When we offer students an open invitation to learn, immerse themselves, and explore, they find fascinating tidbits, hooks to learning more. Yet, how do we help them determine what stays and what goes?
Learning purpose affects choices. Writers with purpose select and interpret pertinent information, disregarding or dismissing what they have determined to be irrelevant to their argument.
In The Forest and the Trees, Emily Kissner, an elementary school teacher, identifies a subgroup of students who "persisted in writing down every detail they could find…a common phenomenon with young learners" (Kissner, 2008, p. 113). Further, students' intentions shape what they pay attention to, what they think about and remember, and their determinations of relevance before and during reading (McCrudden, 2018, p. 173). Kissner's solution is to control all aspects of her students' reading. She assigns the purpose, picks the product students create, identifies the features she believes they will encounter in a specific text, and stipulates, line-by-line, how her students must go about extracting important from unimportant details (pp. 105-117).
A librarian who works with a classroom teacher like Kissner understands that her goal is teaching reading, specifically how to identify a main idea in a text. A librarian who is supporting the teacher's reading goal during library research will give students a preconstructed outline of subtopics to search for or a set of notecards with questions to answer from the text. In this case, relevance judgments and criteria are defined by the teacher's goal.
Teacher-imposed goals and follow-the-steps solutions like Kissner's don't develop students' independent use of strategies, including decision-making about irrelevant information. In the AASL standards, the shared foundation of Inquire is defined as a process that builds "new knowledge by inquiring, thinking critically, identifying problems, and developing strategies for solving problems" (2018). Inquiry is not a highly controlled hunt for "the answers." We invite our learners to display curiosity, develop initiative, and flexibly engage with new knowledge. When teaching research, teachers and librarians are responsible for designing a dynamic experience in which students recursively clarify their research interest and purpose and therefore, continually adjust their "determinations of text relevance…[and]…standards of relevance" (McCrudden, 2018, p. 169).
Young children understand that relevance changes with who you're speaking to and why. That's why they nag their parents, not you, to buy them a smartphone.
By asking students to imagine an audience for their research, you sharpen their decision-making skills. Studies have shown that relevance is enhanced when students are asked to take a perspective (Anderson, Pichert, & Shirey, 1983). A young activist defending animal rights will select different information about elephants and fish than a naturalist whose relevance judgments focus on animal anatomy. And, for the dinosaur enthusiast who cares little about either, there is some evidence that information that's not intrinsically interesting could become fascinating—and therefore relevant—if it's seen from a new point of view (Schraw & Dennison, 1994).
Reciprocal rehearsal is an oral reflection strategy to anticipate relevance. Prior to research, pairs of students explain to each other what information they'll be looking for and what they are likely not to need. Unlike reciprocal teaching in which students teach each other what they've just learned, reciprocal rehearsal anticipates learning:
- What would be in your ideal source? Why does that connect to your topic?
- What are examples of information you would ignore? What topics don't interest you?
- Are you looking for problems or stories?
- Do you want to know how it happened or why it matters?
The explainer describes to the peer-listener what she or he already knows and wants to learn. The peer-listener asks what information will likely satisfy that goal. For example, if the explainer's topic is the mistreatment of animals, the listener might ask: Are you limiting yourself to one animal? Or types of mistreatment? Oral rehearsal helps young researchers anticipate attractive but irrelevant areas of research. By explaining the topic in their own words and justifying possible choices, students are drawing an intellectual roadmap and visualizing their destination.
Any instructional strategy in which students reprocess and organize information offers a "high probability of enhancing student achievement for all students in all subject areas at all grade levels" (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001, p. 7). Visualizations can define the boundary between what's important for a student to comprehend when reading and what's relevant to extract for research. Student-created sketches, outlines, webs, and mindmaps connect relevant ideas or show their hierarchical relationship prior to notetaking. Online visualizations made with Canva, Lucidchart, Bubbl.us, or other software can clarify the scope, and relationships among subtopics can be redrawn, rearranged, and shifted without erasing. The coherence of ideas can be established by piling notecards, then sequenced and reordered multiple times in an online outlining program. Notes that don't "fit" can be sidelined in a category called "Neat but Not Necessary" or "Background Info," acknowledging their attraction or early value while tolerating their elimination.
The credibility of information is a factor in selecting for relevance. When students know less about a topic they tend to favor external measures of authority like credentials or familiarity with a publisher over deeper analysis of content. What is worth noting is that such students continue to favor external measures even when it's apparent to them that the content itself is less relevant (McCrudden, 2018, pp. 175-78).
By asking students to reflect on credibility alongside relevance, we prompt them to take a second look at their relevance judgments as their knowledge deepens. Thus, students assess information by how it contributes to their purpose or argument: both the relevance (content) and the credibility (authority markers, source characteristics) are being weighed.
We've seen that relevance is an ongoing negotiation between the expansiveness of open-minded inquiry and the practical process of recognizing relevance for one's purpose. However, missing from educators' discussions on how to teach relevance is a recognition of why students seem to find it so hard to eliminate the stories of circus elephants that are executed and anchovies that munch microplastics. Annie Dillard, an American poet and essayist, illuminates her own authorial struggles with what to leave in and what to omit. She tells the story of a would-be photographer that suggests what might motivate our students' choice-making:
Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly order [sic] them into two piles, bad and good. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: "You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?" The young photographer said, "Because I had to climb a mountain to get it." (1989, p. 6).
Just as Dillard finds it hard to part with the writing she's reworked and reread most often, our students find it hard to toss out effortful work, stories that touch their hearts, and ideas that they've decoded and understood. These facts and feelings are not to be treated, as one second-grade teacher suggests, as "fun extra bits" tacked on to their self-published books (Parsons, 2007, p. 149). Like Bilbo, when we come to Smaug's dungeon-hall right at the mountain's root, our hearts ought to fill with the "splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure." We are obliged to seek communal ways to celebrate this "staggerment" (Tolkien & Catlin, 2013, p. 265). For these are not detritus to be discarded but rather seeds of inquiry waiting to germinate new curiosity.
Anderson, R. C., Pichert, J. W., & Shirey, L. L. (1983). Effects of the reader's schema at different points in time. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(2), 271-279. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0622.214.171.1241
Dillard, A. (1989). The writing life. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Kissner, E. (2008). The forest and the trees: Helping readers identify important details in texts and texts, grades 4-8. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Klayman, J., & Ha, Y.-W. (1987). Confirmation, disconfirmation, and information in hypothesis testing. Psychology Review, 94(2), 211-228. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.94.2.211
Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
McCrudden, M. T. (2018). Text relevance and multiple source use. In J. L.G. Braasch, I. Braten, & M. T. McCrudden (Eds.), Handbook of Multiple Source Use (pp. 168-183). New York, NY: Routledge.
Parsons, S. (2007). Second grade writers: Units of study to help children focus on audience and purpose. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Schraw, G., & Dennison, R. S. (1994). The effect of reader purpose on interest and recall. Journal of Reading Behavior, 26(1), 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/10862969409547834
Tolkien, J. R. R., & Catlin, J. (2013). The hobbit, or, there and back again. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.