The ‘relevance’ question, and how to address it in the classroom

As an ethnomusicologist who both lectures at the university level, and teaches primary and secondary students, I take great interest in seeing the different perspectives students bring to a topic. This is compounded with my own research interests, which lead me to read a great deal of material which often seems abstract and impenetrable. I often ask myself what value a complex article in a journal can have to a student studying music at an IB level, or to an undergraduate whose dissertation I’m supervising. Within academia, it is not difficult to feel like life happens in — to borrow a phrase often used in the media these days — an ivory tower.

Teaching is necessarily a grounding act, that forces the academic to question, rethink, and reframe ideas. As such, I use these principles to help guide my teaching approach and make lessons engaging and interesting, while also ensuring that students continue to do the hard work of thinking critically:

  1. It’s okay to end up with more questions than we started with.
  2. Many of these questions can be addressed effectively using the appropriate tools and frameworks.
  3. These tools and frameworks are not beyond the understanding of students at any level; they can get their heads around them.
  4. As a teacher, it’s my job to give students the tools they can use effectively at each stage of their development and education.
  5. And finally, there’s more to read and learn for the student who wants it, and it’s a worthwhile endeavour to do so — even if it’s a difficult book in which they don’t understand every single word.

Does this work? I can safely say that, as an educator, some of my biggest accomplishments have been when I see the look on a student’s face when confusion turns to clarity, or when they finally ‘get’ something. The principles above help this to happen more often in my classrooms, and I hope it will continue to do so.