Increasing Relevance in Learning

I was a participant in the 2018 Massachusetts Superintendent Executive Institute (@massupt ,#MASSUPTEI18) and one of the Keynote sessions focused relevance relating to teaching and learning. The keynote speaker, Scott McLeod (@mcleod ), dove deep into the topic talking about a “relevance gap” in today’s schools and asked us to reflect on our own work and practices. I had some great discussions with two district leaders around the topic and wrote a blog around examples of content creation in classroom. Click here to read it.

After posting, my thinking was pushed (in a good way) by Sylvia Ellison‏ @SylviaEllison who asked “how do you determine what is relevant?” So, I dove into that question.

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 9.50.26 PM

I believe students need to feel what they are being taught has a purpose in their lives. Therefore, it is our job as educators to make lessons relevant. Relevant, meaningful activities that both engage students emotionally and connect with what they already know are what helps build connections and retention of a taught skill. A lists of vocabulary words that don’t have personal relevance or done because that is “what’s next” in the scope and sequence or “seasonal words” will quickly be forgotten after the “spelling text”.

When planning a lesson, I encourage all teachers to think about the connections students will be able to make.  Ask yourself these questions in your planning of a lesson.

  • Do I know my students’ experiences and how can they bring them to this lesson?
  • Will my students know why this topic is important or lesson goal?
  • Will students be able to relate topic to their real world?
  • Can students be critical of the information, or will they agree without further questioning because it is not relevant?
  • Will my students be genuinely curious about this topic? Will they think about this when they leave class?

Connecting learning to students’ lives and what they already know increases the intrinsic motivation and excitement for a topic. When there is no reference point and no intrigue in learning, content will quickly be forgotten. Below are a few other ideas on how to plan lessons keeping “relevance” in learning alive.

Hands-On Learning

When students are part of the learning, can physically handle lesson materials, and conduct experiments, their learning is enriched. This is not just for elementary learners, sadly, older students are getting fewer opportunities and that trend should change. Many students are kinesthetic learners, and having an increase in hands-on learning will help them retain content. Try to include specific hands-on learning situations as often as you can in lessons.

 Institute Project Based Learning

Once you have introduced a hands-on learning culture, you can move into project-based learning. PBL instructional methods start with a real-world problem in mind. Students are given a question or task that they need to complete. It is even better if the task is done in groups to enhance collaboration. The best projects are multi-layered and include opportunities for research, community involvement, and the creation of a product to allow for independence. This instructional structure will challenge students to create and be motivating to dive into and insert their lens on learning. PBL will provide opportunities to learn from their own mistakes during creation and prototyping.

 Having student create their own products through PBL or answer/solve a real-world problem provides students intrinsic incentives to achieve. This work will also provide increased opportunities for students to display or publish work. This motivation could go even further and encourage students to participate in contests and competitions outside of school in academic events or writing communities.

Student directed learning

Giving students a choice in products or even on a lesson topic will assist in measuring relevancy. If students are not interested in a topic, more often than not – it is not relevant. Yes, 1400 history may not be immediately relevant to students, however you can add suspense to learning because student like to learn something they find interesting. You can drop hints about a new learning unit before you reveal what it might be when you feel it is not the most exciting. As the teacher, you can create movie trailers or insert dramatic pauses to add to the suspense and activate emotional signals and keep student interest. Then put it on them to create a real-world product that parallels something from history.

Field Trips

One of the most effective ways to make learning relevant and add real-world content into lessons is to take your students on a field trip. Unfortunately, I have seen too many field trips “just to take them” or “we always go here”.  To make a field trip a relevant event a teacher must ensure there is cross-connection to what the students are currently learning in the classroom, to where the field trip will take place. Then, how will the learning come back to school and be used in deeper learning activities.  For example, if you are reading Charlotte’s Web, take a trip to a farm or State Fair to see the book content in action.

Guest Speakers

A great way to teach students that what they are learning in the classroom is relevant outside of the classroom is to bring in a guest speaker. A big unit theme when I was teaching was “The Community”. I know I could not talk about the role of a fireman or other community leaders as well as the actual individuals doing those jobs daily.  So why not have them come in. Guest speakers help students understand that someone from the real-world is in fact utilizing the knowledge that they have from school and using it in their own profession. It’s also a great way to show students a different point of view, other than your own.  I also love being a guest speaker, so if you are teaching something you feel I can add to your class, feel free to send an invite.

Without relevance, students may not understand how important the concepts they are learning in the classroom really are. By making learning more relevant and meaningful, we are therefore connecting what students are currently learning inside of the classroom to what is outside in the world. This video (click here) was also part of the event and show how relevance leads to motivation then leads to student creation. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: