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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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"Why Do We Need to Learn This?"

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator

"When are we going to ever use this stuff?" is a protesting lament heard by most teachers several times a year. It comes from students with little patience to put up with ideas or concepts too abstract or irrelevant for them to fathom. Many more students share this thinking but have sufficient impulse control to keep their lips from expressing the same thought. Now more than ever, with Common Core emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving in an ever-changing world of information and technology, there are even many educators who struggle to identify content that is important and relevant.

The Downside of Memory Aids

Unless students are blessed with an exceptional memory, most of the stuff we teach won't be remembered or used beyond the final exam. I no longer know any of the theorems I learned in 11th grade math, would be hard pressed to identify the elements in the periodic table, and struggle to recall the main theme of Charlotte's Web. Arguably, these are merely once-known facts that have been dulled by an aging memory and unconnected to what is really important to know: the acquisition, mastery and application of basic literacy skills. Yet even literacy can nowadays be called into question. If you can't read, you can listen to pre-recorded books. Can’t find your way? No problem, just plug in the desired address and your phone or GPS will get you there. Can't do basic math? Just whip out the trusty calculator. It may well be that the relevance of everything we teach can be questioned!

Watching my seven-year-old twin grandchildren bowl recently, I was struck by how automated bowling alleys have become and how automation can get in the way of acquiring and using skills. When I was a kid, keeping a bowling score helped make math relevant. Nowadays, it is actually impossible to keep score on your own even if you desire, because a computer does it immediately after you throw the ball. When I tried to correct my grandson's belief that a spare was as good as a strike since all the pins were knocked down, he lost patience because the attempted explanation took longer than a few seconds.

3 Strategies for Relevant Learning

The best solution to this problem is to make every lesson relevant to each student. However, given the impossibility of achieving that goal, I offer a few teaching tips that can mostly make that dreaded question about relevance a thing of the past.

"This Might Not Make Sense Yet, But . . . "

Tell your students that not everything you teach will always make sense. Let them know that you will always do your best to explain when they might use what you are teaching them, but that you might not always know. For example: "Not everything I teach will always make sense to you right away. I'll do my best to explain, and I’ll even try to help you see how you might actually need or use what we're learning. But sometimes you’ll just have to trust that what I'm teaching is important to learn for now -- even if it seems confusing, silly or unnecessary."

Use Humor

Upon hearing the "When will I ever use this?" refrain, a high school teacher I work with tells her students, "I'm not sure because I don't know what you want to be in your life. But if you give me a list of everything you plan to do and accomplish, I'll do my best to let you know when we cover something that I think you might use." When kids say, "I don't know what I'm going to do,” her response is, "Exactly. You might need it next week, next year or never. But it is going to be on Friday's test, not because I want to make you miserable, but because at the end of the year, it is going to be on the state test, and if you want to pass, you need to know it.”

Another response sprinkled with humor that I heard from a teacher: "You need to learn this because some day when you have a child who asks you for help and you can't help because you don't know it, you won’t feel stupid.”

Connect Learning to Life Goals

At one of my seminars on motivating unmotivated students, an algebra teacher gave me a paper he gives to all of his students on their first day in his class. He calls it "Algebra Attitude Adjustment." It begins: "So, you are stuck taking this class and having to learn stuff that you most likely will never need. Why do you even have to take this class? I mean, it is all so unfair." After continuing in that vein for a bit, he writes, "Remember that you want to be successful. A successful person would figure out a way to use a class like this to his or her advantage. A successful person would want to take this seemingly bad situation and twist it around. A successful person would take lemons, make lemonade and sell it! So here's the silver bullet -- the secret to success -- the key to surviving this algebra thing:

It's not about the math!
You're not just in a math class!


My apology to this algebra teacher for not giving his "Algebra Attitude Adjustment" proper credit. I know you gave me permission to share this, but I don't have your name. Please share a comment below with your name if you wish. Thanks.

Comments (31)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Navaz Kerawalla's picture
Navaz Kerawalla
High School Math

This seems to be the universal lament amongst high school math students. This seems to be more prevalent with freshmen and sophomores in basic algebra classes.
When faced with "when will I ever use this?" My response usually is "maybe never but ..." then I start into explanations about teenage brain development. I explain the essentials about developing critical thinking and logic skills being at the forefront of the explanations. Algebra helps to think about problems in a unique way. Breaking down a problem into manageable parts and the solution to each part becomes the sum of the whole. You know you have achieved mastery when you are able to formulate and verbalize a well-thought out solution to a given problem and are able to effectively teach it to a peer.
Connections to math can also be made across several disciplines. Of course, the automatic connection to math and science is not the only one. It is also the basis for successful businesses. Mathematics is also used in music, art and architecture. It is prevalent all around us.
One of my geometry students said it best, "Math just makes sense. It explains so much (almost everything) around us. What do you mean when will you ever use this? You use it all the time, you just don't know it". I realize I am blessed with a student who loves math and he is also one that students look to as a leader.

