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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

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.

Cynthia Hanworth's picture

While many of the facts learned at school are quickly forgotten, the ability to solve problems is a skill that will last a lifetime. Much of middle and high school mathematics, especially the often unpopular word problem, teaches these very valuable skill.
Do most people often have to figure out how far apart two trains are after traveling in opposite directions for 3 hours? No, of course not. But having the tools and confidence to figure the world out can be of practically daily utility.

Julian Gudger's picture
Julian Gudger
Mind Molder (American Lit/ELA 11 and Culinary Arts)

I remember being scared to build a website years ago because I didn't know HTML. When site programs developed WYSIWYG software, it was a breeze. I have no need to go back and learn those basics. I see the same thing with some of the skills we subject learners to. We often teach like we taught and think X skill is a must when it may not be or, at least, not worth the instructional time we devote to it.

TheLiteracyCookbook's picture

If you walked into your classroom and told all of your students to stand up, follow you, and get on a bus without telling them where you were going or how long it would take to arrive, they might look at you a little funny. Because that's called KIDNAPPING. But the truth is that many teachers do this every day: they walk in and tell students to do things without explaining what they're doing or why they're doing it.

Then they wonder why students are resistant.

If a student asks you, "Why are we doing this?" you shouldn't take it as a sign of impudence. It's a legitimate question. And you need to know the answer. Actually, you need to answer that question even before it gets asked. I have blogged about how to solve this problem here: http://theliteracycookbook.wordpress.com/2012/12/03/rpm-objectives-or-ho...

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

I really like the Literacy Cookbook. I also readily grasped and enjoyed the RPM Objectives approach and will be employing them . Reminded me of Robert Mager's Preparing Instructional Objectives. In looking at a few of the in class examples, I have to admit that a part of me thinks the kids are still justified in asking why they need to learn it. I understand and appreciate authentic learning. For me, community-based authentic learning much more readily answers the students' wondering why they have to learn something. Authentic learning that integrates students and community members, or more accurately makes the community the classroom has the kids involved in answering their own question. STEM topics and skills (along with the Arts) is more readily life affirming, community building.

TheLiteracyCookbook's picture

Thanks for the kind words, Bob. I definitely agree that students should always feel justified in asking why they should learn something; my point is mainly that we need to anticipate those questions as much as we can, and respect them.

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

Absolutely. I particularly agree with your close to "respect them." I have asked students to answer the question "How do I know when you're learning?" Typically that has led to a fascinating and worthwhile discussion. I'm intrigued to use your RPM Objectives as prods to beef up that discussion.
Once the students identify various ways they display learning, then, given the particular project they are about to embark upon, I ask them to establish what constitutes poor, good, and excellent work. They start the project with their own assessment measures. I never thought of it in your terms, but I guess their having the opportunity to contribute to answering the two questions is a form of "respect for the students."

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