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Topic: "Why Do We Need to Learn This?"
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
"Why Do We Need to Learn This?"
Posted: Feb 7, 2014 4:19 PM
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From edutopia, Thursday, January 23, 2014.See
"Why Do We Need to Learn This?"

By Allen Mendler

"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!
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Photo credit: Amanda Richards via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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