Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Fallacy of Using Relevance or Interest to Improve Learning

There is a line of reasoning in education today that goes something like this:
  1. kids learn better when they are engaged;
  2. kids are more engaged when the subject matter is relevant and/or interesting;
  3. therefore, we should connect or embed stuff that we want kids to learn in stuff that they find relevant or interesting.
This approach certainly makes sense and works to some degree. If the stuff I'm learning is relevant or interesting to me, I will work harder, take more risks, and test my understanding more actively. But trying harder only takes you so far. If the tools and strategies you have at your disposal to learn something aren't working, doing more of the same is unlikely to make much of a difference.

The easiest way to prove my point is with a few counter examples. Let's tackle relevance first. Most people reach a point in their lives where finding a life partner is very relevant to them. So, we all become master daters at that point, right? No. Even though dating seems like an eminently learnable skill and we get plenty of useful feedback while doing it, most of us still suck at it. And I'm not even talking about the finding a life partner part (which we suck at too), I'm talking about the being on a date part: creating a good impression, picking up on cues, listening to the other person, selling yourself, being open and energetic... basic stuff that we should have learned on the playground (but didn't) if relevance was enough.

So how about interest? Many kids are interested in sports or playing an instrument, but how many of us become really good at them? When I was a student teacher, I had a student named Zack who was dedicated to becoming the best basketball player he could. I ran into him on the courts one day and he was practicing dribbling and shooting with his left hand so that his left hand would be as good as his right hand. He did that every day. It struck me because it was so unusual. Most people practice the parts of the game they are already good at. That's what I did. It's why I never did get good at basketball, and it had nothing to do with height (sigh) or a lack of physical talents.

Most people cite video games as an example of something that kids learn and get good at due to interest. The problem with video games is that the tasks are specifically designed so that you can get good at them through perseverance and by doing what you know to do. The game with the most buzz in education circles right now is Minecraft. Kids are learning how to do all kinds of new stuff by studying other players and imitating what they do. This is a tried-and-true strategy when it comes to learning a new game and, if all you care about is getting the kid to pass the next test, it usually works in school, too. But there comes a point where that strategy doesn't work anymore. I hear it all the time as a math teacher: I was good at math until I hit this topic and suddenly everything was over my head. Kids and adults become lost at that point because they don't know what to do next. Think about all of the dedicated sudoku players who plateau, not because their interest plateaued, but because they don't have the skills to take their game to the next level.

I'm not arguing that we should ignore relevance or interest; I'm just saying that they aren't the magic bullets that a lot of people make them out to be. This should be obvious, but isn't. I am far more interested in figuring out the learning skills, strategies, and habits of mind that the kids who get calculus have that the kids who hit a brick wall at that point don't have... and then helping all kids get them. Not because I think that all kids should learn calculus (or any other topic where people seem to hit a brick wall), but because I'm guessing that those things might be good to have for learning all kinds of other stuff, including stuff that kids may even find relevant or interesting.

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