Relevance is such a slippery slope

The concept of relevance as applied in education seems such an important and multi-faceted issue. I hope to generate a couple of posts around the general theme of “who gets to decide what is relevant”.

Who has a role in determining relevance? This is part of the more general question of who has a role in education? This second question is a serious matter and I think is ignored in considering many educational issues. For example, some now seem to believe that grades are unnecessary and may serve to discourage some learners. While there may be truth in the concern for motivation, a grade (or other evaluation record) offers information to others as well as the learner. For example, the grade may be important in competitive hiring or educational admission decisions. Public investment in the educational process might assume the generation of such information.

A similar argument might be made regarding the topics fo be learned – what is considered relevant. Simple examples make this clear. As a driver, I should be able to assume that other drivers recognize a stop sign and know the appropriate reaction to encountering a stop sign. To some extent we are interdependent so collectively we should be able to depend that others have certain knowledge, skills, and perhaps values.

I do think that there is a great deal of inertia behind what is considered relevant and it would be better to carefully consider what should be emphasized, but we are all stake holders in this process. It turns out there seems no end to the suggestions and this is also part of the problem. Learning takes time and we limit the time educators interact with learners. In general, it seems unfair to add items without deleting items. Unless the time available is going to be expanded, it is not really is a topic relevant, but rather how relevant is a topic within the realm of other possibilities. How relevant is art class in comparison to American history or intermediate algebra.

I do not see this as a situation with an easy answer, but it does seem to me that educators and formal education is being placed in a very difficult situation. Is education about vocational preparation? Is education about preparation to live in a society? Is education about preparing to live a fulfilling life?