Experience has shown, and a true philosophy will always show, that a vast, perhaps the larger, portion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

A few days ago I wrote this post about how we might make learning more durable. In it, I wrote about the importance of relevance and said of my experience of attending a speed awareness course that it “pertained to my everyday experience of driving a car as well as my experience of running the risk of a fine and a driving ban.” I went on to say,

Clearly, we can’t create or rely on this kind of relevance for every classroom lesson; not everything we teach can or should be reduced to the limited life experiences of school children.

Curiously, this was interpreted as meaning that I thought that academic study ought to be limited to children’s life experiences. In case this is in any way unclear, that is not what I mean. I do understand the confusion though. In education, relevance has come to mean ‘relevant to students’ interests’. This results in the kind of thinking which goes, the World Cup is on so we all need to teach World Cup themed lessons. Or, Grand Theft Auto Six is out soon, how do I work that into my RE lesson? Clearly, this is incredibly limiting.
Maybe truth, beauty and a larger, more complete understanding of the world can arise, as Poe puts it “from the seemingly irrelevant”. My view is that school should be about things beyond students’ experience; we should deliberately seek to enrich their lives with knowledge and thoughts they might not choose to seek out independently. I’m defining relevance as “the concept of one topic being connected to another topic in a way that makes it useful to consider the first topic when thinking about the second.” If information is relevant to the completion of a task in which we are engaged, it is more likely to increase the likelihood of accomplishing our goals. So, for instance, I write about education for an intended audience of teachers. Because you teach I expect that you’ll find at least some of what I say relevant. If I started writing about dentistry you might say, Hey! This isn’t relevant! Why’s he banging on about premolars? Teeth, important as they are in many areas of life, aren’t directly relevant either to the task of reading about education or your goal of being a better teacher (or whatever your goal might be.)
Robin Robertson, writing for the Psychology Teacher Network defines relevance as “the perception that something is interesting and worth knowing.” I like this. As teachers, our job – or at least part of our job – is to make what we teach seem interesting and worth knowing. This is easier said than done with some students and some subjects, but we should certainly attempt to communicate our fascination with the content of our own lessons. Simply saying, “It’s in the exam,” really isn’t good enough. This, to me, suggests a real need for more expert subject knowledge – the more we know and understand about the way our subject connects together the better we’ll be able to communicate the utility and inherent interest in what we teach.
When we’re able to see how what we know connects to what we’re learning about, it becomes relevant. And if it’s relevant, we’re much more likely to learn it.