THE NEW RELEVANCE

June 6, 2017
 
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director
(This post originally appeared in the ICG’s June 2017 newsletter.)

When I was in college nearly 50 years ago and when I started teaching a few years later, “relevance” was the hip byword, but I have to say that relevance matters even more nowadays. Relevant in 1970 meant “familiar and connected to my own experience”—all about ME and how I am feeling about things—but today there is a new relevance, something far deeper and more critical—and far less about ourselves.

Our world’s a mess, and we have been doing an increasingly good job of making students aware of this, even if our pop-culture consumer society has offered them the handy drug of materialism to numb the harshest realities. But I believe that we are currently witnessing, sometimes against a backdrop of bigotry and insensitivity, a new birth of caring, empathy, and desire to become involved.

Most students, I think, are more or less ready and even happy to engage with the world and its problems, which is why environmental clubs and service learning programs and international trips just keep growing, even when college admissions officers tell us they roll their eyes at such things. It’s also why schools have lately been brought up hard against their own students’ expectations for inclusivity and social justice. Kids want to make a difference, they want to be relevant, and they want their learning to be relevant. For today’s young people relevance is about building connections between their ideals and dreams and the world’s challenges—figuring out what they can actually do about the mess. Relevance in their education is learning more about the mess and how the skills, content, and understandings they gain in the classroom can help them play a role in the clean-up.

Unfortunately, relevance is often understood to be one half of a dichotomy whose other side is “academic content coverage.” We can blow up the syllabus in an elective, maybe, but we can’t spend too much time on terrorism in AP World History because the exam is looming nor on travel bans in U.S. History because maybe it’s April and we still have World War Two and the Cold War to get through. Teaching compound interest with examples from the mortgage and housing crisis might be a great idea, but it adds a layer of complexity and time. So does looking at the physics, say, of earthquakes, tsunamis, and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) at a time when the human and economic sides of these topics could infuse every classroom minute for an entire school year.

The New Relevance, which is what I call this phenomenon, faces outward. It’s not about our lives and the lives of our students but about the world we’re living in and going to live in, about seeing issues not from one’s own perspective only but from the prospect of being engaged social and political actors. Conservative or liberal, secular or faith-driven, we might all agree that our students will need to know how to act, to do, to judge, to advocate, to lead, and to support on a whole variety of issues that are becoming less remote and more real, more vital, sometimes more frightening, every day.

The New Relevance makes the lens of experiential reality, of engagement, essential to the way we teach—the way we teach everything. In the New Relevance, “depth over breadth” must be the mantra for curriculum in every area. After all, we’ve been reading for a decade that the nations that whip the U.S. in high-profile international tests teach fewer topics in greater depth in the very subject areas in which our schools look most pitiable.

The depth–breadth issue has a human manifestation that is worth thinking about. Tim Brown, head of IDEO and de facto guru of design thinking, is a passionate believer in what he calls the “T-shaped person,” one who has tremendous depth of knowledge and skill (the vertical stroke) and equal breadth (the crossbar) of vision, emotional intelligence, cross-disciplinary understanding, and collaborative capacity. Step back and squint, and you can see the outline of the T-shaped person in the expressed ideals of most mission-driven schools. In the past we have perhaps largely depended on our athletic teams, dorm life, clubs, and spiritual exercises to teach toward the human side of that breadth, but today we ought to be invoking the principles of the New Relevance and “21st-century learning” to embed it firmly in classroom learning, as well.

I also want to say that secondary schools should be energetic in giving colleges a chance to put their money where their mouths are on the New Relevance. This means that we ought not to be afraid to be more experimental in our programming and pedagogy. Ask schools that have done new and different things, and in every case colleges will have voiced enthusiasm not only about the nature of the new student experiences but, more importantly, also about the idea that these experiences will differentiate students when their files are part of a stack of applications. Even more radical changes maybe coming—the work of our Partners in the Mastery Transcript Consortium promises to be epochal—but most of our schools could be finding many more interesting ways to express their missions and values in ways that would make their students look less like products of some prep school cookie cutter.

Students whose educational experiences have been built around the New Relevance in its many manifestations will be as well equipped as anyone on the planet to get us out of this mess. Starting right in our classrooms, let’s students’ their hunger for a better world by intentionally and comprehensively playing our parts in the New Relevance and giving them the tools and skills to build it.

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