Relevance is a keyword when discussing education and training. To provide school education that aims to make teaching relevant to learners and vocational training that trains them in skills they can use in the actual workplace, creating curriculum and teaching methods relevant to students and the workplace is considered essential (Orthner et al., 2013). However, despite the great insistence on the need to achieve relevance in education, there is no common consensus on what ‘making education relevant’ exactly means. The term “relevance” has widely variant meanings (Stuckey et al., 2013), which would be worth exploring.
Relevance is not a new concept. The term has existed for centuries. John Dewey is one of the most prominent educational scholars to examine the implications of relevance for student learning, motivation, and academic achievement. Dewey introduced connecting school learning with the learner’s out-of-school experiences. He suggested that teaching start more thoroughly from the child’s daily experiences. Dewey theorized that ‘unless the initial connection is made between school activities and the child’s life experiences, genuine learning and growth would be impossible’ (Dewey, 1956, cited in Stuckey et al.,2013).
Echoing Dewey’s seminal work, many other scholars, particularly researchers interested in learners’ motivations, have ‘popularized’ the questions of relevance in education in recent decades. Since they understood Dewey’s original concept of relevance according to their interests, the term started to have variant interpretations and meanings in the education field. Thus, it broadly refers to meaningfulness, interest, and motivation. For instance, as the literature suggests, education can be relevant if it is meaningful and has positive consequences for the learner – be it today or in the future. Learning content in schools should be personally meaningful to students—for example, relating to their cultural experiences, personal goals, and interests (Albrecht and Karabenick, 2018:).
In the same vein, there is a widespread tendency to interpret ‘relevance’ as more or less a synonym for interest. For instance, studies on “relevance” in science education show that ‘relevance is mainly related to whether science education content accurately matches the students’ real or perceived interests’ (Stuckey et al.,2013). Therefore, there is a widespread recognition that assists learners in understanding meaningful connections between what they do outside of school and what they learn in school. The issues that concern them in their everyday lives can enhance academic motivation and achievement.
Relevance is also frequently discussed in terms of ‘importance or usefulness’ concerning the students’ career aspirations. Utility value theory assumes that students learn best when new knowledge is provided within the context of information students consider to be of value (Orthner, 2013). One of the most common assumptions dating back to Dewey’s time is that education should be relevant to career aspirations (Albrecht and Karabenick, 2018:3). Studies on utility value interventions in science education have confirmed that allowing students to see the usefulness or “utility” of STEM content they are learning to their lives and goals can improve their interest and learning (Leyva et al., 2022).
In examining the meanings of relevance in science education, Stuckey et al. (2013) suggested that the term relevance contains different major dimensions, ‘namely those stemming from the individual, societal and vocational realms. They emphasized that all of these dimensions are part of a broader field covering both intrinsic and extrinsic components, which have value for the present and the future (Stuckey et al.,2013).
The individual dimension entails that ‘the relevance of (science) education for the individual involves matching the learners’ curiosity and interests, providing students with necessary and useful skills for coping with their everyday lives today and in the future, and contributing to the development of intellectual skills’ (Stuckey et al.,2013).
The societal dimension of relevance consists of (science) education based on ‘the preparation of pupils for self-determination and a responsibly led life in society by understanding the interdependence and interaction of education and society, developing skills for societal participation, and competencies for contributing to society’s sustainable development.’ (Stuckey et al.,2013).
The vocational dimension is concerned with the relevance of science education in the vocational aspect, which involves giving direction for future jobs and careers, preparation for further academic or vocational training, and opening up formal career opportunities (Stuckey et al.,2013).
Therefore, it is noted that the discussion on educational relevance is polysemically associated with the notions of interests and motivations. Those definitions can be subdivided into individual, social, and professional dimensions. It is essential to keep this polysemy and the different dimensions in mind when considering the relevance of a class or training curriculum to the learner.