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"Why Do We Need to Learn This?"

Dr. Allen Mendler

Author, speaker, educator
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"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.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Travis! Thanks so much for your very thoughtful (and relevant) commentary on this issue. Please know that we teachers feel your pain -- many of us remember being in your exact situation. And now we are in the situation of defending what we teach to students who feel the way you do. Of course most of what we teach is mandated by our standards -- we don't get to choose what we teach. But we also know that what we (as adults) think is important for you to learn isn't always appreciated by our students.

I agree with you that more practical skills need to be taught in school, such as the basics of maintaining one's own finances. But in addition to those skills, a lot of what we view as important is less about "practical" skills and more about thinking, exploring, understanding and stretching our minds outside of our comfort zone. While we struggle to explain how you will "use" those skills in your adult life, most of us know that we are better people when we learn to learn difficult concepts. It's not so much about using those specific math skills as it is about understanding the world around us in a more complex way. I'm afraid I'm not explaining this any better than any other teacher has... And it does seem to boil down to trust - that you trust us that it is worth your effort to learn a great variety of subjects, skills and concepts because it will make your overall appreciation of and engagement in life more enjoyable and rewarding. Again, thanks so much for bringing your perspective to this discussion. We teachers need to hear from you!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Travis! Thanks for jumping into the conversation. I hear you- this is a really common complaint, especially among 11th and 12th graders who are already looking towards life after high school. I liken it to training to be an athlete. When I played basketball, we did a LOT of shuttle runs and suicides- back and forth- and this crazy passing drill where I always ended up getting hit in the back of the head (as you can see, I wasn't much of a ballplayer). At no point in a real ball game was I ever going to be asked to do a shuttle run. The game was never going to depend upon my capacity to run laps in a squat (another indignity of which my coach was VERY fond). The point of those drills, though, was to get us in shape, to build the muscles we *would* need in the game. It wasn't enough to be able to shoot and defend and pass- we had to be able to pull those skills together in novel ways, unexpectedly and at a moments notice.

I think that's what a lot of upper level of high school "stuff" is about. Do I use physics, algebra, English literature, composition, or microbiology on a daily basis- or ever- in my life these many years later? Not really- at least not that I'm aware of. But I use the logic, reasoning, and critical thinking skills all the time. If those teachers hadn't pushed me to use those brain muscles (for lack of a better term) at a time when it was the LAST thing I wanted to do, then I wouldn't be prepared to understand and evaluate the information that comes my way every day.

Andrianna's picture

Thank you everyone for sharing your comments! I loved reading through your responses and seeing the various ways to respond to this timeless question!
As a second year teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to answer this question, especially when it comes to math. I know many of the students will never use some of the concepts we learn, so I try to make it as relevant as possible and connect it to their lives anyway that I can but sometimes I just can't. I love the suggestion of telling students that this is a class that focuses on "success training". It really gets to the point of how sometimes you need to learn things that you may never use, but in order to be success you just have to grit your teeth and do it.

Although I find it hard to answer sometimes, I actually love when I am asked this question because it shows the students are not being passive learners, but that they want to know the relevance. It also forces me to think about the relevance so that I am prepared to answer this question and because it is such an important question to be able to answer. I always try to avoid saying they need to know it for the State testing because I'm always stressing to students that learning is for life, not for a test.

Again, thanks for all the great responses!

melisa may penaranda's picture

An interesting article this help a lot of clarifications to me that 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.

G Haddon's picture

Thanks for the upfront and honest response Travis - us teachers need to hear more voices like yours in our constant quest to make learning relevant, exciting, and authentic.

geekygirlgrace's picture

(Hey guys I'm in tenth grade and I'm just as frustrated with our broken education system as Travis) Ok you guys literally just pushed Travis's thoughts asside learning and muscle training are two completely different things and nobody here said anything about how stupid commen core is besides him. You say respect but I'm sensing a lack of willingness to address the issues head on only to change the subject. Our questions are simple and deserve to be answered why am I learning this? Don't try to beat around the bush about it if we don't need to know it just tell us that commen core is why and that your sorry and your only teaching it to us because it's on the test don't make up lame excuses. I understand there's really nothing teachers can do about this problem but eventually we are all going to have to advocate for change because I'm afraid I'm spending too much time on useless things and not enough time learning how to pay taxes, what a mortgage is, how to raise a child ex. Thanks to whoever took the time to listen to me.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Grace! Of course your questions deserve to be answered, and I think a few of us really did try to do that. When we said we didn't have control over what we teach, and that standards mandate our curriculum, we were referring to Common Core. Maybe what sounds like lame excuses is really our failed attempts to communicate responses to complex issues. Many, many teachers agree with you and Travis, especially about the need for students to learn practical life skills, and there are many teachers who are advocating for those kinds of changes to standards and curriculum. In fact, Edutopia is full of educators who work hard to push back against curriculum and education practices that we know to be bad for students, and most of us create our own curriculum in order to address many of the issues that you and Travis have pointed out. Please know that we hear you, we believe you, we understand your frustration. We are frustrated, too, and we are working hard to do what we can within a big, messy system.

geekygirlgrace's picture

Thank you I feel so often people don't listen to students because we are young it's nice to have someone listen

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Thank YOU for joining the conversation, Grace, and for holding our feet to the fire. We teachers need to hear what our students have to say. Your voice matters.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Grace and Travis, you both bring up some very important issues and as others have said, are somewhat beyond our control. That being said, I work in plenty of life skill work in my classroom, but it is only on a grade 1-2 level of course. I think most of the change on this topic need to happen in grades 9-12 IMO. Much of what I teach on the elementary level is necessary and I do what I can to create problem/project based learning units What I saw that my own children learned in middle school was helpful for them deciding where they wanted to focus their career. My son was exposed to the history and language/writing development classes that now excite him as he progresses to be a lawyer or political activist but he was also exposed to the arts and math skills that he may access as his interests change. But now that my kids are in HS, I wished they could pick and choose the classes that really fit their future and the rest of the classes could be more focused on life skill topics like financial, cooking, social, emotional, wellness, etc. We need to be creating solid citizens in our schools capable of taking on challenges in not only their careers but also their personal lives. It used to be that families were more responsible for developing these personal skills, but as society has changed I believe we need to have options for children to learn these skills in a safe place rather than in the real world where the stakes become all that much greater. Grace and Travis, Thank you for making us educators think more about this important topic. We appreciate you becoming a part of the conversation. Keep up the thoughtful work!

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