Relevant or relate to?

Harry Webb, one of the many on Twitter with brains the size of small planets has asked me to clarify what I mean by wanting to use the phrase ‘relate to’ rather than the more conventional ‘relevant’.

When I was trained and started teaching there was a strong impetus to make the curriculum relevant. To make sure that we tied what was taught to the relevance in children’s lives. At first this seemed utterly fine an sensible.

I began my teaching in a grammar school in Jersey. Idyllic or what! As a physics teacher having very able students was a real pleasure. Physics is difficult and mathematically challenging and bright kids did really well. But some bright children did not continue with physics past year 9. We used the Nuffield Physics syllabus which taught me so much more about physics than I had ever thought was possible. I loved teaching it. Discovery learning was its mantra and because the children I taught were bright it inevitably worked. I know it will not work with less bright and also the bright could have been even more advanced by a different teaching process. I did have some thoughts about those that chose not to continue with physics past year 9 as they, it seemed to me, had gained little from their three years of secondary level study of the subject.

I then moved back to the mainland and taught in Surrey. Bright kids again but in a comprehensive. Lots more who could not really cope or did not want to continue with physics. I thought about the relevance to some of those children who did not continue with the subject I loved teaching. Was it that the content was not relevant to them? Was the content relevant to those who continued with the subject? How much of my degree content was still relevant to me even in my job as a physics teacher?

Relevant just did not seem to do it. How could the oil drop experiment or colliding trolleys be relevant for more than a tiny number of children? And for those who went into a science job so much of what they had been taught was going to be irrelevant. We could not predict which bits were relevant and which bits were not.

Then, as part of my work with an examination board, we were looking at paring down the physics curriculum. One of the teachers suggested we remove the section on waves. I and another teacher on the panel almost exploded in his face. Waves were THE critical feature of physics. It would not be physics without the study of waves. Waves stayed in but the comments from teacher who wanted waves removed remained with me. He was no fool and his argument was that for the majority of children who would be taking the exam further study of physics was unlikely. He argued that we should be catering for the majority, many of whom did not and would not see the purpose, or relevance, of studying waves as part of their physics course. He was arguing that subject related relevance was not the only feature that would decide a programme of study.

I then re-thought how it was that children were engaged by the subject content. It was not by the relevance of the material. It could not be as they would not see the relevance of waves until they went further with the subject, possibly not until they were at first degree level. That was a very tiny fraction of the number that had started physics in year 7.

While one does need subject purity to allow for further study it would be possible to catch up on any content that was missed from study up to GCSE at A level or beyond. So how was relevance the feature that decided what the curriculum contained?

I then started to realise that it was how children could relate to the content that mattered. How well they found the content affected them now rather than how it might affect them in the future. The content was better defined by how it could be adapted to allow learners to engage with the material than for some vague future relevance. There is loads of physics that we do not study at GCSE. Why do we choose some rather that other? Quite a compromise!

Because we cannot know what will be relevant for a particular child relevance does not seem to me to be a the best way to decide what to teach. Relate is not much better as we don’t really know what all children will relate to but, for me, the other element is the ability of the teacher to choose the particular exemplars which can enthuse a child. For example if I teach speed using dynamics trolleys, and many physics teachers will, then the further examples I can choose will be chosen, by me, on the basis of what I think children will relate to. I can use elephants on roller skates, cars, billiard balls, a baby push chair and a myriad of other contexts. Variety so that each has a chance to relate.

Just for Harry – Relevant is nothing like relate to. Relevance means that learning must be relevant to the learner’s current social and class background. So if relevance was driving the lesson planning then one would not study 19th century novels as the truths they contain would not be relevant to a working class child.

Relate to is my invention which just says we should create learning activities that a child can latch onto. Enjoy is a bit off the beam for this but can do and will be willing to do is closer, but not exactly.

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