Does ALL Learning Need to be Relevant?

A few days ago my friend and valuable member of my PLN, Rabbi Michael Bitton wrote on Facebook about a conversation he had with one his students about a chemistry question. The student asked if he could help him with a chemistry question. When Rabbi Bitton responded that he never really liked chemistry and could not help, the student responded that no one really knows this stuff since it doesn't matter in our life. The gist of the posting was that we should make all learning relevant.

This got me thinking about what it means to make learning relevant for our students. Does ALL learning in a school setting need to be relevant? And if the answer is yes, how does one define relevance?

On one level, of course ALL learning taught in school should be relevant. If it is not relevant, then why are we teaching it?

However, relevance can mean many different things. Something that could be relevant for our students because it is a building block for future intellectual pursuits might not seem relevant at the time.

Let me use high school chemistry as an example. (Although this discussion is about chemistry, it can equally apply to a Torah subject like Talmud or Tanach. For further reading on this, see Torah Lishmah by Rabbi Norman Lamm,  Torah Study by Rabbi Yehudah Levi, and my article from Ten Daat on the Role of Teacher and Student according to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitechik.)

On the most basic level, high school chemistry can be relevant for our students because it is a required course needed for our students to graduate. This might sound like a cop-out but, lets face it, the most important job of any high school is to prepare its students for the future. In a high school with a college preparatory curriculum, the school is designed to prepare its students for college. If an outside arbiter like the state board of regents or the college admissions department requires a course then it must be taught in high school because it is relevant by definition.

Obviously, this is a very low level relevance. A student might not care about the model of an atom whether its be the Neils Bohr atomic model or the more accurate model from quantum mechanics. A kid might never need to balance a chemical equation after high school. But since this is a requirement for graduation and/or college acceptance it is relevant.

There are of course other types of relevance. A teacher might make chemistry more relevant to students by sharing her excitement for the subject. Passion is contagious. A teacher who genuinely LOVES chemistry can effectively get all or at least most of her students to love it too. This would make the course more relevant by making it more exciting.

On another level, a teacher could make the chemistry course relevant through the subject matter. A master teacher and mentor of mine, Dr. Chaim Feuerman, often speaks of innately pleasurable learning activities. These are activities like solving problems while working in cooperative groups that give one the joy of discovery, of using one's brain and stretching one's thinking. An effective teacher can make a complex subject like chemistry more relevant through these types of activities.

Chemistry can also be relevant by utilizing it to solve problems in everyday life. One can conduct experiments on common household items about how they work or try to use chemistry to solve seemingly intractable problems facing our environment like climate change. This would also give chemistry relevance.

Of course, the last item listed appears to be the most relevant, bringing chemistry into everyday life. However, I hesitate to define this as the ideal relevance for many reasons. Firstly, a course of study focusing on this everyday relevance might seriously hamper the learning process. What if there are areas of chemistry or any other subject for that matter in which it is difficult to find everyday relevance? Should one skip or downplay those units of study? This is the argument that some have made against requiring subjects like algebra. I am seriously worried that this attitude could dumb down our education.

Let me explain. Not all subjects need to always have relevance to our daily lives. Some subjects might be relevant just because they are worthwhile intellectual pursuits. My son dreams about math problems. He finds calculus to be tremendously relevant not necessarily because he sees its applications in the physical world but because he sees the innate beauty of the subject itself. This I believe is the HIGHEST form of relevance and what we should aspire to impart to our students.

But this relevance is perhaps the most difficult to communicate and might require years of hard work before it is achieved. Does this mean we should take the easier path and skip the building blocks which are not necessarily relevant? Heaven forbid! And does this mean that we should only teach these building blocks to certain students who will be pursuing the higher level subject matter later in life? How could we possibly know which students this will be? So we get to our current model. To teach EVERY student the basic building blocks in a number of subjects, whether they appear to be relevant or not, so they can find their passions and develop the skills to pursue them on a higher level later in life.

I am not arguing that we should not make these building blocks relevant. I remember as a young teacher attending Azrieli Graduate School how Rabbi David Eliach used to speak of the importance of opening every lesson with a motivation or מוטיבציה as he called it. We certainly can make our learning relevant through an effective motivation, by communicating our passion for the subject, by creating discovery based activities to make even these basic skills pleasurable, or by finding everyday examples when applicable.

But sometimes we won't succeed with all of our students. Sometimes students will not find a certain subject to be relevant to them. In this case, I do not believe the school has failed. I think rather that our students have gained an equally important learning experience. They have learned what they do NOT wish to pursue later in life.