Every teacher has heard this question from students at one time or another. “When am I ever going to need this?” they ask. Sometimes teachers gloss over these questions, other times they retort with the empty response of “I had to learn it so you should too.” This type of question from students isn’t one that can be passed off flippantly. It’s exactly the type of question that good teaching fosters. If we as teachers don’t have a clear answer to it, then what’s the purpose of what we do?
Some educators have misguided answers to this question. “You will use math if you become a banker,” they say. “Let’s bring in a banker and have him/her talk to you about how they use math.” Seriously? If teachers need to bring a banker in to convince students that math is important then they clearly don’t understand the question. And they don’t understand banking either! Students aren’t convinced by pat answers or vague references to professionals “out there.” They need real answers that they can use each day in the classroom.
Early in my teaching career, I learned how important purpose is to the classroom. Since then, I have begun each semester with this question: “when will you ever need this?” It’s one of the first things I ask them. As they think about it, I even chide them with comments like “Unless you are ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,’ you will never need to know about what we are going to study.” Or, “I’m pretty sure you will never be at the water cooler at your future job and say to a coworker, ‘What about those crazy Minoans.'” I press them to probe deep into the question why. You’d be surprised how many different answers they come up with–and they are real answers. In our brainstorming sessions, students come up with no less than 15 solid reasons they need to take my class. I don’t teach anything particularly unique or useful. They are just regular social studies classes: Ancient Civilizations, World Geography, Psychology, Government, Colorado History, etc. As the classroom conversation progresses, we even throw in math and science to the mix. Sure, students understand that they aren’t going to love every subject. But they do have good reasons for why they are studying them. They know that they know that they need to learn about the world and that everything in their studies doesn’t have to have applicable to their life today. Of course good teachers know how to connect their content to everyday life but you can’t always do that.
Surprisingly, there is one answer that students rarely think of. To me it seems to me to be the crux of the reason why students need to be educated: it strengthens their brain. We know from years of neuroscience research how young brains develop and grow. We know how important the environment (i.e. education) is on the outcome of the person. Sad but true, I realize that very few people are going to need to know about the Assyrians or how to use the quadratic equation in their future careers. However, everyone is going to use their brain. So, when are students ever going to use what they learn in class? Every day! A good coach knows that physical exercise like push-ups helps improve his/her athletes’ performance. No one likes them but they all know it’s not about the push-up–it’s about the end goal: a strong body. Education helps strengthen the mind.
Purpose is a powerful thing. Even if students don’t ask it aloud, they are wondering about the purpose of education in their busy brains. “When am I ever going to need this?” There are simple and valid answers to this question. Our job as educators is to help them find that purpose.