Rob Levit | October 2013

Creating Context and Relevance in the Classroom

Have you ever read Making Learning Whole by David Perkins of Harvard Project Zero fame? In the book, Perkins describes different strategies for creating context and relevance for classroom students to make learning more meaningful and engaging. Even though it’s not stated overtly, that sounds a lot like arts integration to me!

There are some important questions to consider reflectively in making this leap.  For instance, how do we respond when a student asks, “Why are we learning this?” (context) or “When will we ever need to use this in the real world?” (relevance)? We can be caught off guard by these questions and catch ourselves saying “It’s for the test!” or “It’s part of the curriculum.” Fortunately, with just a small amount of preparation and simple materials (paper, markers and crayons) you can have students answer their own questions and facilitate making their own learning whole.

The following process description is based on a lesson I have taught and seen replicated in many classrooms. It is especially great for middle school math but can be scaled and adapted for any classroom. This is a very simple lesson for any educator to deliver. It is a project-based and uses visible thinking, the IB Learner Profiles (for IB schools) and can be completed in one period while serving as an assessment tool.  Are you intrigued?  Here’s the process of delivery:

Context and Relevance Process

1. Meeting as a team, choose a focus area and plan your lesson.  In a recent experience, I met with a middle school math team and we decided to focus on ways to foster student learning in graphing distance/time. The idea was to first create a context for learning about distance/time relationship, in order to make it really interesting and to clearly demonstrate that the math concept indeed, lives outside of the classroom. Secondly, I wanted to create a lesson using graphing that was directly applicable and relevant to the students’ lives.

2. Implement the lesson using a “wild card.” That means, beginning the class with something that will surprise the students, make them sit up and take notice.  In this example, I shared five carefully selected and beautiful pictures from Google Images. They were: the space shuttle launching, two baby birds, the life cycle of a butterfly, the sprinter Usain Bolt and a picture of a marathoner. Using inquiry and reflection (taken from the IB Learner Profile since Annapolis Middle is an IB school), the students were asked what these pictures had in common, how they were different, what pictures they liked and why, etc. Well before we introduced the math lesson, we were having a discussion about math, in a very indirect and casual way that made for a fun and lively discussion. The overlay of “we are now learning math” was not present.

3. Move into discussion of essential questions.  It was pretty easy for the students to figure out what I was up to in this lesson, so the conversation shifted to describe the differences between the distance/time relationship in each picture. For example, students mentioned that the sprinter covered a short distance in a small amount of time (less than ten seconds), but the marathoner covered much more distance over a greater length of time (just under three hours). The discussion included questions like “What would happen to the sprinter if he attempted to keep his pace for an entire marathon?” Think Tortoise and The Hare! It may not sound like much, but making sure students understand how distance and time are real and “life-relatable” concepts is key.

It should be noted that students, by making observations about the space shuttle, were able to draw on their knowledge of gravity and the effects of the earth’s atmosphere on the amount of distance covered over time. So, not only was a wider life context created for the math lesson but it also activated prior knowledge from science class. The same held true about our discussion of the life cycle of a butterfly comparing eggs sitting on a leaf compared with the movements of a caterpillar and larva. With teacher assistance, student volunteers graphed the sprinter vs. marathoner scenarios on the smartboard.

Hopefully, this simple context and relevance strategy can provide you with a jumpstart into any integrated lesson you’d like to try with your students.  Next Friday, we’ll go a step further and look at student graphs and comics based on their knowledge of distance and time.

How have you been purposeful in creating moments of relevancy and context for your students?  What techniques have worked for you?

About the Author

Rob Levit, an acclaimed musician and artist and 2013 Innovator of the Year from the Maryland Daily Record, has created award-winning innovative "Life-Skills Through The Arts" programs for adults with mental illness, the homeless, adults in drug and alcohol recovery, youth in domestic/sexual abuse counseling, foster children, hospital patients, veterans and many more. He is currently Executive Director of Creating Communities and was the first Artist-In-Residence at Hospice of the Chesapeake, where he created and infused healing activities for the well-being of staff, families and patients. Email Rob.