The achievement gap v. the relevance gap

Future Wise, David Perkins

David Perkins said:

What did you learn during your first twelve years of education that matters in your life today?

The achievement gap asks, “Are students achieving X?” whereas the relevance gap asks, “Is X going to matter to the lives learners are likely to live?”

If X is good mastery of reading and writing, both questions earn a big yes! Skilled, fluent, and engaged reading and writing marks both a challenging gap and a high-payoff attainment. That knowledge goes somewhere! However, if X is quadratic equations, the answers don’t match. Mastering quadratic equations is challenging, but these equations are not so lifeworthy. Now fill in X with any of the thousands of topics that make up the typical content curriculum. Very often, these topics present significant challenges of achievement but with little return on investment in learners’ lives.

Here’s the problem: the achievement gap is much more concerned with mastering content than with providing lifeworthy content.

The achievement gap is all about doing the same thing better. . .  the relevance gap asks us to reconsider deeply what schools teach in the first place.

via Future Wise, Chapters 1 and 2

Hat tip: Mike Crowley

9 Responses to “The achievement gap v. the relevance gap”

  1. “Relevance” is a dangerous criteria, though: there is a lot of history where various elites dictated what they considered relevant education for specific gender, ethnicities, or social classes. It’s never turned out well. I agree we need to ask, “what should we be teaching?” and “why?” but we should be cautious with answers that suggest that this or that skill is required for future employment (where the cost of training workers for private profit enterprises is transferred from the employer to the public taxpayer) or because some other nation is out competing us on test scores or etc. The criteria of relevance should be recast as “will this knowledge empower students?”

  2. What did I learn?

    Literacy- how to read, write, develop a style and the beginnings of a voice, how to utilize logic and reasoning when framing my argumentation, how to read things I loved and things I didn’t at the time.

    Numeracy- arithmetic then up to algebra, formal logic, geometry, trigonometry, and the other skills I would need to be successful in calculus when I got there in college.

    Science- the major understandings of the various fields, and the way that scientific investigations are conducted.

    History- A broad overview of ways of living and thinking that spanned several millennia of human experience. The ability to empathize with those who do not share my views or perspectives.

    Creativity- In the arts, in music, in thought and conduct, in making and building relationships.

    And Keyboarding.

    Relevance is a terribly short-sighted way of looking at what should and should not be in an education. The point is not whether or not you have learned and forgotten the quadratic formula. To me, the point is that you are part of a vanishingly slim number of humans who have ever lived on this planet in a society that has decided that you should have 12 years in which to learn for the sake of learning and learning how to learn. If a student asks “when will I ever use this?”, I’m more inclined to say “maybe never again, and isn’t it fantastic that you have such an opportunity!” than I am to try to manufacture someone else’s relevance for them.

  3. Hi Scott,

    Thanks so much for sharing this post. I battle often in my mind over exactly what should be taught in schools. I completely agree that most of the things we teach will never come back into play in any important way in the majority of our students’ lives.

    However, I feel like we would be cheating our students if we didn’t expose them to the vastness of knowledge that makes up the world. How would students ever know what they wanted to pursue as a career if they only ever learned the basics of each subject? How can we make a societal change so that only those most basic things are necessary?

    I wonder to myself if there are ways that we can eliminate some of the unnecessary concepts and replace them with a more in depth study of other things. For instance, as referenced in the quote, studying quadratics in Algebra will not be readily useful to most students later on in life. However, what if we taught them the basics of quadratics with the end goal of teaching them how to maximize their profits (as shown on a parabola) or minimize their costs. I struggle to find this balance as a math teacher because it seems that as soon as we have mastered the basics of a concepts, there is no time left for “real world application” and we are on to the next concept where the exact same thing happens.

    In a similar way, shouldn’t we start emphasizing technology more in school? It seems that our students have such a basic understanding of a wide variety of technological tools and yet no sense when it comes to validating sources or doing research. Should we de-emphasize things like computer programming and training in Microsoft Word for a more focused approach on “Internet Literacy” or something of the like?

    Just trying to play “devil’s advocate” in all this! I think relevancy is a very valid point to be raised and it should be in the forefront of our minds on a more regular basis.


