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Making School More Relevant to Students

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Dave Moursund


This IAE Blog entry is about precollege education. However, it begins with an example from post-doctoral studies for medical doctors.

A medical degree requires a long and arduous program of study. Many doctors then spend still more time in a residency program. The residency program is a combination of on-the-job and relevant “book” education.

Quoting from the Wikipedia:

Residents have graduated from an accredited medical school and hold a medical degree (MD, DO, DPM, MBBS, MBChB). The residents collectively are the house staff of a hospital. This term comes from the fact that resident physicians traditionally live the majority of their training "in house," i.e., the hospital. Duration of most residencies can range from three years to seven years for a specialized field such as neurosurgery.

A 2010 research study was designed to gather information about what the residents from five internal medicine training programs read as an aid to their learning (Edson, et al., 2010).

Quoting from the abstract of the Edson article:

The majority (77.7%) of residents reported reading less than 7 hours a week. Most residents (81.4%) read in response to patient care encounters. The preferred educational format was electronic; 94.6% of residents cited UpToDate as the most effective resource for knowledge acquisition…. Most residents read in the [relevant] context of patient care.

Quoting from the UpToDate site:

The knowledge contained in UpToDate is evidence-based and continuously updated, but it is not merely an aggregation and report of the latest research; UpToDate presents a comprehensive synthesis of the evidence, followed by recommendations that can be acted on at the point of care. [Bold added for emphasis.]

What I Find Particularly Interesting in this Medical Residency Article

Our precollege education struggles with the task of making its content, teaching methods, and assessment “relevant” to its students. Up through the K-3 (primary school) grades, we seldom hear students asking, “Why do I have to learn this?” To a great extent, the knowledge and skills in reading, writing, arithmetic, and interaction-in-a group behaviors that students are learning in primary school are immediately useful to them and also will serve them well throughout their lives. However, as students continue in school, many fail to see the personal applicability of what they are learning.

Here is an example. As students gain skill in reading, they are able to use the Internet and to access the Web (the world’s largest library). With the help of teachers (and Web safeguards deemed important by our school systems) they learn to access information about topics and problems that their teachers and the curriculum deem important. Note the emphasis on “their teachers and the curriculum.”

Contrast this situation with the doctors in their medical residency. The problems and tasks they encounter are of immediate importance to their patients. The residents are committed to achieving a high level of expertise in a narrow area, and each patient presents challenges that test and help to grow a resident’s knowledge and skills. Each patient is a very relevant “hands-on, real-world” learning experience.

Making Schooling More Relevant to Students

The educational message seems clear to me. We need to make schooling more relevant to the perceived needs, wants, and interests of the students. Schooling needs to become more student centered and student driven.

Good teachers understand this and work to make their classes more relevant. In doing so, they often encounter conflict from major educational stakeholders who want to make schooling more uniform, and seek to measure success by state, national, and international testing.

The Common Core State Standards in Math and the English Language Arts provide an excellent example of this problem. At their heart, they place considerably increased emphasis on learning with and for understanding. This includes learning to learn and learning to deal with novel, complex problems. These problems, however, may have little or no relevance for the students. The medical residents, in contrast, are learning to solve problems that are relevant to their interests and to their patients’ interests. The test-driven CCSS curriculum is weak in this regard.

Good teachers and many education researchers have discovered and developed a variety of ways to make schooling more relevant to students. For example, read Tellin’ Ain’t Teachin’ by Spencer Kagen (2012). We know the values of involving students in small group and whole class discussions, cooperative learning, and Project-based Learning. We understand the educational values of having students participate in a wide range of group activities such as choir, orchestra, dance, theater, journalism club, robotics club, competitive and non-competitive sports, and community service.

What did you learn in school today?

I frequently ask children, “What did you learn in school today?” I seldom get an answer that helps me to believe these children are getting a good education. Perhaps someday I will get an answer such as the following:

We have been learning about the idea of “researchable” questions. Today I posed a researchable question about [child names a personally relevant topic], and I used the Web to gather information about this question. I then used my word processor to write an answer, spell-checked and grammar-checked it, and edited my answer. I shared my question and the answer with two of my fellow students, did a little more editing on my answer, and emailed it to my teacher.

What You Can Do

Think carefully about your personal beliefs about what constitutes a good education. To what extent is your teaching driven by your personal beliefs, and to what extent is it driven by the top-down prescribed content pedagogy in your district/state, and by the assessment approaches currently being used to try to improve education? Work to achieve a personal balance that increases the quality of education your students are obtaining and also increases your job satisfaction.


Edson, R.S., Beckman, T.J., West, C.P., Aronowitz, P.B., Badgett, R.G., Feldstein, D.A., Henderson, M.C., Kolars, J.C., & McDonald, F.S. (2010). A multi-institutional survey of internal medicine residents' learning habits. PubMed. Retrieved 8/5/2014 from

Kagan, S. (September, 2012). Tellin’ ain’t teachin.’ IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 8/5/2014 from

Suggested Readings from IAE

Moursund, D. (2014). Critical thinking. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/5/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2014). Using grand challenges in project-based education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/5/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2013). Education for the future. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/5/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2013). Setting and achieving personal learning goals. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/5/2014 from

Moursund, D. (2013). Empowering learners and teachers. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 8/5/2014 from

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R. (2013). Common Core State Standards for K-12 education in America. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Down load a free Microsoft Word file from Download a free PDF file from

Moursund, D. (10/23/2012). In Math Education and Other Disciplines: Asking the “Right” Researchable Questions. IAE Blog. Retrieved 8/16/2014 from

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Wednesday, 27 October 2021

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