Relevance and Engagement are not Embellishments.

Most of my work in school over the past ten years or so has been about making the curriculum relevant and engaging to children. Those words are not very trendy at the moment. Sometimes it seems that the ‘resilience/grit’ agenda has been hijacked by people who think that those qualities are simply about tolerating boredom. They are sadly misguided. Boredom is a negative state in which learning does not take place. That’s not to say we should avoid boredom at all costs – children who are bored on a Sunday afternoon might well find something useful to do. And being in a state of mindful inactivity is a healthy thing to be. But being bored in class does not lead to learning.


Instead, we should be aiming for engaged confusion. This state, rather than outright happiness is the optimal condition for learning. The puzzled frown is not the same as the blank yawn. This state of engagement – an almost fog like state where you are working at the edges of your ability and focused on a goal or problem, but can’t quite yet see how you will get there – is highly stimulating for the mind and the memory. So how do we do it? How do we lure children into this state of readiness for learning? I would argue that we make it relevant.


The word relevance has been much maligned and misunderstood in recent years – some simplify it so much that all children would ever learn in a ‘relevant’ curriculum is that which is linked to the experiences they have already had. This really limits children, especially if they have had narrowed life experiences. It is this kind of use of the word ‘relevant’ that leads some to dismiss the idea as epitomising a culture of “low expectations”. But if we view the word differently – if we see relevance as a means by which we bring curriculum content to life – finding the connections that make the knowledge relevant to a child, then we have a different animal altogether; one that seeks to make connections, to universalise that which is particular and open up a pathway to enticing children into that which is unfamiliar or new. This is what I’ve been trying to do for years in building curriculum models in schools that capture hearts and intellect. This is about giving children a reason to learn. For example…

Imagine you have to teach Latin. You can either stand and deliver. Drill and test. Or you can set your classroom up as a Celtic village facing a Roman army. The chief wants to negotiate and assimilate. In order to do so, he is going to have to learn to speak their language. Which of these two options will children find most enticing? The outcome will be the same. The motivation is entirely different.

I was reminded of the need to think intelligently and in connected ways when I was lucky enough to visit Brussels last week with Independent Thinking. The International Schools system is fascinating when considering the purpose and structure of schooling. They sit outside of government policies and education acts because they are entirely independent of the countries in which they are situated. They serve the parent body and a transient population of ‘third culture’ children. They are hugely successful, following mostly the IB route of education through which children progress through the Primary Years Programme, the Middle Years Programme (without sitting any externally set tests) and finally onto IB. At the International School of Brussels, working in partnership with other schools, they’ve written their own curriculum – The Common Ground. It’s completely fascinating – you can view it here. Taking three strands (seen as a triple helix), every aspect of the curriculum is viewed through the three ‘c’s – Conceptual understanding, Character, and Competence – what we might think of as knowledge/understanding, personal attributes and skills. But in addition, there is a strong thread of conscience – an emphasis on community and global connectedness, responsibility and ethics. It is no wonder that so many of these International students are articulate, thoughtful and confident – you should see their mini UN conventions.


Our politicians in the UK are constantly telling us we should be more like independent schools. Some of the most successful independent schools in the world are the International Schools. But you don’t often see uniforms. And testing is rare below the age of 16. How might we emulate their success?

To do so, we have to stop teaching to tests, to Ofsted priorities, to government policies. We need to become globally minded and think about what children need to be effective citizens in the future. Children in these schools study the Theory of Knowledge. They understand how countries are interdependent on each other. They examine concepts like democracy, population migration, climate. They develop as whole learners. And we can do this. We can teach without selling our souls. (shameless plug here – if you want to know how, come along to this!) We need to think really differently about the content of what we teach. What if:-

1. In English we only taught texts that said something about how to make the world a better place (perhaps by showing it at its worst and figuring out what to do about it).

2. In Maths we told children what the formula they’re learning is actually used for by real people in real life?

3. In Science, we looked at how innovations are used for good and bad purposes and encouraged ‘what if’ questions from children -“What if the nuclear bomb had never been invented?” “What if we invented a cure for cancer – how much would it cost? What would the implications be for population control?” “How might science make life in a refugee camp more bearable?” Hard questions that have no straightforward solutions can be powerful motivators for pupils to engage with the nitty gritty of knowledge.

