Thoughts on Relevance: How much relevance is relevant?

I was reminded of this old Out In Left Field post when hearing about a poor grade an autistic student earned for the “personal connections” response he made to a Harry Potter book. His response went something like:

I never drank polyjuice potion before. I never did magic before. I liked that chapter because Harry and Ron realized that Draco Malfoy is not the heir of Slytherin. 

His teacher’s comment to the parent:  

Maybe your son should find a book that he can make connections with to make the reflection section more meaningful.

It would seem that only neurotypical notions of personal relevance pass muster.

(This is the kind of problem that the neurodiversity world should be focusing on–as opposed to whether we should use terms like “severe autism” and “has autism”).

Autism aside, there’s the question of whether students in general really prefer to harp on questions of personal relevance, as opposed to being transported far away from their personal lives.

Thoughts on Relevance: How much relevance is relevant?

to learning, that is?

Today’s educators tell us that students learn best from material that relates to their personal lives. But has anyone bothered to ask students how they feel?

If anyone had asked me how I felt when I was a student, I would have replied that quite often I prefer the exotic and abstract to the personally relevant.

In English/Language Arts, this meant fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction.

In social studies, faraway times and places.

In science, cosmology and the intricacies of cell life and natural selection.

And in math, base 8, formal proofs (what made 9th grade Geometry so refreshing), and polar coordinates.

Often, the further removed from family, community, peers, current events, and “all about me” the better.

My favorite teachers weren’t those who showed how everything related back to daily life and current events, but those who knew how to guide us to the most exotic nuggets and help to make them crystal clear.

They made things personally relevant in the best sense: not by making us relate them back to ourselves, but by helping us care enough about them, and understand them deeply enough, that we made them a part of ourselves.

Isn’t the best teacher, after all, one who helps our minds expand to embrace new material, rather than one who limits new material to what he/she thinks our current minds can personally relate to?

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