A quick Google search this morning netted a couple of amazing statistics. Here’s the first one: 114.4 million people watched this past weekend’s Super Bowl in the United States alone.  That’s 114.4 million out of a total of about 325 million people living in the U.S. If my (somewhat sketchy) math is correct, that’s better than one out of every three people in the country!

And with that many eyeballs glued to the TV for a few hours, advertisers are more than willing to pay an exorbitant sum to have their commercials run during the game.  Thus, amazing statistic number two:  This year, advertisers paid five million dollars for a 30-second ad.  Even my limited math skills can figure out that that comes to ten million dollars a minute.  Ten.  Million.  A minute.  Yikes!  I wouldn’t want to be the ad agency tasked with developing an ad that cost that much money to air.  Take the wrong approach and you can kiss millions of dollars good-bye.  Talk about pressure!

You may be wondering why I’m talking about the Super Bowl on an education website.  Well, I started thinking about statistics such as those above and about the obvious passion football fans everywhere display this time of year, and I automatically started making connections to educational practice.  I know, I know, it’s kind of dorky, but that’s just the way my mind works.

As I thought about it, I started coming up with questions such as, “Why don’t we see this kind of passion in the average classroom on a regular basis?” and “What kinds of topics are students passionate about?” and “Can we find a way to tap into those passions and still teach the curriculum?”

Relevance = Engagement

There has been a lot of talk in education circles in recent years about relevance.  The relevance question, from a student’s perspective, is simple; it can be stated like this: “Is it important to me?”

As teachers, we know that finding ways for students to make connections between curricular topics and issues that are important to them in their everyday lives is one of the best ways to engage them.  And when they’re engaged, their attention is maximized, they encode new material more deeply, and they’re more likely to remember that material when they have to retrieve it on an assessment.  And when you put those two things together (an energized, engaged classroom environment + higher test scores) you’ve found the Holy Grail of teaching!  That’s why many teachers work so hard to find some way to connect students’ interests with the curriculum.

Now, you’re not going to be able to find a relevance angle every time.  When the topic is clearly relevant, you’re going to want to play up that relevance.  Other times, you may really have to think hard about the topic to come up with a relevance angle.  When you think the material is relevant to your students’ lives, but that connection is not readily apparent to them, you may be able to make the connection clear to them by creating a metaphor or analogy between the material and something with which your students have prior experience (or have them create the metaphor or analogy–see the activities below).

And, of course, at other times you won’t be able to come up with any applicable relevance at all.  That’s OK.  Not everything has to be relevant to your students’ lives for it to be worth learning.  Sometimes we want to learn something because it’s strange (something we’ve never seen or heard of before) and it piques our curiosity.  Sometimes we want to learn more about something because it’s controversial and people are talking about it, even though the topic doesn’t have any direct connection to our lives.  Sometimes we want to learn something simply because it’s a challenge and we want to see if we can do it.  Sometimes we may even want to learn something just because our best friend seems interested in it.  There are many paths to motivation, and relevance is just one (though it’s one of the best if you can make it work).

Step One: Know Your Students’ Interests

If you’ve been thinking about becoming more intentional about adding relevance into your lesson plans, there are several ways to go about it.  One way is to make explicit connections during your input chunks between the topic you’re teaching and your students’ interests. If your input methodology is a short chunk of lecture, you could connect the topic you’re talking about to something that is currently on your students’ minds.  For example, let’s say you’re a history teacher and you have a number of students whose families have recently immigrated to the U.S.  If you’re teaching about immigration in early America, the information is highly relevant to your students, so it would be foolish to miss the opportunity to make those connections.

Of course, you can’t make connections to your students’ interests unless you first know what those interests are.  This is why it’s so important, starting right at the beginning of the school year, to find out as much as you can about your students’ backgrounds and interests through ice-breaker introductory activities on the first days of school, through periodic interest surveys, and through informal interactions throughout the year.  It should be the goal of every teacher to get to know her students as well as possible and to make her teaching as relevant to her students as she can.

Three Simple Strategies for Tapping into Passion

In the section above, I talked about making explicit connections to our students’ interests when inputting new content.  Clearly we want to do that whenever we can.

Unfortunately, as hard as we may try to get to know our students well, we can never hope to keep up with the current passions of each of our students.  For one thing, those passions change constantly.  The kid who was into butterfly collecting last week is now completely over that and is suddenly interested in anything to do with robotics.  The other problem, especially for secondary teachers, is that we have a lot of students to try to keep tabs on.

But never fear.  There’s another way to add relevance into your lessons–allow your students to make the connections themselves.  You do this by building into your lessons processing activities that explicitly ask students to make relevant connections between new material and their own lives.  Here are three examples of such activities, with several variations on each:

1. News/Pop Culture Analogies

After inputting a certain amount of new material, ask students, either individually or in small groups, to create an analogy between that material and something currently going on in the news or in pop culture.  The news issues and pop culture topics that students will use to make these connections will obviously be the ones they have been paying attention to, which is to say, the ones that are relevant to them.  Ask them to identify both how the topic in your lesson is like the current news topic and how it’s unlike it.  This makes for deep thinking, with relevance built in.