4. In Languages, we set up situations where the children in a fiction have no choice but to communicate in a foreign language? They have been captured in WW2 Germany. They are delivering information to the French Resistance?

5. In Geography they have to set up an emergency aid chain of supply to an earthquake zone, plot the route and design packs of survival materials?


I could go on. Engagement, relevance, big questions…. these are not embellishments to learning. They are routes to learning and it’s time we reclaimed that language and focused on making our lessons capable of changing the world. Anything less is, well….boring.


35 thoughts on “Relevance and Engagement are not Embellishments.

  1. A very relevant article in terms of education delivery. Engagement and relevance are important but sometimes we have to find the triggers ourselves.

    I would like to ask you to think again about boredom, but this time from a slightly different angle in terms of learning. I believe boredom can be a valuable learning tool if, and here is the caveat, if it is linked to your Learning Intelligence or LQ. If we have the tools and language to explore boredom in terms of learning then we can find ways to associate the activity or task with our need to learn. We can develop our own relevance. Please have a look at this article which looks at boredom from both the teacher and learner perspective.

  2. You’re right that ‘relevance’ has been hijacked to mean ‘dumbing down’. It’s misrepresented as meaning not doing Shakespeare (sooooo 16th century) and studying only hip-hop instead of all types of poetry. ‘Child centred’ has also been misrepresented to mean ‘child-led’ instead of putting the child at the centre of education. If the child isn’t at the centre, then who is? Parents? Society? The Government? Employers? Big business?

  3. Relevance and engagement are “trendy”? Are you effin’ kiddin’ me? Without those two essential components, classrooms become insurance seminars.

    All the great teachers, the ones the students throw parties for on their birthday and hug when they graduate, are the epitome of relevant and engaging. They know that learning never truly happens without desire–you must inspire the desire to know in a person and turn that person into a learning engine that runs on its own from there on out. You don’t need to keep pushing information at them after that. If anything, you must struggle to keep up with their questions.

    This speaks to the fallacy about college that confounds me: people think you go there to get trained for a profession. Nope, you go there to learn how to learn. You get an introduction to your chosen profession and some background, then you apply your learning skills to keep up with said profession as it continues to grow and evolve. The difference between doing just enough to graduate and learning to leverage your mind like the powerful tool that it has become is the difference between having a paycheck and having your own company.

    But if the teacher is modeling the bare minimum, fugeddaboutit.

  4. Love this post and the great questions posed here. Thank you for beating the drum of why and how we learn, not just memorizing facts to pass exams (which can be part of education, but not the total experience).

  5. This was such a clear description of the importance of relevance. Here in the States, there are lots of people (not teachers!) who think an emphasis on relevance and engagement is contributing to making our kids “soft” or undisciplined. As you said, this “trend” is really just good sense.

    1. Thank you. I think we, here in the UK, have been very much influenced by thinking in the States, but it seems to me that on both sides of the Atlantic, that thinking seems to miss important points. Thank you for your comment.

  6. Regards your science examples, they seem off topic at best, or taken to extreme, an example of “dumbing down” as mentioned above. Discussing what would happen if nuclear weapons hadn’t been invented does not in any way lead to understanding or explaining the processes involved. So, your pupils go to do physics and chemistry, but don’t know their neutrons from their neurons. Likewise, working out the cost of a nebulous cure for cancer is no indication of how this actually might happen. And to take issue with the case of books “that make the world a better place” – who decides? My ideas of what make the world a better place are likely to be different to someone else’s, for better or worse. Taken to extreme, the government of the day decides, which is definitely not a good thing! I fully agree that being engaged in a topic is the only way to get good at it, but sometimes the toil is needed. As a maths example, learning your times tables is a toil, but once you’re confident it becomes second nature and the basis for further study – if you have to stop and think what 7×8 is all the time, you’re going to struggle with more advanced maths (although, that said, some of the best mathematicians I know are hopeless at arithmetic..!).

