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So, What Did You Learn in School Today ?

This is the predictable question an interested parent will ask their child when they connect at the end of the day. It's a question that may be partially (and innocently) routine, a formality, a conversation starter. It is also a question that might imply a genuine interest in the instructional experience of their son or daughter. I know from my own experience that I would be met with this inquiry every night at the dinner table. The question is important.

More important than the question is the response. Again, based on my experience, as both a student and a parent, the exchange might predictably go something like this.

"So, how was school?"


"What did you learn today?"


"You didn't learn anything today?"

"Not really."

Every parent has experienced this dismaying conversation, particularly if the child is in early adolescence or beyond. The response is probably dismissive; keep your distance from the daily intricacies of my life - I am 15 years old, after all. Again, based on my personal experience, this response could get me off of the hook a majority of the time. It was a stance worthy of the risk of being pressured for a more accurate answer.

What if the answer, "I didn't learn anything", is accurate? What if, in the mind of the learner, their experience did not yield new learning or add to their arsenal of cognitive understanding? Is that possible? Is it plausible? Is it avoidable? Yes, yes and yes.

Everyday, we expose students to a curriculum of content that is devised, and mandated, from a position that is outside of the walls of classrooms. We dictate what students must learn, and what teachers must teach, with little regard to what they would like to learn or the degree of their curiosity relative to the topic at hand. Rarely do we ask "what do you know, or wish you knew?" in designing instruction. The system knows best, and students are subjected to the system's definition of "learning." If that fails to align with the interests, experience or passions of the learner, we may inadvertently stumble into an instructional gap, the gap of relevancy.

My earlier post, Relevance Begins with Why, opened our ongoing conversation of the critical importance of the learner's understanding of why what they are being asked to engage in is important and worthy of their dedicated attention. That post, and this one, focuses on the significance of learner relevance. The curricular topics of study may be important to the system or the teacher. But, are they important or relevant to the learner? Was the experience of engaging with this material compelling and meaningful? The answer to this simple question could be the difference between the evening report of "nothing" and "it was so cool!"

Robin Roberson, in her September 2013 essay in the on-line journal of the American Psychological Association, defines relevance as "the perception that something is interesting and worth knowing." She outlines the measures that teachers often take to create interest - flashy presentations, humor, classroom games. She warns that while students will remember the fun of these strategies, they may not remember, recall or find relevance in the material if it is not substantive or if they fail to grasp that it is indeed worthy of their effort and attention. Commonly, there are two primary ways to support students in the recognition of relevance. First, is the establishment of utility value. This is the antidote for the student musing discussed in a previous post: "When am I ever going to need this?" It is critical to establish that the material to be examined is connected to prior and future learning, and that it is in direct support of both short-term and long range student learning goals. The second value that must be addressed is relatedness. Of these, Roberson writes: "As instructors, one of the most important things we do is provide relevance for students. It gives them a context within which they can develop into engaged, motivated and self-regulated learners. Relatedness is important to students of all ages, while utility value tends to gain importance as students become older and choose classes that will help them choose or achieve their career goals. Relevance is exceptionally important to students who are required to take classes they did not choose, such as general education courses. Relevance can help students realize how useful all knowledge can be. Fulfilling students’ need for relatedness, showing them how seemingly unrelated content fits together and then into their own scheme of things, and giving students real reasons why today’s content will be useful to them later on are all good ways to provide relevance for students."

As I write this, I reflect on my thirteen years of service to children and their families as the principal of a public arts magnet school. We were intentional in our attempts to integrate artistic themes into all content disciplines. Not only did this serve to support the instructional mission of our school, it connected content to the interests, experiences and passions of our students. Taking such a deliberate action created for our learners an avenue of relatedness, an opportunity to discover a measure of meaningful relevance with the concepts and content they were being taught. While the mission of our school was specific and unique, it is not necessarily contrary to the opportunities afforded to every school, every classroom, in every community. Relevance is key to effective learning. Attention must be paid to its existence as a cornerstone of the culture of any, and all, educational settings. Every local entity can, and should, engage in this dialogue. Everyone will benefit. I guarantee it.

So, what if the nightly dinner table conversation was different, influenced by the existence of authentic relevance?

"So, how was school?"

"Great! Awesome!"

"What did you learn today?"

"Where should I begin? There was so much! "

"Well, what sticks out as the most important"

"I'll start with first period. But, the spaghetti may get cold before I finish period three . . . "

Imagine . . . what if?

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