How Can We Make Learning Relevant to Today's Students?

This month the new Connected Learning Alliance is celebrating its launch with 30 days of art and podcasts on the theme of Making Learning Relevant.

For learning to be effective it must be relevant to kids’ lives. This is the idea behind a new campaign during the month of May. Thought leaders, educators, and youth are talking about connected learning in a series of new podcasts and art posted at the Connected Learning Alliance.

“For learning to really matter to learners, to kids, and to be effective for teachers, the learning has to be relevant,” MacArthur’s Director of Education Connie Yowell said in a podcast on the site. “The learners have to care about what they’re being taught.”

That might seem like an obvious idea. But it’s one that’s too often getting lost in educational settings today that are increasingly focused on high stakes testing.

As Yowell explains in a recent interview, customary sociocultural learning in educational research teaches us that the context of learning matters very much. With today’s traditional focus on educational outcomes, Yowell said, learning at school has become less social and more focused on spitting back content.

The connected learning model, which focuses on promoting learning that’s interest driven, peer supported, and infused with technology is one way of putting the focus back on that context of learning. In this model, the process and context of learning matter much more than the outcomes.

The Connected Learning Alliance, is a new partnership working together to expand opportunities for young people to access these kinds of learning opportunities. The Sprout Fund and are partners in this effort. And the allliance’s podcasts are full of examples of educators succeeding in this endeavor.

In Georgia, high school librarian Buffy Hamilton is currently remaking Norcross High School’s media center into a learning studio. For Teen Tech Week, she invited staff from the Gwinnett County Public Library to come to Norcross and bring along their 3D printer. “It fuels curiosity. It really taps into a sense of wonder,” she said. The event was just the first step in a larger partnership between Norcross and its local public library to expand opportunities for students.

Texas-based educational consultant Jennifer Woolven said in her years teaching high school she saw first hand examples of how a focus on standardized testing ultimately created “disengagement and apathy” among her students.

“Nobody had ever asked them what they are interested in. And no one has encouraged them to ask the big questions,” she said.

Woolven, who is also a National Writing Project teacher and a member of the Central Texas Writing Project, said technology can help students make those leaps and engage directly with their own learning. She’s working with teachers now on project-based learning that encourages partnerships “beyond the school walls.” Her students, for example, respond to peers through blogging sites such as Youth Voices, or reach out to experts such as authors, scientists, or engineers if they have questions about their own work.

When interest-driven, connected learning is in play, students surprise themselves and their mentors with their passion and dedication. That’s what Jaleesa Trapp—a 26-year-old alumna-turned-coordinator of the Intel Computer Clubhouse in Tacoma, Washington—discovered recently when one of her mentees wanted to learn a new software program she had discovered in school. “Her class was boring, but the program looked like it could be fun, so she would rather work on it here,” Trapp said. Trapp admired her mentee’s willingness to separate the school assignment—which seemed boring and irrelevant—from the software itself.

As a teen, Trapp herself struggled to make those distinctions. “I was really great at my academics, but I got bored. I would start to not do assignments because I didn’t feel like it was relevant to what I was doing.” Now, as a mentor to children and youth, she works hard to ensure they stay engaged with learning. She focuses on student interest in learning and creates a sense of shared purpose for clubhouse participants. Shared purpose allows them to connect with each other and with experts beyond the clubhouse. “It allows them to grow and be innovative,” she said.

All of the podcasts are archived online. You can listen to Mozilla Foundation’s Mark Surman talk about the need for web literacy; or the National Writing Project’s Elyse Eidman-Aadahl talk about how to create “modern learners who can thrive in today’s (and tomorrow’s) economy;” or the Urban Libraries Council’s Amy Eshleman talk about new learning lab spaces inside libraries and museums.

“In 10 years, I’m hoping our cities are our classrooms,” Eshleman says.

And for a deeper look at connected learning, educators of all kinds can sign up for Making Learning Connected, a MOOC sponsored by the National Writing Project that will run from June 13 through August 1, 2014.  Organizers will be holding a webinar tomorrow, Tuesday, May 20, at 7:00 p.m. EDT for those interested in learning more.

Maureen Kelleher contributed to this post.

Published May 19, 2014