Students are more engaged in learning when they see the relevance. This obvious news is the headline from a new report, Motivation and Engagement in Student Assignments and released by The Education Trust. The report cites research that student engagement is worth pursuing since engaged students tend to perform better, which is very obvious to any teacher. Moving beyond the obvious conclusion, the report recommends ways educators can add relevance to increase students' motivation and engagement in school assignment.
The importance of relevance to learning is certainly not new to CTE teachers. For our profession sees many students who find their way to CTE are decidedly more interested and motivated in their learning than non-CTE peers. High-quality CTE is naturally relevant with hands-on projects and real-world problems. In CTE, students can see the purpose of learning and have direct opportunities to apply new knowledge or skills. Bill Daggett founder of the Successful Practices Network introduced the Rigor/Relevance Framework 25 years ago. Many have recognized for many years the essential ingredient of relevance to improving student learning.
While emphasizing the importance of relevance in the Education Trust reports is not news. The report does offer three useful distinguishing characteristics for teachers to add relevance to instruction. Teachers bring relevancy to assignments when they do the following:
- Teach rigorous content using themes across disciplines, cultures, and generations; consider essential questions, and explore universal understandings.
- Use real-world materials and events to explore poignant topics.
- Connect with their students' values, interests, and goals.
These suggestions are sound and remind us that relevance is not only real-world projects but “big ideas” such as ethics or individual freedom vs. responsibility. These big ideas do not fall within one subject but are cross-disciplinary. CTE teachers must work collaboratively with all subject areas to ensure learning reinforces relevant “big ideas.” The third type of relevance is making instruction more personal. A lesson may seem relevant to a teacher, but unless learning connects to the student's world, it does not seem relevant nor engaging to the student. By getting to know students and learning their interests, all teachers need to work to adapt instruction to make it personally relevant.
A good example is a culinary teacher that, during the term of a class, has students select a favorite family recipe. Then the class the scales the recipe and create that dish for one of the large catered functions. The whole class takes pride in sharing a piece of family culture in a personally relevant and engaging lesson.
It seems that other educators are finally catching on to the importance of relevance. This is an opportunity for CTE teachers. When academic teachers struggle to create lesson ideas to contextualize a Math or English Language Arts lesson, they often need only chat with the CTE teacher for innovative and engaging ideas. CTE teachers need to engage in school-wide conversations on relevance, sharing the decades of experience in real-world engaging lessons. The objective of CTE and integration of academics needs to continue to build stronger bonds of collaboration to help make all instruction more relevant. The final thought is a reminder that even CTE teachers need to continually reflect on ways to connect CTE instruction with students’ values, interests, and goals. Adding relevance is an ongoing effort, even in the best of CTE programs.