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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 (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Bob Scarfo's picture
Bob Scarfo
Working to bring community-based service learning into K-12.

I'd consider adding two strategies to Dr. Mendler's "Why Do We Need to Learn This?" instalment. The first would be to provide actual situations drawn from daily life situations (personal, professional, trades, arts) for the students to tackle by using what they are learning. The second would be to challenge the students to identify and provide examples of situations drawn from their own lives that may require an application of what they are learning. Both opportunities involve the students in their learning and reduce the "take it on faith" approach.

Ira Rabois's picture
Ira Rabois
Semi-retired secondary school English, Philosophy, history teacher

Good suggestions. I also agree with Bob: if the learning begins with student interest, there is no (or little) problem with motivation. You can begin the year by asking students what they want to learn from the subject or how they could apply it. This might be difficult in some math classes, but not impossible. It certainly would not be difficult in science, social studies or English. Assessment can either be a source of negative motivation (using fear), and thus you need artificial motivators; or positive motivation (excitement in learning or creating). If students are learning material in order to solve a personal or community or even an imagined problem, as in project based learning, for example, the motivation is natural. Or if they have significant choices in how they demonstrate their understanding, the motivation is more natural.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
Blogger 2014

I think many of your suggestions are helpful for some students, but not most. I have an alternative theory that doesn't negate yours but exists along side of it. When children say, "why do I have to learn this?" what they really mean, in most cases, is "Why do I have to be here?" It's more a complaint than seeking information. In addition, most children have been raised in the immediate gratification world. Giving them suggestions about the future is hard to register for them.
Most answers from teachers about the benefits of their courses are really reasons why they teach it, rather than what will convince students why they should learn it. I suggest that we focus more on the present and ways to make students want to be in the classroom, than on future benefits. Say things like, "I love teaching this class, and I'll do my best to show you how you can enjoy learning it." Or, We will be together for 180 days, I prefer to love as many of these days as possible, and hope I can help you feel the same way." Or "This class will be a great challenge for you, but I'm sure with effort, you can meet this challenge and be proud doing it."

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator
Blogger 2014

Great additions to the discussion Bob, Ira & Rick. Thanks for offering readers including myself, your specific helpful.

Bob Scarfo's picture
Bob Scarfo
Working to bring community-based service learning into K-12.

By "alternative theory that...exists alongside of it [my call for community-based, authentic learning]," I take Dr. Curwin to mean a balance of words and actions. That got me to thinking of my experiences with Spokane's On Track Academy (OTA) students and teachers. I've been fortunate enough to interact with them for about four years now. The "magic" as I like to refer to what happens there is just that, a wonderful balance between words and actions. Another way to consider this balance is, "don't just tell me this or that, show me; or better yet let me show you."
The OTA teachers and students do "Fishbowls" with masters' students in teaching, and with visitors to OTA. The number one, fundamental building block on which the success of OTA is built, as the students see it, is Relationships. So, the words are those mentioned in the previous posts, along with "What can I do for you?" and "How can I help you?" and the actions are those behaviors that substantiate the asking of those questions and building of relationships. In video recorded interviews of students conducted by students, those relationships between students and teachers sometimes manifest themselves within a few hours of a student arriving at OTA, some take longer. This is not unique to OTA. I recently experienced similar thoughts by students at Arise, a charter school in West Oakland, CA.
Then with the student teacher relationships initiated, then the words as assignments and actions as student-teacher partnered introspection of assignments begins. OTA goes further. While with Washington State University's Design Institute, we had teams of OTS students working with senior university architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design students. I doubt I need to list the benefits of those experiences other than to say several of the OTA students "found" themselves and willingly talk about the activities that changed their attitudes toward learning.

Mike Dappolone's picture
Mike Dappolone
K-12 Supervisor of Instruction

Hey Dr. Mendler,

Thank you for your blog, this is a topic that I've been very passionate about over the years. When I taught high school chemistry, I think it's fair to say that I was confronted with this question a little more often than most teachers might be. I always believed (and still do) that my primary charge as a teacher of science was to foster creative problem solving and deep critical thinking skills, and, frankly, that mastery of chemistry content was a secondary objective that would come naturally with mastery of the first.

As I often discussed with my students, chemistry was just a context for learning problem solving. Of course, making the work and the problems relevant to real life was important, but also difficult in the early part of the course - the abstractions necessary to build a good foundation in the sciences are frequently difficult to relate to real systems. I'm a firm believer in humor - honestly, it was probably my sharpest stick - but at the end of the day, I think you really nailed it with your "life goals" idea. "Success" is a function of how prepared a person is for the next challenge, not how prepared they should have been for the last one. Learning these skills is what defines that preparedness. And don't get me wrong - it's hard to convince teenagers of this, I'm not so naive these days.

I'd always say something like, "Solving chemistry problems is just a way to solve all problems, I'd tell them. Learn to take these big problems and break them down into little problems - that's a skill you'll use anywhere." Down the hall, English was the context, and downstairs, it was marketing and business. Problem solving and creative thinking cannot be learned in a vacuum - our subject areas just present a context in which to learn more important skills.

Of course, getting students engaged in the lessons was supposed to be the job of the content, and that's a challenge in any class, for any teacher, at any level. But in true cross-curricular fashion, I'd make every effort to stray from chemistry and incorporate as many subjects as I could - history and math and even music and art - in an effort to appeal to what really "motivates" each student. Anything to make a student interested in coming to class, anything to contextualize the topic, would get them thinking, and that thinking could lead to all sorts of great things. Eventually, they get the message - even if it's long after they've left us...

Ira Rabois's picture
Ira Rabois
Semi-retired secondary school English, Philosophy, history teacher

Students who say "This is boring," or "Why do I have to learn this?" often truly want an answer, but not just to their specific question. They are saying, "Talk to me." Talk to me directly. Me. They are saying, "I want to come alive. I want to value what we're doing here." They are saying, "Prove to me that there really is a life here." So, show them. Show them that you value what you are teaching, that you value the material. If you don't, find what you do value. Find the adventure in the apparently mundane. Like Mike and Bob were saying. Find the beauty. I am often surprised and inspired by hearing what other teachers have to say. The same with our students. Teachers, good teachers, see the life, the sincere questions partially hidden in the student statements. What all students most want is to come fully alive in the classroom. So, teachers, set the model. Come fully alive in the classroom.

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