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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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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:

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."

Travis Davis's picture

Hello, I'm Travis. I am currently in 11th grade at high school. I see valid points in all of these suggestions, but I feel this only works for the lower grades leading up to high school.

A lot of if not all of what you learn in the grades leading up to high school you need. They teach you a lot of great thinking skills and strategies. Most of what you learn is an intro to what you need to know in high school.

Now that I'm in 11th grade I see that. Well not all of it is truly useful and needed. All of the stuff I am learning currently is not needed for real life. It is all useless and a waste of my time. The teachers even know and state this. Now even if they state it or not I still have my reasons and beliefs.

Say I want to be a chef. I should know all the basic math, science and reading. All the good stuff, but some of the stuff they teach you is not going to help for that. Why do I need to know stuff about trigonometry to become a chef. I don't really. It's said "you may not need it, but it helps you think our problems and situations". That is the universal saying for you truly don't need it and it is a waste of time. All the students know this.

Say I want to be a Graphic Designer. Now I have used the programs that you will use to become a graphic designer and they do not use many math skills. If you ask your math teacher though you need to learn every subject in math to do that. It's almost as if the teachers don't know what you need to know. At least at my school that is.

I'm going to learn all of these great things and know a lot of it when I get out of high school but I won't need to know a lot of it. I am going to get out of high school and not know any useful things on how to live a life. I don't know how to do taxes or even how to take care of a child. I won't know what a mortgage is or does. Or even how to calculate it. That have people for that so why learn it is what the government says and teaches. Well they have calculators so why learn basic to complex math. They have google so why teach anything. Why not teach the basics you need to know and teach how to live life.

I feel it's a waste of time what we learn. I went from a 3.6 gpa in 9th grade to a 3.3 gpa in 10th grade. I now have a 3.0 gpa. This is not because I am lazy I do all of my homework. My mind is just too set on my time being wasted and my lifetime being wasted. I mean come on we waste 12-24 years of our life in school. Sometimes more. Learning little things we need to know. So we go to school 16 years to get the job we want. Ok now you have it. You then realize your working for the government in some way so your wasting money. Also all the stuff you learned in school you don't use. So you realize you wasted time.

What I'm really trying to get at is you can lie to your students sort of saying you need it but I don't know how. They will soon realize they learn if for more nonsens that is not needed. Why do we honestly learn some of the stuff we learn.

Honestly look at yourself and ask do I really use even half of the stuff you learned in high school. Also school in general. I soon realized I only use the basics and so do most adults. I feel there is only so many homeless and "dumb" people out there because they didn't learn what they truly needed too. I learned why drugs were bad but not how they affect you. I don't.

This may just be for my school though. The whole learning nonsense and useless things. A lot of people have the same view as me.

Sorry for all of the grammar and spelling errors my 11 years of English that I should be learning has not paid off yet because instead of learning grammar and reading. I'm learning old English and stuff about poetry. Stuff I don't need to know but "should just know" because it used in no ways at all when your older.

One last thing my sister is 8 and asked me what hanika was I sadly didn't learn what it was only what Christmas was so I had to tell her I didnt know. Sad she didn't even know.

So why do we learn what we do. It's pointless. Some of it at least. Cut out the useless stuff and put in useful stuff. Life skills. Make learning fun and entertaining you may not get a lot done but it sure sticks in kids brains.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital 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.

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