How Many Legs Does a Grasshopper Have: Relevancy of the Learning Task

What kind of school are we talking about when we say ‘our school or our education’?

What do we mean when we say it should be ‘reinvented’?

These questions are not only the points mapping out this article; they are also, ironically, the questions that remain unanswered after almost every article you read or talk you listen to about reinventing education.

People talk a great deal about ‘our school’ and ‘our education’ and how they need reinventing, but whose position are we taking when we claim our ownership over schooling:

Those who can influence the changes or those who accept them without being asked?

Those who can pay for the best or those whom we expect to be grateful for what has been offered to them?

Thinking about it, a rather sad anecdote, well-known in educational circles, comes to mind: A science teacher asked one of his students: ‘How many legs does a grasshopper have?’ To which the student replied: ‘Oh, man, I sure wish I had your problems!’

We can say with nearly total confidence that to that particular student in that particular situation, the education he was getting and the school that was offering it to him didn’t really feel like his. To his life and, most likely, the future that lay ahead of him, it was irrelevant whether he knew how many legs a grasshopper had.

Moreover, for the other students in that class, even those who prepared diligently for the lesson and knew the material well but never used it in their lives, it would be irrelevant as well.

As it is said: ‘Knowledge not used is knowledge wasted.’

But can we say with certainty that there wasn’t any individual student in that classroom who was actually very keen to know all possible details about the topic and one day become, for example, an inventor of some phenomenal device based on that knowledge? Giving an interview, some time in the future as a renowned bio-engineer, he or she would say: ‘It all started when I learned that a grasshopper had six legs, thanks to my middle-school science class. This simple fact just struck me with wonder, and I looked at my classmates who couldn’t care less, and thought, how come it doesn’t make you jump in excitement that something absolutely stunning could be done using that knowledge?!’   

Such students are, of course, a rarity, and there are not so many great inventors in the world that we can assume that at least one of them would be present in every classroom. But we don’t know which classroom might have them, and we can’t afford to ignore them, can we? What this anecdotal and imaginary example illustrates, though, is the importance of the relevance of the learning material to a student.

Relevance for learning is like a magic formula—an ‘open-sesame’ code, if you wish—for the mind of a student to open itself to the absorption of new material. However, what constitutes an ‘open-sesame’ cognitive relevancy code for one student can be a completely different set of codes for another student. Instead of ‘open-sesame’, their mind can be unlocked for the learning task interactions with such passwords as ‘open-corn’ or ‘open-poppy-seed,’ so to speak.  

Seeing the relevance of learning material as one of the essential aspects of effective learning is not a new thing in education. That is why the differentiated instructional approach for teaching was developed—when a teacher slightly alters the content and assessment of a lesson in accordance with students’ varying cognitive abilities.

But the hitch in this strategy is exactly that—varying cognitive abilities.

It has always puzzled me how the identification of the fact that students have varying cognitive abilities is seen as the key to a solution rather than an emerging question, and how hypocritical it is that this solution is accepted so widely, not to mention the harm it may cause to a growing individual.

The hypocrisy of this lies in the fact that most teacher training courses around the world are oriented predominantly to the subject material and the strategies that teachers implement for its delivery. Teacher training considers the subjects of developmental psychology and learning only superficially.  

Now imagine a teacher of a class of thirty, with minimal expertise in cognitive psychology, overwhelmed with teaching, grading, catching up with curriculum upgrades and learning new technologies, sitting at night (how can one find any other time for this?), deciding to which group of cognitive ability to allocate each one of their thirty students and how to measure, cut, and stitch together the lesson’s content to tailor it for each group.

Within what frame of reference does the teacher gauge the cognitive abilities of their students? The answer given by the educational system to this question, which concerns the unique, most delicate labyrinths of their students’ cognitive composition, is so simple that, honestly, it is scary. This is because it cuts all the bits and pieces off the precious sensitive cognitive material and squeezes it into the one-size-fits-all template of standardized testing. If the capacity for literacy, numeracy, following algorithms and remembering facts in accordance with certain benchmarks in a given period of time doesn’t catch up with the parameters of a specified template, it is considered as standing in the way, superfluous, destructive, deserving neglect or even ridicule.

This means that those who are inclined to ask questions that are bigger than those suggested by the course material; those whose minds tend to ‘wander’ by finding cross-disciplinary patterns that are not prescribed by the curriculum; those who see possibilities in the new lesson about how to do something different without being instructed by the teacher—they are considered slow, meandering, going off-task, and generally annoying—because teachers simply don’t have the time to ‘appreciate’ their students’ idiosyncratic potential when it has nothing to do with passing a test.

The teachers’ own performance is assessed according to how well their students score on the test. Hence, the students—through no fault of their teachers—are branded in accordance with a standard template: those who are capable of completing the fixed, uniform task more efficiently than others as gifted; and the rest as able, not so able, and not really able. And they are treated accordingly.

In a nutshell, differentiated teaching has nothing to do with making learning more relevant to students but sorts them out into a subjectively organized cognitive quality-controlled gradation. This cognitive gradation-branding burns into students’ minds and grows into their future choices. It controls them for the rest of their lives, turning them into what they’ve been branded from the early years of their schooling.

So how can education be reinvented as something that students can refer to as ‘mine’ or ‘ours’ because it is relevant to who they believe they individually are?

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