  4. I always tell my students that the most valuable thing to learn is how to learn new things. As Yogi Berra said “Predictions are hard, especially about the future”. We do not know what the useful skills will be in the future. Reading, writing, mathematics, and communication skills are pretty safe, but what specific skills are areas will be in demand?
    I was in college when the World Wide Web started… no one said “I want to be a web developer” but that was what a good portion of them (with STEM field degrees) went into. Why? Because they were the people who could sit down with a set of specifications or technical documents, play around, and make something that worked. That requires the reading skills, but also a sense of play and willingness to try new things (and failed repeatedly, but spring back).
    Too often the way we teach is to be afraid to fail (or try something new). It takes me a while to get my students to loosen up and be willing to try things that may not work, or try out something different. I tell them that “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be science” and “The difference between goofing off and science is if you write it down”
    The other point is to make the topic interesting (at least to some of them). A student who is interested in a topic will put in much more effort outside of the classroom than you could possibly plan for course. We’ve all known the children who can tell you all about dinosaurs, or trucks, or more than you ever wanted to know about penguins. What is not relevant to one person may be the most exciting thing in the universe to another.

  5. An interesting discussion brewing here… but as a Maths & Physics teacher and STEM leader I have to ask, why is the ‘quadratic equations’ such a common element to bring up in discussions of relevance? We wonder why numeracy levels are relatively low and engagement in STEM pathways poor, well the answer is perception!
    The number of parents that suggest mathematical ability is biological and inherited astounds me! “I was never any good at maths so I don’t expect my child…”
    The abundance of comments like that in the original post “Mastering quadratic equations is challenging, but these equations are not so lifeworthy”!
    If the sole purpose of learning maths is to master equations then you’re doing it wrong! I wonder what response I would receive if I suggested that mastering spelling isn’t so lifeworthy either. Anyway, enough of that rant. Make of it what you will.
    Back to the general gist of things. I shudder to imagine what school would be like if teachers became the architects of relevancy. Students would be ripped violently from one subject to the next as each teacher vies for discipline supremacy (reminds me of Our job shouldn’t be to further impose the restrictive nature of discipline silos. We should be the architects of opportunity, the masters of synthesis. We need to be the designers of an experience that allows students to engage with knowledge and understanding to make personal meaning and relevance. Explore concepts and empower our students with the cognitive and metacognitive capacity to create relevance for themselves!

    • Jason,
      I really agree with your statement “We need to be the designers of an experience that allows students to engage with knowledge and understanding to make personal meaning and relevance. Explore concepts and empower our students with the cognitive and metacognitive capacity to create relevance for themselves”. In the 21st century this could not be more true. It is very clear to educators now the immense possibility in each one of our students, and they challenge isnʻt providing our students with information any more. Our students, as humans, need to be engaged by their own interests and passions, thus tapping into a world of potential Scott, it one of your other posts (Biggest Game Changer for education) you mentioned that the biggest shift was from educator control to student empowerment. You both fundamentally have very similar beliefs in this, and luckily from my experience it seems like much of the education world is starting the realize this as well. The video “A New Design for Education” touches on this as well, it is necessary that we help our students prepare for a world in which they will collaborate and compete with a world market and a smaller world, but this will take a massive calibration of our current education system, not an easy task. I also like the statement from the video that it seems like you both would agree with, the fact that we need to connect “learning to our students passions ensuring excellence and opportunity for all”. Lately lots of new technology is emerging to aid in the increase of collaboration in our students, digital literacy efforts, student blogging and cross ocean Google hangouts, the all to awesome Google Apps for Education, and even personal devices in the classroom to aid with information synthesis. The real question here seems to be how can we actually aim at changing the education system? This is something I so fundamentally want but do not understand to go about. When we sit in meeting and have half hour conversations over gum chewing I have my doubts about the speed of change. Thank you for sharing!

  6. Scott,

    Thanks for sharing this powerful conversation starter. This is learning for the sake of the intellectual pursuit of knowledge at its finest. While this approach does have value, it has become the driving force in our test driven educational system. This focus is on how much data the brain can store versus how the data can be used in a practical manner to allow both the knower and those around them to benefit from the learning.

  7. Scott,

    You raise a very interesting point in finding curriculum to be relevant or not in student lives after the many assessments and standardized testing given throughout their school years. I think that it is important that students are taught knowledge across the subject areas if for no other reason than to get them comfortable with a spectrum of knowledge and allow them to feel out which content areas they enjoy the most. With such a wide range of information and the brain capacity students have it will never hurt them to know too much.

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