Lilian Katz, the distinguished preschool educator, described two kinds of relevance. Horizontal relevance makes the most powerful learning experiences possible. It happens when the learner acquires needed information in order to solve an immediate problem. It’s known as “just in time” learning. Vertical relevance occurs in a traditional classroom. Students learn “just in case” (it comes up on the test). According to so many bored middle school and high school students, vertical relevance is better described as irrelevance.
Relevance is critical as a basis for student motivation, and lack of motivation is a central problem in Mexican schools, from primary level on up to adult on-the-job training. Lack of motivation is a probable cause for dropout rates of 37% before finishing secondary school and 54% before finishing high school.
Recent longitudinal research in Australia (http://tinyurl.com/ogzkb4d) found that student engagement at school was the most important key to success twenty years later. The more connected students were with their school community and motivated instead of bored, the greater the possibility that they would go on to achieve higher education degrees and professional careers, regardless of their academic and socioeconomic levels as students.
Many unmotivated students end up as one of Mexico’s seven million NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Unmotivated students that manage to hold on and finish compulsory levels of education and get a job are often unmotivated workers. The 2011 Gallup poll painted an ugly picture of worker motivation worldwide. Only one in nine workers reports being emotionally connected to his or her employment. The largest group (62%) does the minimum necessary to hold on to their jobs, and 27% are actively negative and ready to share their negative attitude with coworkers. Emotional connection and engagement on the job impacts almost all aspects of the work environment. Employees that don’t identify with their work have absentee rates three times of those who do. Workers who are engaged and emotionally connected at work are 87% more likely to remain for longer periods in their positions and are 53% more effective at understanding customer needs.
“The Towers Perrin Global Workforce Study surveyed over half a million employees from 50 companies around the world. It reported a 52 percent gap in improved operating income between companies with high and low employee engagement scores.
“The Future Foundation surveyed 3,500 employees in companies in the UK, France, Germany,
Japan and the USA. They found an 81 percent correlation between collaboration and innovation. UK employees who collaborated were twice as likely to have contributed new ideas to their company, compared with those who had not.”
Purposeful collaboration also seems to be one way to promote student engagement in school. David Price, in his recent book Open: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future argues that educators should copy the example of social networks and social learning: “…if we are to make business and education more innovative, more effective, we need to learn from the values and actions present when groups are doing things for themselves. The enthusiasm and ability of small groups of self-organizing citizens to respond to challenges makes bigger, better funded, organizations look slow and cumbersome in comparison. They’re more open, lighter on their feet, and they learn fast…. Critically, they don’t separate learning from doing. They gain knowledge through collaborative action, and the results of their actions determine what they need to know next.”
That kind of learning is what Seymour Papert of MIT calls “hard fun”, which comes from a significant challenge that can put previous learning and beliefs in doubt. It happens when facing difficult problems together. “Hard fun” in collaboration with peers is something that we as educators must strive to include as an important educational strategy in order to promote student engagement in learning. If we do, our students’ future employers will be grateful. And if we don’t, sooner or later they will want to know why.