John Mahar's Blog

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

“Why are we doing this?”/“When will we ever use this?”

I’m in the middle of explaining division of exponents and the dreaded question comes. “Mr. Sohn, I’ve got to ask you. When are we ever gonna use this stuff?” They won't ever use this specific stuff, I thought. 
I heard that question quite a few times in my seven years of teaching. I developed stock responses, asked other teachers what they say, and tried to think carefully about why students ask that question.

I always thought that the students who ask that are showing some spunk and not just trusting that adults have their best interest in mind. Because why are we requiring all students to, for example, pass Algebra 2? I was a math teacher and I know that Algebra 2 is a pre-engineering type course. How many engineers does the USA produce? Will we produce more by making everyone learn conic sections?

For the students, everything is busy work if they don't know why they’re doing it or when, where and how they will use the information. For some students, school itself (all of it) seems like busy work. Ormrod (2011) talks about value expectancy. If students don't associate a value with their work, motivation is hard to find. 

Some students, of course, ask the question as a diversion tactic. One student in particular knew that I loved to talk about it, so he would ask one of those questions every other week in the hope of getting me off on a tangent. But many students are genuinely interested in the reasons why they are doing what they are doing and if they will need to know the information after the test is over.

In my math classes I would often answer this question with an idea about transfer. “I hope you are learning how to take complex problems and break them down into manageable pieces,” I might say. Another math teacher I know would tell them, “You better hope you are using this someday because you will be making good money.”

Another possibility is to try to change students' goal orientation. I try to encourage more responsibility on their part by asking them to change 
from the question, “What do I need to know and have to do for this course?”
to, “What am I committed to understanding, and how do I engage with this class and its content to best pursue that understanding?”

Those answers justify what is taught in class by telling students about future use, but the truth is we don't often know why we are teaching what we are teaching. Or we believe the lie that the government knows that this is what students should learn. It would be nice to think that the state-mandated curriculum was not produced in an arbitrary way. But if expert economists can't predict what the economy will look like in 10 years, how can the state legislature possibly know what we should be teaching?

So what if we can’t answer the question about use? Is there another way to create value for what goes on in your classroom? I came to a realization recently by having a class that I wanted to “get something out of.” “I’m not going to use any of this stuff!” I complained (to myself). I knew I needed to readjust my attitude because I wouldn't get anything out of the class if I thought it was useless. I thought back to something my Uncle Brother, aka Thomas Berry, said to me about the earth and environmentalism. Among humans, he said, use is the lowest of the low. No one likes to be used. So why is that an acceptable mode of relation with the planet that sustains our life? So I worked to value the time and interactions I was having with the professor and other students. Once I was over my bad attitude and developed relationships with my classmates, my mind opened up to the possibilities of application and (oh man, surprise!) use for the content of the course. 

Why do we have to use everything from class? Class is something we do, and serves a purpose beyond utility. Class is a place where members of the community come together, go through various rituals, take state-mandated high-stakes tests, and sometimes even do some cool stuff like discuss issues and learn about each other and the community we share. Those things have value in and of themselves. Among humans, if you said I only want to hang out with you if I can use you, that would probably ruin the relationship. Why is it ok to only do schooling if it can be used?

What will you say when your students ask those questions? Will talking about values other than utility work for your students? 


At 11:46 AM, Blogger Samantha Bowman said...

Granted, I will be teaching younger children, but I think that this is why we should incorporate authentic activities into the classroom and have performance assessments. this will help children see the use of the things they learn, whether or not they can use it in the future. It will give them some idea of how someone could use it.

At 2:46 PM, Blogger wellspoken said...

The actual truth is that we "use" everything we learn and experience in life whether it applies directly or not. What we learn is not always as important as how we learn or how we stop to help another human being. I think we are sometimes just put in a place to make a difference to someone else, and I don't mean academically altho that could be a part of it. The person we are five years from now depends on the books we read, the people we associate with and basically what we input. As you discovered, our attitude toward any activity is a large factor in what we receive from the activity. And sometimes, we just need to stop and realize it's NOT all about me! Sometimes we participate to help others lives, just as countless others have done for us.

At 2:53 PM, Blogger wellspoken said...

I have thought a lot about this question and have come to the conclusion that everything we do becomes a part of us in some way, either positive or negative.
The fact is that what we input helps determine the person we become and often we just need to learn that it's NOT all about me.
As you have discovered, your attitude in large part decides what you will take away from any experience and that is something we each get to choose!I've also learned that sometimes I am put into situations to help someone else, and often that is not just academics. If we open up to the possibility that we may have something to offer someone else who may be struggling and realize that others have invested their precious time into us it often makes the situation easier to bear.
Great question to think about!


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