Why Do We Need to Know This?

“Why Do We Need to Know This?”

It is the question that many teachers hate to hear from students in their classrooms. Whether it is the format of the Shakespearean Sonnet, the Pythagorean theorem, or why the Periodic Table of Elements is organized the way that it is, kids spend a lot of time in schools wondering why they are learning what seems like a disconnected series of facts and skills that don’t seem to have much importance to the lives they are leading. And from time to time, the bravest of students will screw up the courage to ask that question.

Sadly, too often, the answers (when a teacher is even willing to engage with the question) students range from “It is going to be on the test,” to “It will help you some day,” to “It’ll help you get into college.” When really, more often than not, it’s because the subject matter in question is “part of the curriculum.” If a student is lucky, the teacher is teaching that particular thing because the teacher has a real passion for the subject, but even that really doesn’t answer the question in any meaningful way.

Students deserve an answer to the question. And we, as educators, need to understand that if we can’t answer the question powerfully, we have to start questioning what we teach and how we teach it.

We live in a fascinating world. There’s more really interesting stuff to learn, understand and do than any one person has in a lifetime — or probably ten lifetimes. Helping students to see the power and beauty of all that stuff is one of the most important, if not the most important, job of a teacher. That is where an inquiry-driven, project-based approached to learning is so essential. Questions like, “How do I be a better boyfriend / girlfriend,” “What pollutants are in the drinking water in my home,” and “How do we build my ideal learning space?” all give powerful answers to the questions of “Why do I need to know this?” for any of the information from the first paragraph. And all of them are questions that could have relevance to the students in our classes, and all of them open students up to the received wisdom, not just of the teacher of the world at large. Equally as important, all of those questions could lead students to engage in powerful problem-solving, artifact-building, and reflection as they consider their personal answers to those questions.

If we remember that the time students spend in school is supposed to be about helping them to become better citizens, then the question of “Why do we need to know this?” becomes essential to what and why we teach. The questions and answers that follow the asking of the question should and will have profound implications on both our content and our pedagogy. And if we create our learning spaces as places where the question, “Why do I need to know this?” is actually the right of every student to ask, but is the first, most exciting question of every day, we can create vibrant, powerfully relevant classes that engage and empower everyone in it.

3 thoughts on “Why Do We Need to Know This?

  1. The temptation is to respond defensively and quickly. Many teachers fear a loss of control or credibility while others fear a curricular derailment. There is the very real possibility that there is no good answer to that question. As teachers that question should be central to our planning. We have precious little time with our students, and it is a shame to waste it. When I have had students question me, and I have provided them with an honest answer that they can understand, more often than not, they appreciate the explanation and jump on board. I like the idea of starting each class that way. It would force me as a teacher to be more mindful. I just might do that. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. One of the things I love most about the Understanding by Design (UbD) model of curriculum planning, is that it guides teachers to create units continually ask Essential Questions and focus on Enduring Understandings. Teachers get to the “why” of a unit.

    Before introducing Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings to teachers as a place to start unit planning, I showed them the following: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4ZoJKF_VuA&list=PLZZQUpfvfouWrDcWnyfUgd8BQVNSGPBzt

    I figure that, if it is important for companies to get to the “why”, it is equally important that the “why we teach what we teach” be explicit in the work of learning. And, ‘so students can pass the exams’ is not an adequate answer :).

  3. Questions like, “How do I be a better boyfriend / girlfriend,” “What pollutants are in the drinking water in my home,” and “How do we build my ideal learning space?” all give powerful answers to the questions of “Why do I need to know this?

    No disagreement with anything here. I will note that educators need help translating these big questions into coverage of required standards.