High expectations for relevance


Throughout the year, we read a variety of books with the Education Innovation Fellows. This month, the book is Deeper Learning. In the spirit of participating in the learning process, I am sharing my own reflection on the text.

One striking aspect of Deeper Learning is how much the authors, Monica Martinez and Dennis McGrath, highlight the words and work of real teachers, leaders, and students in the schools they profile. The whole book is full of short anecdotes from the individuals doing the hard work of transforming schools, and we, the readers, often get these stories from a close, over-the-shoulder perspective. Reading this, I didn’t need convincing as to whether or not this work was possible—I felt instead that I was hearing from the people who were doing the work. The relevance and purpose of what they are doing to invest and to inspire students, and to reach beyond the walls of their schools feels urgent and vital.

In their concluding chapter, the authors make one of their more forceful claims about the necessity of this work:

If public education does not transform, not only will it become irrelevant, but it will generate more and far-reaching inequality with regard to education and broader life outcomes that have for years been linked to education attainment (p 186).

So many of the stories they tell are fundamentally about that issue of relevance. Education, they argue, must rest on meaningful, relevant connections between students and between students and teachers. The work that students do ought to be relevant to them, to their communities, and to the education and careers they will have beyond their time in K-12.

The question I ask myself, as an education professional and as a parent, is about that connection between relevance and equity. When I choose to accept the irrelevance of what many students are doing in school, then am I simultaneously accepting inequity in the broader life outcomes of students in different communities?

I also appreciate the broad definition of “relevance” that Martinez and McGrath embrace. Rather that narrowing relevance solely to math and reading outcomes, or to college acceptance rates, or to employment opportunities, they broadly conceive of relevant deeper learning as “the capacity for learning how to learn.” They elaborate:

More specifically, Deeper Learning is the process of preparing and empowering students to master essential academic content, think critically and solve complex problems, work collaboratively, communicate effectively, have an academic mindset, and be self-directed in their education (p 3).

This leaves me thinking that if I’m looking for evidence of deeper learning in schools and classrooms, then I, too, have to listen to the students, leaders, and teachers doing transformative work. And if I’m looking for relevance in particular, then I should listen to students and to their families. Because it’s not just teachers who should expect education to feel relevant—students should feel that relevance, and families should expect it. And setting high expectations for relevance is one step toward enabling the transformation the authors describe.

—Andrew Plemmons Pratt
Education Innovation Fellowship