09 May 2011

Relevance & Empathy

John Dewey
(Andre Koehne, 2006)
Somewhere between my first survey course in the history of American education in 2007 and my last seminar, Classics in Education, in the spring of 2011, I’ve developed a fondness for John Dewey. I’m not necessarily a Deweyan expert nor do I think he always gets things right. But, I nevertheless find myself frequently offering commentaries like, “This is what John Dewey was saying when he wrote….” My wife reeeally likes it when I bring Dewey to the dinner table. I just can’t help myself. It’s hard for me to disagree with someone who believes that education is on-going. That it’s a process. And that, above all, it is experiential.

Experience & Education (1939) is one of my favorite works by Dewey. In it he attempts to explain that education through experience (i.e., “learning by doing”) is only one part of effective and meaningful learning. Educators must also concern themselves with education as an experience. Traditionally, this argument translates into discussions of learning environments where topics and activities are stimulating, age-appropriate, and presented to learners in a way that resonates with them. Education and schools – as experiences unto themselves – ought to be relevant to the learners.

In the past week, though, I have been giving a lot of thought to another issue of relevance in education. Materials, tasks, and the environment, need to have appeal and relevance for students but educators are part of the learning experience too. Teachers need to make themselves relevant to their students’ experience.

I finally started to appreciate this at a personal level when I was preparing to give a guest lecture on – ironically – John Dewey. While practicing my lecture and seeking feedback from peers, I was told by a classmate that it helped when I acknowledged that Dewey can be really difficult to understand sometimes. I mean, he was a brilliant man but clarity of meaning and precision in writing were not his most defining features. So, when I was lecturing on his works, I freely admitted that “Dewey is not perfectly clear here. It’s not easy to get at his meaning. Don’t let that stop you.”

I hadn’t specifically planned on highlighting how elusive Dewey can be. It was mostly a passing observation. But, for my practice audience, my admitting that this stuff isn’t easy went a long way in helping them feel comfortable with their own questions and uncertainties as well as more receptive to the message I was trying to convey. And the more I thought about it, accepting that I – personally – was part of the classroom and students’ educational experience makes perfect Deweyan sense. Not only does the material need to have relevance for students; I, as the person conveying the material, setting the tone, and leading activities, needed to be a meaningful resource in-and-of myself. I needed to be genuine, human, humane, and relevant.

Here’s the thing… What does this mean in practice?

Being relevant does not mean that an educator needs to be “cool.” Making reference to popular culture or calling students “Dude” is not being relevant as a teacher. It may help the students feel comfortable with you (though, of course, it might make them think you are trying too hard) but it does not necessarily translate to their being receptive to the knowledge you hope to share. You are their teacher – not their roommate – and, to be effective, you need to be relevant in that particular role.

At the same time, relevancy extends beyond course content. It means making yourself, your person a helpful, real-life resource in the broader learning experience. Part of this, of course, means being knowledgeable in the field and effective in conveying material. But it can also mean letting students know that you understand and respect the way they feel right now and that the teaching and learning process you are engaged in are about moving forward.

To a certain extent this is simply an exercise in empathy – understanding the experience of others. Being empathetic puts an educator on the right track to having a meaningful impact on students’ learning. Empathy can make you more human and decent in your teaching. But, to be relevant to students, to establish an educational experience that is likely to foster growth and a willingness to continue learning, empathy ought to be explicit. Let them see and believe your empathy in the interest of making yourself an accessible and meaningful part of their learning.

So, as finals season approaches – along with review sessions, office hours, and desperate email inquiries of students – keep this in mind. Being a detached authority only reinforces the distance between teacher and learner. But being an experienced guide who expects results vis-à-vis the material and who actively validates the stresses, fears, and frustrations of being a student can bridge that gap and ensure that, as an educator, you remain an effective and relevant part of a student’s experience and education.


  1. Very true. Empathy, relevance, and experience are essential to the learning process. We need all these components to be *life long learners*.

  2. You are absolutely right about being a life-long learner. The whole argument for focusing on experiences in education is to guard against an experience that turns students away from learning and education. Given the modern tradition of almost exclusively content- and skills-based schooling, however, it is much easier said than done.