    1. I guess the point is that getting them interested might just make them tolerate toil. And to suggest that the ethical aspects of science are ‘off topic’ is a little depressing. A little like suggesting that an appreciation of a good poem is ‘off topic’ if you can’t spot alliteration. My kids have loved learning times tables. Not a toil at all. But then we danced them.

      1. I completely agree, once you’re interested, toil becomes a basis for learning, you don’t even have to tolerate it! I’m glad you got your kids to learn their times tables, but that shows there’s more than one way to teach and learn; if I’d been made to dance my times tables I would have felt patronised and entirely disengaged (I’m good at maths, not dancing..!).

        And absolutely, scientists should consider ethics, but that’s not the core of learning science, especially at school level. Philosophy of science is a whole discipline, but no matter how good someone’s knowledge of Hume is, it’s not going to help them split the atom (to continue the bomb theme). I think you are right, it would be a good question to consider, but it is certainly a very small part of developing scientific knowledge at that stage.

  7. I am wondering how imaging to live in a Celtic village would be engaging enough to make the toil of learning years of vocabulary and grammar relevant. Why do we have to invent a make believe scenario to get children engaged? Don’t you think it would be better to tell students about the role of Latin in Western civilization? To me, pretending to be a Celtic village is dumbing down. It would just simply not provide enough actual substance for putting in the work, and yes, in the end it is just simply work, that you need to get sufficiently good at it, to actually reap the rewards of having translated your first bit of Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

    Similarly learning a modern foreign language, should it not be motivating to be able to talk to other people? Go on student exchange and be able to make your way around their country? Do we need to roll out WWII again, beacuse otherwise no one would be interested in French? I think this does not give students’ understanding of relevance enough credit.

    It is interesting to learn about genetics to understand why cancer is so hard to tackle – and that is also a core biology topic. Because the proposition of discussing the costs assumes we could cure it if we wanted to, which contains a fundamental misunderstanding about the science behind it.

    I think engagement is important in classrooms, but time and energy would be better spent to make the actual subject interesting. Drawing out the really engaging aspects in a subject without having to resort to gimmicky make believes or unrelated questions that distract from the topic itself, that is great teaching.

    1. It’s an interesting point of view, but in my experience, the process of taking on the role has a powerful impact on the children’s motivation and memory. Perhaps this is something to do with the interaction of narrative and spacial memory systems or perhaps it is simply about developing empathy and finding an emotional connection. I’ve never found that ‘telling’ them that something is interesting quite works. They have to find the interest and to feel it. To see this essentially human process as ‘dumbing down’ is a little confusing. Why should it be dumb to go deeper? To combine a language with historical, geographical, religious and cultural knowledge? It would seem to me to be a higher level of engagement with knowledge than to simply atomise facts into units to be learned. Of course, it is much better to learn a language by visiting a place and speaking to the people. But most of the children I have worked with can’t afford a bus into town.

  8. My Suggest. Just try to make a situational event which invite the antusiasm of student “our kid”, then colaborative and improvised with material lesson (math, biology, etc) and receive their differential respons (our creatively) . finish with evaluation. Btw Nice share

  9. As a teacher and someone who loves to learn, I totally agree. I love the thought of tests being rather rare until the age of 16, and to find ways to get our students to that point of engaged confusion. I am unfamiliar with The International Schools system. I would really like to learn more…

  10. such an important message. a huge part of the problem is that education, like healthcare, has become quite the “business” and sadly instead of upholding standards they are getting dropped alongside funding, salaries, resources, and, ultimately, grades. These problems are further compounded by the fact that the learning environment that fosters growth an ingenuity is severely hampered by the reality that so many parents seem to pass off discipline duties onto the teachers. When is there time for hands on learning [or any learning] when teachers are busy trying to corral 35 kids into keeping hands off each other… i believe strongly in your vision but also in the fact that it is a seriously complex game with a lot of players – all of whom have to be willing and open to change and personal accountability in order to see lasting progress

  11. Reblogged this on A is for… and commented:
    ” Engagement, relevance, big questions…. these are not embellishments to learning. They are routes to learning and it’s time we reclaimed that language and focused on making our lessons capable of changing the world. Anything less is, well….boring.”
    Really well said. Couldn’t agree more!

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