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Closing the relevance gap

Sunday 17 August 2014

It’s the beginning of another school year in Prague. The question is always “how do you get started?” Do you say, ‘Today we are going to begin the IA, so let’s go over the rubric?” Do you ask them a mundane question like “What is psychology?” Why not get them to begin a habit of critical thinking from day 1?

David Perkins uses the term "relevance gap" to describe the "lack of connection" between what students are learning in their classes and the world they live in. It can be easy for us as psychology teachers to just assume that our class is "highly relevant" to students since they study their own behaviour as well as the behaviour as others. But as we all know, students can be very passive and simply "learn for the test." So, how do we get them to think critically and close that gap.

One of the ways to do this is to look at the events of this summer. Three stories that have dominated the news have been the Ebola scare in West Africa, the death of Robin Williams and the riots in Ferguson, Missouri in the United States.

Start off by having the students tell you what they know about one – or all three – news stories. If they don’t know much about the story, have them do some quick searches to find out what has happened, or show them a summary of the events on a website like BBC news.

After they are familiar with the story, it is time to think critically. Give each student a piece of scrap-paper and ask them to “think like a psychologist.” What questions would you like to ask about how the people in this story behave? Give them up four to five minutes and ask them to brainstorm as many questions as they can. Encourage them to think outside the box and to shoot for about 10 questions.

Many students will find this task difficult if they are not used to generating questions. This is good practice for EE and it is a way to get them to think for themselves about what psychologists do.

After the time is up, have the students choose their “best question.” Have them write it on a separate piece of paper. Then have them give their paper to someone else in the room. You can do this, for example, by having them give their paper to the person who is sitting “three seats away from you” or “a person with the same eye-colour as you” – whichever way you like.

Then give students about five to eight minutes to do some “flash research” with an attempt to answer the question. At the end of the time you specify, go around the class and have students do the following:

Share one answer that they found to the question that they received.

Identify the source that they used to answer the question.

If they couldn’t find any answer, what was it about the question that made it difficult to research?

You may also want to add your own two cents at the end of any discussion, but this is a great way to close the “relevancy gap” and help students to see that what we are studying has real value in helping us to understand what it is going on in the world around us.

For more on the idea of the "relevance gap" - here is a great short video by Shari Albright. It gives us a lot to think about what we do in our classrooms. I hope that it will be an inspiration for the rest of the school year.


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