Curt's picture
School Board Trustee

As a young serviceman I was in the remote parts of a foreign country installing Air Traffic Control equipment, and an electronic survey device failed to function. Lucky for us I remembered how to use my High School math. Oscar Has A Heap Of Apples, Sally Carries Them. Thank you, Mr. Murphy Highland HS Albuquerque NM

Stefphoney Grinage's picture
Stefphoney Grinage
High school Social Studies Teacher

The idea is indeed great. I share with my Social Science department members that the incorporation of local news in the classroom is always a highlight as the students themselves make the connection to topics learnt. They do this in such a way that sometimes the best teacher cannot plan for. The way the deconstruct standards to make certain news item they really want to discuss relevant to the topic is priceless and AMAZING!

Danielle Sigmon's picture
Danielle Sigmon
Social Media Marketing Assistant

This topic is so relevant to my experience as a teacher. Students always (& rightfully so) want to know that class is not wasting their time. The "Algebra Attitude Adjustment" communicates the value of education beautifully: that any class you take is "success training." Someone should make a poster for this. :)

Norah's picture
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

This is a great article and I love your strategies for making the learning relevant to students. I also love the idea of a class in being a success. Like you, I would say I remember very few of the details I studied so hard to learn for a test in school. I must have learned some skills though which have helped me succeed in life. Thanks for sharing.

James Kendra's picture
James Kendra
7th and 8th grade Social Studies teacher in Grand Rapids, MI

We made some great connections over the last few weeks between our current events discussions and the history we are learning. While we were studying about the Constitutional Convention, we watched part of President Obama's State of the Union address. He was giving the address because in 1787 the founding fathers wrote that the President needs to do this "from time to time" in Article II. I think they were more interested in hearing what he had to say when they knew he had to do this because George Washington and Alexander Hamilton told him he had to centuries ago. They were also more interested in the Constituional Convention discussion and readings as well. Also, Egyptians were voting on a new constitution for their country at the same time. Should they adopt this new government? The same question Americans were asked after the Constitution was written. We still talk about it today. Will this vote in Egypt be in the history books of Egypt in 200 years?
It is harder for them to ask "why do we need to learn this?" when these connections are being made.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Great discussion here about one of the things that I don't think we talk about enough - issues of student motivation. Something that I've been working on lately is a focus on skills, not just content. I like to phrase this in terms of 'what am I learning to do?' not 'what am I learning?'. This brings a right-here, right-now approach to learning that resonates with my students.

Norah's picture
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

That's a great point, Keith. I think the distinction between 'what am I learning to do?' and 'what am I learning' is a good one. I commented somewhere previously, that while I don't remember a lot of the content I tried to cram in for exams at school, I obviously learned a lot of skills which support me on my learning journey. That's not to say I support cramming meaningless (to them) information into kids at school, but I think the focus on the 'doing' would help to make it more meaningful, as would the 'why'.

janet niles's picture
janet niles
8th grade science

There are some great insights here. It is always a struggle in 8th grade science to convince students that Newton's laws of motion and the other basic physics concepts are relevant to their lives. I always try to provide real-world examples by using sports as examples of these laws in action. When the meteor struck Russia last year, it was a perfect opportunity to tie in astronomy and physics. When confronted with the ubiquitous "why do we need to know this stuff?' I answer that knowing how the world around them works is an important part of being a contributing member of society, and that they are the ones inheriting that world, so they'd better become familiar with the "owner's manual".

Sue's picture
8th Grade Math Teacher, New Jersey

Whenever my students encounter a new or difficult concept, their immediate response is to ask "when will we ever use this?" I try to give them examples of where algebra is used in STEM applications. Some applications make sense and students can relate to them. However, once students have mastered the concept, they no longer ask these questions. Instead, they are eager to come to the correct answer before all others in the classroom.
That being said, I have to agree with you that most of the material learned in school is never used in real life, especially with today's' phones. We can emphasize to our students that even if they never use the material, developing different skills in different subject areas cultivates their problem solving and logical thinking skills.

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