This year, I have a wonderful, clever, talkative student in my class; let’s call him Brady. Brady is bright, charming and REALLY not a fan of formal education. The written word is difficult for him and if a task requires reading and writing, Brady becomes a master of avoidance. One of his favourite refrains when I begin to teach just about anything is “Why do I need to learn this anyway? When will I use it in my life?”
I know that part of the reason Brady asks is simply to lure me into a debate on the advantages of a formal education —anything to steer us away from his assigned work. But I also know that he really sees much of the subject matter rather useless. He just can’t see how reading a broken line graph or conjugating an irregular verb matters to his life.
And truthfully, often it doesn’t.
I’m not sure what job Brady will want in the future or what successes life has in store for him, but he probably will not need to know how to differentiate between a homophone and a homonym. He most likely won’t be called upon to create a stem and leaf plot in his daily routine. I can assure you that although I spent an entire high school semester mastering the use of the quadratic formula, today I couldn’t even tell you what it was, never mind how to use it.
But, Brady, when you read this post (as it will be assigned as required reading) don’t think for a minute that this gives you an excuse to put your feet up. Just because the subject matter may not directly link to your view of your future self, you still need to do the work! Why, you may ask.
Well, for all my Brady’s, past, present, and future and for all your kids who look at you over their homework and ask, “Why do I need to learn this?” here are my top five answers.
No matter where the future takes you, your brain is going to need to know how to learn. You will need to have the ability to take in new information, to move it to your long-term memory and to be able to use it effectively. In your future relationships, you will need to be able to relate to people, to cooperate with others and to understand different ways of thinking. And, without lots and lots of practice, your brain is not going to know how to do this.
School is the place where you learn how to learn. You are taught to think critically and to make sense of complicated situations. Solving a problem in math trains your brain to be able to solve problems in life. Analyzing the author’s intention in a novel teaches you how to see other’s point of view. Every time you learn something new in school, you are creating a roadway in your brain that future information can drive across. The subject matter is just the tool we use to teach you how to learn.
The human brain needs to be challenged, flexed and used. As people age, they are encouraged to stay mentally active to help fight off Alzheimer’s and dementia. Like our muscles, the brain can atrophy with lack of use. Just like you need to feed your body with nutritious food and exercise your muscles daily, you also need to feed your intellect with information and exercise your mind frequently. You need to push your brain to take on new challenges every day.
School is a place where your grey matter gets exercise and your memory gets a work out. Memorizing dates for your history test won’t mean those facts will still be with you in twenty years time, but it will mean you’ve strengthened your brain so it will be better able to serve you when you need it. Currently, the government gets to outline the curriculum and decide what content you need learn in school — but, if you exercise your brain enough now, you could grow up to be the person who gets to change that curriculum for the better!
And speaking of who you might grow up to be, you just don’t know where life will take you. You need to learn what is being taught today, because, despite your arguments, you never know what knowledge you’ll need in the future. Sure, you tell me in math class you aren’t headed to a math-related field, but math pops up in all sorts of unexpected places. Your dream job may require you to know how to write a well-crafted paragraph and if you don’t know how to do it, you’ll lose out to the guy who does.
Oh, and I’ve heard all your arguments about technology doing the thinking for you. Sure, you say you don’t need to be able to read a map, because you have GPS and you don’t need to know your times tables because you have a calculator. Guess what? A commercial pilot doesn’t really need to know how to fly a plane either, because the computers will do it for her — but as a passenger, I sure want my pilot to know what she’s doing if that technology fails!
And, much of what you learn in school will help you make sense of the world around you. If you understand the food chain, maybe you can understand how droughts led to starvation in developing nations. If you understand geometric reflection and rotation, you can easily grasp how to pack a cube van when moving into your first apartment. An understanding of the historical significance of Upper and Lower Canada may help you see how to settle an argument with your future roommate.
My point is, you don’t know what the future will bring and you don’t know which of your skills may be needed to get where you want to go. Don’t slam a door because you think a concept or lesson might not apply to your life right now. Keep as many options as possible open to you by learning whatever you can.
Some of the greatest attributes a successful person has are perseverance, diligence and the ability to focus. School is a great place to master the things that are hard for you. It is an excellent training ground for you to practice the art of not giving up. Some of the most successful people in the world are skilled in blocking out distractions and focusing on the task at hand. You need to practice this! We all need more practice at this. Teach yourself to concentrate, even on the things you consider boring, because then you will be even more capable of great concentration and focus when you're working on something you love.
Use school to learn self-discipline. I promise you that it will lead to a happier, more successful life.
Why do you need to learn this anyway? In the words of my mom and a million moms before her, “Because I said so.” Seriously, most of us teachers went into the profession to grow young minds and to help guide kids on their path through life. Most of us truly care about where you are headed. It is my job to make you a better person. You need to leave my class with more knowledge and greater skills than when you came into it.
I promise to do my best to teach you with the tools I have been given, but you need to take a leap of faith and do what is asked of you. Do it because I said so and trust that I’m working with your best interest at heart. And, of course, you never know when I’m pulling a Mr. Miyagi on you! You might think you are just polishing cars and painting fences and the next thing you know, I’ve helped turn you into a great karate fighter!
School is a place to grow. Enjoy the journey.