Designing High School Curriculums for Relevance

How to help students make sense of the world, one class at a time
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Sponsored by Eastside Prep

In court proceedings, the query “Relevance?” often arises. Implied in the question is the idea that testimony needs to pertain to the substance of the case and the argument being made. In some way, shape, or form  “How is this relevant?” is what Eastside Prep teachers ask 50 times a day. 

How is this relevant to the topic at hand? How can I make this more relevant to all of my students?  How can I make this more relevant for that one student?”

The goal is to help students make better sense of the world around them.

Making sense of the world is about telling a story. Students’ stories about the world and how it works come from experiences they have -- with their families, at school and outside of school. The narrative framework on which students hang different pieces of information is a schema: the story they construct based on what they already know, how they think and the stories of other people.


At EPS, our job is to create experiences that help students build and evolve their grand schema, increasing the complexity and clarity of their story, and honing their ability to make meaning. To help students in this pursuit, we design these experiences with four things in mind.

(1) Active Engagement

How can information be framed to encourage deep and lasting engagement?

In his classic 1963 essay, “Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. references Socrates’ reflection that framing ideas in the form of a question causes a tension in the mind.  This tension is the catalyst that sparks curiosity and fuels deeper thinking. In the middle and upper schools, we approach learning as sets of questions to be answered, problems to be solved, scenarios to be navigated and predictions that require accuracy. We use big questions like How can we think about global problems in a way that makes them solvable? (Ethics and Entrepreneurialism), and smaller, more focused questions, like What are some characteristics of relationships between variables? (Algebra 1). We practice asking and answering questions to create an urgency to understand.

The EPS math faculty is building a series of “central conflicts” at the start of lessons based on the work of Dr. Dan Meyer. Exposed to a specific scenario like watching a 10-second clip of a hose filling a large container, students encounter a lack of information which forces them to grapple with what question they want to answer, and to consider what information and thinking they need to resolve the conflict. From Introduction to Mathematical Thinking through Advanced Calculus, we create relevance and fuel engagement through a need for resolution.

(2) Integrating Previous Knowledge with New Knowledge

How can the web of knowledge developed in each academic discipline be strengthened over time?

Ideas also gain relevance when they are connected to concepts that students know from previous coursework. In Biology, this may start with a basic understanding of heredity and genetics, knowledge that is later deepened when exploring how software is used to aggregate and analyze genetic data in a bioinformatics. In the ninth- and 10th-grade Humanities program’s Capstone Project, students identify connections from their first course in Pre-History to their sixth course in the Modern Asian, African or Middle East History. The historical subject matter becomes more relevant when students construct a full story of the progression of human society, from its roots to the present, and to predict its future course.

Rather than always looking at the world as separated into five, six or seven different subject areas, we look for issues that reveal an integrated world. Eastside Prep faculty construct courses and projects that make connections between different subject areas and encourage students to draw connections of their own. In a course like the Economics of Development, students investigate macroeconomic concepts and their connection to local solutions in the developing world. In Urban Planning, students investigate how the history, economics and politics of urban and suburban communities develop, and how the designed world around them has impact on the quality of their daily lives. They evolve their idea of how the world works and how they might contribute to making it better.

(3) Building and Doing

How can building and doing deepen knowledge and make the learning process overt?

For information to be relevant, it is important that students have something to do with it. They need to create products, see the progression of their learning process and find diverse and creative ways to express their thinking. In new arts classes like Art Meets Tech, Printmaking and Paper Engineering, students find relevance in creation. In the Environmental Practices courses, each of the lab science courses, service learning and action projects in U.S. History, students learn by doing. Whether mapping the impact of machine learning on human productivity and culture in The Evolution of Society or tweaking code to get a 3D-printing design just right in Physical Meets Digital, students live their knowledge by creating and tuning products, always looking to answer the next question and working to refine their thinking.

(4) Application to the World Outside of School

How can we connect course content to current issues, problems and solutions?

The approach to relevance that sounds the most simple – making coursework relevant to real work being done in the real world – is the most challenging and rewarding to bring into the classroom. This fall, EPS launches an upper school seminar program comprised of 31 offerings, the lion’s share of which explore topics that have application to today’s world. Fueled by both faculty and student interests, these short, five-week explorations provide students the opportunity to be interested, and explore topics from Biomimicry to Grand Controversies in Global Health. Coursework is relevant because it is focused on the now.

The term curriculum translates literally as the road. All schools have a curricula that has a starting and ending point; at EPS the fifth and 12th grades, respectively. In most schools each student travels a similar road and arrives at an end point with similar experiences and knowledge. At EPS, while we use the linear progression from grades five through 12 to help us understand where students are and what they're doing; we have an eye on the way students intentionally and unintentionally leave that road to pursue their own interests and ideas, and the ways they build relevance to create a picture of the world that is vital and makes sense to them. The success of the curriculum is not dictated by its linearity, but the schema that those participating in it construct. At EPS relevance is the order of every day.