Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Editor’s Note: The Relevance of Uncertainty

It’s important, sometimes, to just let things be.

February 8, 2005
Credit: James Daly

There are products now, I'm told, that can help four-year-olds with time management. Can there be a sadder thought than a preschooler feeling stressed because, for some part of a day, he or she isn't doing anything meaningful?

There's much talk in education about relevance, the perfectly reasonable need to make a connection between what kids learn in class and the experiences of life. But there is another kind of relevance at work -- call it "no minute left behind"-that pushes educators to make learning apply directly to specific goals such as creating a productive worker or raising scores on standardized tests.Teachers shouldn't be faulted for striving to meet these goals (they don't have much choice), but we have to recognize there's a limit to that kind of relevance. Call it education's "uncertainty principle."

Though we can be pretty sure of what students definitely must know in order to progress, it's difficult to pinpoint what else is really relevant for any given child. A path to lifelong learning may start as a whimsical side trip that no parent or teacher could anticipate. For example, because, as a kid, she read a textbook's grisly description of a scalping on the American frontier, a friend of mine eventually became a doctor. (No, she doesn't specialize in hair transplants.) My son is a public defender today because, as a young boy, he happened to watch Gregory Peck play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. A teacher may know what to cover in a lesson plan, but there's no way to plumb the mystery of what inspires curiosity.

Relevance matters because teachers need to give their students real-world examples of the classroom's apparent abstractions. But irrelevance matters, too, because it offers food for unpredictable thought. After all, lives are formed at least as much by what is unplanned and accidental as by methodical plotting. Do all the necessary things to encourage your daughter to be a physicist, and there's at least an even chance she'll become a ballerina. Or vice versa. If we presume to know all that children need or want to know, we're underestimating their ability to respond creatively to the unexpected.

Parents, teachers, and administrators are often too focused on pure utility, since they have so many requirements and so little time. The thinking seems to be, "If something isn't on a test, forget it; if it doesn't improve a kid's future employability, skip it." Even play must be structured, purposeful, and to the point. But in this rush forward, let's not forget the relevance of irrelevance. If a kid seems to be off the track, sometimes it makes sense just to follow along.

Executive Editor
Owen Edwards

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