The Question

It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten “the question” but it happened a few weeks ago. I was working with a group of preservice teachers, and we were examining the ISTE Standards for Students and discussing how they could be used as a guide for instructional planning. From the back of the room, a student raised her hand and asked the dreaded question.

“When are we ever going to use this?”

I call it “the question” when in truth there’s a whole family of questions like it. Will this be on the test? Is this important? Should I write this down? Will anyone ask about this in a job interview?

If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably been asked the question (or one of its variations) hundreds of times. The question has even been memorialized through social media. A few weeks ago, someone shared a tweet that simply stated “Another day has passed without using the Pythagorean Theorem.” I did a quick search online and found dozens of similar tweets. A few have been turned into humorous memes.

At their heart, the questions, the tweets, and the memes reflect a larger, more existential wondering. Why do we learn?

As someone who taught high school physics for fifteen years, I have always found the question challenging. For many of my former physics students, they were taking their terminal physics course. After graduating and pursuing their careers or collegiate degrees, they were most likely never going to interact with those concepts again. So, while the tweet declared about days without using the Pythagorean Theorem, it could have as easily been replaced with Newton’s Laws or Conservation of Momentum or Ohm’s Law or any of the other concepts present in my high school physics course.

Or with the ISTE Standards for Students that I was teaching when the question was asked more recently.

I’d like to say I offered that student a credible answer when responding to her question about the ISTE Standards. But I don’t know. I remember stumbling through a response about the aspirational nature of the standards and how it could offer a lens for new forms of student participation and engagement in their future classroom. I don’t know if the student bought it or not.

I thought about that question again recently as I read through the Elements of Teaching book that found in a used bookstore. In a chapter on Learning, the authors (Banner & Cannon) attack the question straight on. “Learning justifies learning,” they write, before turning their attention to teachers.

“A teacher’s confidence in the intrinsic worth of knowledge is fundamental to all instruction. Such deep-rooted belief makes a teacher able to relate knowledge to life, to all human experience… (T)he teacher with deep learning answers with conviction and authority more pertinently: ‘Because acquiring this knowledge is difficult. Because you will feel triumphant when it no longer confuses you. Because you will enjoy what you can do with it. Because in learning it you may discover new perspectives on life, new ways of thinking. Because its possession will make you more alive than its alternative, which is ignorance.'” (Banner & Cannon, 1997, p. 15)

I’m confident that is a better response than I have ever been able to offer when asked the question. But there’s always next time.

Banner, J. M., & Cannon, H. C. (1997). The elements of teaching. Yale University Press.

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