Last week, I proposed that there is a pre-requisite for the successful utilization of The Relevancy Triad © (or any meaningful initiative, for that matter.) That prerequisite is the clear-eyed attention that must be paid to creating and protecting a culture of community, a community with a laser focus on authentic and significant learning for all students.
In this article we begin our examination of The Relevancy Triad ©, a contextual approach to assure that students receive an education that they find relevant: relevant to their interests, relevant to their aspirations and relevant to their personal stories, their experience, their cultural perspective. These deeply personal and individual experiences, comprising prior learning, are the foundation of the first third of our triad, the A/B line on the figure below.
Consider what a typical five year child brings with him or her as they enter kindergarten. They bring five years of life: five birthdays, relationships with family members and extended families, perhaps siblings. They are playground champions. They may be the children of immigrants, or have recently arrived in our community. Many will speak non-English languages in their homes. Some will enjoy traditions that are divergent from the norm due to their cultural traditions. Some will have experienced poverty, while others will have known what living in a middle class or upper middle class environment affords them. A number of them will have travelled to all manner of places, while others will only know the geography of the block they reside in. Some of their stories are full of joy and happy experiences. But, that won't be the experience of all. However, they each have one thing in common. They're five and they bring five years of experience that is uniquely their own.
Fast forward through the subsequent years that define the K-12 continuum. Every year adds new experiences, whether good or unfortunate, to the perspectives that define the personal arsenal of each of our students. What they observe, experience, endure, celebrate on a daily basis begins to define them. It is this compilation of life experience that shapes what they believe, influences their perspectives and defines their biases. Drop by drop, experience by experience, the unique vessel that each of them occupies fills. What an amazing and miraculous thing!
Along with their experience, children of all ages bring their curiosity with them to the school house. Their experiences allow them to construct what they wonder about. As they attempt to make sense of their world, and the broader world they increasingly are exposed to, they develop questions, curiosities, that occupy their day dreams and doodle time. They also are enormously creative. Children are born as creative beings! Not all of them will achieve notoriety for their creative achievements. Most won't. But nonetheless, children are inherently creative and would eagerly apply their creativity in addressing their unanswered questions.
Imagine yourself preparing for a lengthy and exciting journey. It is an adventure that you have been longing for. Finally, it's your turn to experience and explore this right of passage, this trajectory from childhood to adulthood. You don't know exactly what to expect, but you anticipate something wonderful will occur as you prepare for this journey with bright-eyed enthusiasm. Because of your uncertainly and the fact that this adventure has a veiled itinerary, you pack carefully. "What will I need? What should I bring along that I can count on and will serve me well whatever might come my way? What can I bring that I might share with others as we experience this together?" You set about gathering your most precious things and make certain they will fit in your suitcase. You gather your memories, along with a treasured childhood toy. You assemble your emerging values, your beliefs and your cultural traditions. You gather your experiences and tuck them next to your trusted tools and devices. Satisfied that the contents you have selected will support you on this journey, you sit on the lid and force the latch to engage. And then, proudly, you carry this with you as you take your first step on this path only to be told: "Leave your suitcase at the door. You won't need it here. We have everything you need." Trusting as you are, you comply. You leave yourself, those things that define you, at the door.
Students enter our system along the A/B line of my diagram and almost immediately encounter the harsh reality of what they will experience once they begin to navigate the B/C line - the content that comprises our current standardized system of public instruction. When they arrive at this point, their prior experience, their A/B perspectives and potential contributions, cease to be important. Seemingly, if not a bit arrogantly, the system quietly suggests that it knows best. The system will prescribe what students need to know and what they need to be curious about. The system's preference to a prescribed curriculum subtly, but surely, diminishes the student's personal curiosity and the application of their creative instincts to seek answers to their questions. As students move through the system over the progression of time, the student experience increasingly feels impersonal. The experience is diminished. It lacks relevance.
Sadly, this experience of packing "who I am" to bring along, and the predictable invalidation of what you bring, is often an annual occurrence. Ever hopeful and trusting (as children are), this repeated exercise may allow indifference and cynicism to creep in. With each rejection, the instructional experience becomes increasing irrelevant. Student interest and their willingness to engage begins to wane.
It needn't be this way!
Written primarily for a business context rather than an educational one, I treasure the quote by Stephen Covey in his blockbuster The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit five is "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Take a moment to ruminate on this statement. As you do so, consider its possible implications within the mysterious enterprise called teaching and learning. What if a classroom teacher's first order of business was to know who her charges are and to intentionally craft opportunities to use their unique gifts in support of instruction, rather that designing instruction in spite of their experiences? What if classroom practitioners utilize the following questions, ones I originally posed in my August 27th post, Getting to Know You ? Whether by conversation, classroom warm up activities or writing prompts, student responses to these simple questions will go a long way in allowing the creation of personalized, relevant, learning activities.
1) What is one thing you are really good at outside of school?
2) What is your best subject in school?
3) What accomplishment in your life are you most proud of?
4) What do you want to be remembered for?
5) What are you best at in school or outside of school?
6) How do you feel when you are successful at something?
To these, I would now add a seventh question: "What are you curious about?"
Allowing, and promoting, student voice is an essential component of the Relevance Triad ©. It cannot happen without understanding, hearing, honoring and incorporating the unique and personal experiences and perspectives of students. The journey they are undertaking is their education. It should be an experience that truly matters to them. It must not be limited exclusively to how the system defines what their experience should be.