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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 4: Relevance & Connectedness


For learning to be effective, it also needs to be relevant to the student and connected to prior knowledge (Brandt, 1998; Brooks & Brooks, 1993). This addresses both the students' needs to understand why they are learning certain material and how what they already know is related to this new material. This is congruent with what we know about the biology of learning within the brain.

Biologically, learning is the electrical and chemical passage of information that results in the connection of neurons. Such connections increase the number and density of dendrites and has been referred to as dendritic branching (Sylwester, 1995) - the more dendritic branching, the more neural connections, the more learning that is taking place. As these neural pathways are used, connections are strengthened. When the teacher mediates the emergence of relevance and connectedness, she facilitates the connections of thousands and thousands of neurons. Neural scaffolding results in new knowledge being incorporated into a child's frame of reference and retained because it is so connected. This also results in the personalization of learning and the powerful creation of a sense of ownership for knowledge. Not only does it make sense to help students make such connections, but it also dignifies them as learners when they understand how the material may be important or of interest to them.

It is important here to clarify that new content material does not need to have a pre-existing interest for or relevance to students. Relevance can be mediated. Students do not always come to class knowing what they need to know or how the syllabus may be relevant to themselves or their futures. By taking the time to explore students' prior knowledge and by making associations with new content, teachers can mediate emerging relevance.

A class of 12th graders at the International School of Tanganyika were asked to participate in a model drama lesson conducted by a visiting consultant. Unfortunately, the lesson did not start punctually, and because of time constraints, had to be ended before the lesson was completed. In the "Question & Answer" period that followed, one senior student raised his hand and politely asked, "Can you please tell me the objective for this lesson?" And the consultant, perhaps unused to being questioned by students on her own goals and objectives, responded, "If you didn't understand it, that's too bad." This provoked a murmur of protest among some of the rest of the students, one of whom raised his hand and said, "In order for us to take something away from this lesson, we really need to know what it was about and why we were required to spend the last eighty minutes in here." Students have not only a right, but a profound need to know the what and the why of our lessons. If these are not immediately apparent, we have an obligation to make them explicit.

Much of the curricular presentation in our schools is fragmented, and not always of immediate interest to our students or of intrinsic value to them. We need to create opportunities in which students can make connections, facilitate the scaffolding required to see how something learned in Biology might be connected to Psychology, how a psychological construct can be exemplified by a specific historical incident. Most importantly, how all of this relates to them.

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