There are many variations of this approach.  Instead of going with the news/pop culture approach, you could ask students to make a comparison between the new topic and another topic of your choice, perhaps something you covered earlier in the year (Himmele and Himmele, 41-42); or to make a comparison between the new topic and one of their hobbies (Burgess, 103-104); or even between the new topic and another topic chosen at random from an almanac or encyclopedia (this really pushes their analogy skills) (Reardon, 25-29).

2. Matching Music to Content

The vast majority of students, especially from about the intermediate grades on, love music and are constant consumers of it.  We can put that passion for music to work for us by asking our students to make connections between the content we’re teaching and the music they love.  Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Ask students to find songs they know that relate to the topic you’re currently teaching in some way.  Make sure the songs are suitable for listening to in a school setting (especially if you teach high school students!).  Have them play the song for you and explain the connections they see (Burgess, 97).
  • Ask students to take a major character you’re studying (either a real historical person or a fictional character) and choose a song that they feel represents that person’s ideas, ideals, attitudes, or beliefs.  Have them explain their choices for the person’s “anthem” that they chose (Wilhelm, 162).
  • If you’re studying any short, impactful texts (such as poetry or excerpts of famous speeches), have students create music videos with the text serving as the lyrics.  This one obviously takes some musical talent (Wilhelm, 162).
3. Time Machine

To allow students to get some “distance,” and thus perspective, on a topic, have them “travel” in time or space and view the events you’re currently studying as if they were outsiders seeing them for the first time.  Here are a couple of variations on this theme:

  • Have students imagine that they are visiting Earth from another galaxy (a la Third Rock from the Sun) or that they have traveled back in time to view the events you’re teaching about.  What would such a visitor think about the events without the historical context that you and your students are privy to?  Is there anything your students could learn from taking such a distanced view of the topic (Wilhelm, 149)?
  • Alternatively, give your students the Rip Van Winkle experience by having them pretend they have been asleep for fifty years (or however many years seems most appropriate).  What would they think about the current events when viewed from a past perspective?  Again, is there something we could learn from such a viewpoint (Wilhelm, 149)?

Activities such as these (and there are many other ways to go about it) force your students to get out of passive reception mode and actively entertain the facts, ideas, and issues you’re teaching about.  When you ask them to make their own connections, you’re automatically tapping into relevance.

One Warning: Avoid Selling “Future Relevance”

There’s one approach to relevance that I would counsel you against, though.  Many times teachers try to do what I call “selling future relevance.”  They make statements to students such as, “You will need to know this next year when you get to fifth grade math,” or “If you want to get into a good college, you have to be able to do this,” or even, “If you (aren’t a good reader, don’t work well with people in groups, whatever), your chances of (being unemployed, being underemployed, ending up in prison, whatever) will go up dramatically!”  And yes, I’ve heard teachers make such statements.

Why is selling future relevance such a bad idea?  Well, to start with, the brain isn’t easily motivated by anything that’s not taking place in the here and now, or at least in the very near future (like when students get home), so selling future relevance is always an uphill battle from the start.

Second, by trying to sell future relevance, teachers sometimes actually make the topic or skill seem even less relevant now (a fourth grade student might think, “Oh, I need to know this to do well in fifth grade math?  Well, fifth grade is a long way off, so I have time.  I’ll just kick back for now.”).  Finally, teachers risk coming across as preachers, nagging students with all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune they will suffer if they don’t pay attention to this right now.  When a teacher is working that hard to sell something, students often become skeptical and resist.


Bottom line, if you can see a way that you can frame the present relevance of the material to your students, by all means, do so.  Alternatively, you could insert processing activities such as those described above to get students to make relevant connections themselves.  Or both.  But if you find yourself working too hard to “stretch” the point, or if you find yourself wanting to sell future relevance to students, you’re probably best off just not trying to include a relevance angle at all.  Instead, just focus on making the teaching itself engaging in other ways (working with a partner, using some movement, using some music, etc.).  That will usually be good enough.

I hope you’ve picked up an idea or two from this article that you can use.  I’d love to hear your ideas and your best activities for tapping into student relevance.  Just shoot me an e-mail at info@teachingthatsticks.com.



Burgess, D.  (2012).  Teach like a pirate: Increase student engagement, boost your cretivity, and transform your life as an educator.  San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

Himmele, P. and Himmele, W.  (2011).  Total participation techniques: Making every student an active learner.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Reardon, M. and Derner, S.  (2004).  Strategies for great teaching: Maximize learning moments.  Chicago: Zephyr Press.

Wilhelm, J.  (2002).  Action strategies for deepening comprehension.  New York, NY: Scholastic.