Relevance: the Most Important Word in Education?

I just returned from the League for Innovation in the Community College’s annual Innovations Conference in Anaheim. I’m keeping the gold mouse ears for myself, but here’s what I brought back for you – the whole point of every educational innovation going forward, in one word: relevance

The question of relevance was presented in every session I attended and the one I facilitated – be it in the moment –“How is this information on the slide right in front of you relevant to your work?” or in the future, “How are we (higher education institutions) going to be relevant to students?”

It came up in Increasing College Readiness Through High School Partnerships: An ELA Model, a session on building partnerships with K-12 which highlighted the work of West Clovis High School and the Southern California Community College District.  They took us through the process of getting to the bottom of their massive disconnect in English language arts.  How did the valedictorian of her high school end up in remedial English? It required a patient process of listening without ego, but two “systems” managed to do it once they focused on a mutual desire to see kids succeed. They found that high school English –interesting though it might be – was irrelevant to college English. And then they did a remarkable thing. They fixed it, moving from variable demands, fiction and reflective writing to producing actual writing, and shifting focus to nonfiction, research and critical writing (and requiring lots of it).

By aligning expectations and making high school English relevant to college demands, SCCCD increased freshman English placement (without remediation) by 23% in the first year. Placing into freshman English increases chances of completion in that system by 50%.

That last statistic alone would be reason enough to do it, but if it wasn’t, the emails from recent grads now in college were enough to seal the deal. How do you quantify their expressions of gratitude for being adequately prepared to do what they came to college to do? As MasterCard would say, priceless. 

It came up again in my roundtable discussion with President Ken Ender of Harper College (Ill.) and Vice President Celeste Schwartz of Montgomery County Community College (Pa. as they talked about their NGLC Incubator projects, both of which are designed to boost completion and successful transfers to four year colleges.  During the the Incubator’s project development phase, we talked about how now more than ever – be they ‘traditional’ 18-year-olds or ‘non-traditional’ 27-year olds – students are coming to college with an agenda: to secure a good job post-graduation.

Both Montgomery County and Harper College used their Incubator grants to dig deeper and understand how they could better serve their students in that goal. At the roundtable we discussed their plans and the impact on students. Harper has integrated four student success plans into a seamless, analytics-driven, faculty-led first year seminar that will result in each degree-seeker either creating a clear, personalized pathway to graduation or transfer that shows all the relevant classes and experiences a student needs to undertake while at Harper. Montgomery County zeroed in on the fact that they were losing otherwise committed students because they had no plan for how to pay for college. They responded with a MOOC that packages and delivers the right information, in the right way, at the right time to avoid finance related ‘stop-outs’.  By communicating directly with students, Montgomery County found that it wasn’t a lack of information – indeed there was an over abundance – but rather a lack of timely relevant information. They’re addressing that with the MOOC and will add components to support other aspects of student success around digital literacy and civic literacy.

The other highlight of the conference was the general session with William Rankin, Apple’s director of learning. He led an exercise with us – a huge group of hundreds – that really drove home the need for relevance in everything we do. He began by focusing on the design of our huge general session room, and used it as a springboard for talking about the new role of teachers and schools for the next generation. 

We analyzed our room, noticing how the elevated stage, speakers, forward facing rows of seats all conspired to give Rankin (the teacher) all the power and authority in the room. And we noticed what it conversely implied about the learner: that we were small, here to learn and should be focused on the teacher. 

Then he taught us something. He asked, “Who is Sugata Mitra?” A few people knew, but by and large the audience did not. He said, “Well find out!” So we did. In less than 10 seconds, 90% of us whipped out a smartphone and ‘Googled it’. The other 10% like me who were too challenged by the narrowness of the seats to dig into our bags, looked over the shoulder of a neighbor and began chatting about Sugata Mitra.  (He is, by the way, an amazing person doing fascinating work on education in India.) But that was not the point of the “lesson.”  It was to show us what Mitra had found for himself by studying children of Delhi’s slums and villages – that all they or we need to learn something is access (our phone) and community (each other).  The role of the teacher in our case and theirs was just to plant the seed and facilitate.   

Rankin reminded us that the students we are serving now have never known a world without instant digitized access to information. Preschool-age children think cellphones are like cups – just part of the environment we live in. They have the access. Facebook is just as pervasive as the cellphone. They have community. If we want to remain relevant to them, we need to adapt to a new role – bringing them context through teaching that plants relevant seeds of inquiry (“Who is Sugata Mitra?”) and nurturing them by encouraging the communitarian aspect to learning. Way better than the T-shirt!  Thank you, Innovations conference.

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