, writing, and arithmetic," but Willingham's point is valid. If I spend the majority of my time trying to help students see the connection of the Pythagorean theorem or the genus and species of a particular animal in the Mongol desert to their own life rather than on growing their brains and becoming world citizens then what will they remember?
Memory is the residue of thought. To teach well, you should pay careful attention to what an assignment will actually make students think about (not what you hope they will think about), because that is what they will remember. (p. 41)
It turns out that what students spend time thinking about is what they remember. Thus when wielding the tools of relevance, one must consider carefully whether doing so will help students focus more on the skill and objective of the lesson, or simply act as a memory distractor in the future progress of the student. Lesson learned.

So an example of how this concept might play out could be something like the following. Say we are talking about the Civil War in 5th grade. I think to myself, "Oh I want to use popular culture to help the students see the relevance of the war's impact on their lives. I think I will show a clip of Glory with a follow up clip of Gone With The Wind and later a clip of The Help to illustrate the details of the war and the continued impact of segregation and racism in America." Potentially this could be pretty interesting (in my opinion), but there is a huge danger of the students walking away from that only remember that they watched some movie clips and that it was cool to not have to do any work.

Yes, pop culture and media can and should be used. No, it should not cause students to spend time thinking about something outside of the objective set forth in the lesson.

See Professor Willingham's blog or check out his book for more interesting and helpful research that is easy to read and apply.


  1. I think cognitive research has a lot of value, or at least I hope so given the amount of time I spent in college studying cognitive research in education. But having spent as much time studying statistics, I also know the limited value of anything "researchers" have found to be true.

    That being said, I definitely think the primary finding that organization and relational bonds are the defining factors of success in a student's learning is spot on. And based on what I've studied, learning styles don't actually exist, at least not in any empirically meaningful way. But there's a nuance to qualitative data that no matter how much you code or quantify just doesn't measure well. Plus since research is so caught up in probabilities, it's hard to tell how genuinely meaningful it is without various checks to validity.

    So anecdotal evidence that some people are visual thinkers or kinesthetic learners is not irrelevant, but also not in anyway universally true. So as far as relevance goes, I think it's value is most clearly the "hook" we learned about in Institute for the "Why" key points of the INM. And I think a degree of relevance is totally necessary for building that relationship that makes the student have a positive emotional connection to the teacher. But I also agree that students need constant exposure and conditioning to understand the world isn't about them and that some information is critical to future knowledge or application that is slightly beyond their current context.

  2. Very well stated Jacob. It sounds like you have studied much more on this subject, and I am happy to find that I agree with your perspective. Time and time again the word that keeps coming back to me is balance. There needs to be a balance between qualitative and quantitative research, between hooks and content, relationships and order, surface level exposure and deep/intimate level learning. The list could go on to involve any number of things such as politics to cooking, sports to doing well in college! I think this episode I had with cognitive science was a helpful reality check in keeping my educational paradigm well-balanced.

  3. Great to see you willing to consider negative evidence to your theory. However, I would ask it this way, is Willingham arguing for "irrelevant" curriculum? I doubt that. I think he's just saying that you should push learners to consider something other than what they already know. That is probably true but I sure wish some of my math teachers had cared at all about making things more relevant than they were and I might have actually studied what they were talking about instead of just passing their tests and vowing never to get deeper into math than I had to!

    1. That is a good way of putting it Pa, I agree with you that he isn't against relevance at all - but desires a more balanced approach than some folks take. It seems a certain degree of relevance and just pure recognizing the fact that learning is hard (as Tyler Jarvis so eloquently said in his BYU devotional talk) is the middle ground all educators must continue to work for!

  4. Interesting post. I love it when my theories are put to the test, because then I'm forced to re-process why they matter, or if they matter. It sounds like that's what you had to do here. Some thoughts I had while reading your blog post:
    Just because relevance isn't the number one factor that helps students learn doesn't mean it should be discarded—a teacher that cultivates an (appropriate) emotional tie with students AND makes the subjects relevant will likely be more effective than a teacher who doesn't, right?

    And what about using relevance to create a sense of wonder? I don't think I would have grasped the concept of the size of an electron until someone explained to me its size in relation to a football field (that may be a tired comparison, but it was effective the first few times I heard it).

    What about relevance being to other subjects? I've found it helps me get more excited about learning things when I see connections between different things I've learned—such as my biology class using a math principle to calculate the population growth, or a literature selection explaining someone's reaction to a history event. I think relevance can be cultivated between subjects that a student is learning, and that will help them learn better, and see application, even though it's still in the world of school.
    Along those lines, I am interested in nonfiction essay writing, and a main tenant of that genre is finding connections between seemingly unconnected things. That really stretches my brain and gives me many more ways of looking at the same thing.

    So maybe instead of trashing relevance, you may consider adding elements to its meaning?

    1. Great points Rachel! First of all, don't worry about me trashing relevance. I am keeping the name of my blog and I am still passionate about it :) I just have a more balanced perspective now and am grateful for that. I like what you said about using relevance to compare different fields or material - I hadn't thought too much about that and I think that encourages some important synthesis and abstract thinking skills that are essential to deep learning.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing!