What is relevance?

This post is inspired by a post on Reddit by therelevantclassroom (/u/gw225)

Relevance is one of those nebulous things that’s hard to nail down, kind of like “rigor”. What’s “relevant” to you or I (say, the killer guitar solo in Bohemian Rhapsody, for example) isn’t necessarily “relevant” to our students. We all connect to different things. And even if we connect to the same things, we might connect to them differently (I’m mesmerized by Freddie Mercury’s pipes, while a student might think “sweet mustache”).

Despite its mystique, relevance is hugely important to teachers. Is what we’re teaching relevant – both to our students and in the modern world? As somebody who teaches a few concert bands, the question of relevance is something that I struggle with on a daily basis. Are my kids connecting to the material? How does the concert band fit into the modern world?

The concept of relevance discussed in the aforementioned blog post is defined by the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham. Professor Willingham’s description of relevance in education led to this statement “If I’m continually trying to build bridges between student’s daily lives and their school subjects…” Based on that, it seems that Willingham sees “relevance” as analogous to “connecting a student’s school world to their outside world”.

That’s but one facet of relevance in education. Yes, when I’m teaching students about the harmonic minor scale, I might mention that Led Zeppelin uses it in the opening bars of Immigrant Song, or that Maynard James Keenan uses it in the vocal melody of Tool’s Schism. That’s me utilizing that facet of relevance, so my students can see that they’ve already had some exposure to a “new” concept.

But there’s another, bigger part of relevance. Something that the students might not even be aware of until well after they’ve left your classroom. I’m talking about the long-term skills and abilities we hope to develop in our students, things that will be with them much longer than we will.

The last math class I took was in my junior year of high school, 2002-2003. I’d finished up my required math credits, and decided to fill the empty slot in my schedule with an independent study in music theory because how the hell is delving deeper into trigonometry or calculus going to help me be a music teacher?

Well, flash forward a few years to my sophomore year of college. Thanks to some courses in the College of Education, I was starting to develop a slight understanding of what my math teachers were trying to do all those years. I wasn’t solving for x, or figuring out the length of a hypotenuse based on some angles and possibly witchcraft, because I needed to know how to do those specific things. My old teachers probably would not be too upset to realize that I couldn’t do a geometric proof to save my life at this point.

What I can do is figure out how to solve problems.

Working through those math problems back in the early 2000s gave me a blueprint for logical thinking and problem solving. These skills helped me work out the harmonic analysis of a Chopin etude during my sophomore music theory class, and I still use them every day when trying to figure out the unique problems that arise in a middle school music classroom.

Suddenly math seems very relevant.

There’s the thing that I would add to Willingham’s concept of relevance. Yeah, using things from the modern world as a tool to reinforce concepts is all well and good if done thoughtfully. But the really important part of relevance is what sticks. Are the skills my students are developing going to be with them long after they’ve forgotten how to play a low E-natural on their clarinet? Will my students still have an understanding of music after they’ve played their last paradiddle?

I certainly hope so.