Why Do I Need to Learn This?

by John Mark Kuhns

When faced with a difficult concept or task, students often ask, Why do we have to learn this?

What is behind this familiar and frustrating response? In most cases, John Mark suggests, the question signals confusion or a lack of stimulation. More important than giving students the right answer is giving them clear instruction while cultivating the virtue of curiosity.

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I’ve just finished teaching a lesson in trigonometry, a lesson on proving identities. And I’ve led the students through some really intricate steps, these involved some non-obvious substitutions. Like, for example, replacing negative cos squared theta with sine squared theta minus one. And we get done, and I show that the one equals the other. And now it’s the students’ turn to practice.

“Mr. Kuhns, why do we have to learn this? When am I ever going to use this again? My dad doesn’t even know this, and he’s successful.”

“What? It’s fun It’s a puzzle. Don’t you see? This is great!”

In that moment, every single response I can think of is going to be completely unhelpful. Because guess what? Once they walk out of the doors of the classroom–unless they go to teach it to somebody else or unless they go to college–they’re never going to have to do this again. That’s the fact.

So, here’s the question. How do I respond?

The Student’s Mind

There are several things I think about that might be going on in the mind of the student when they see this. First, let’s just take the surface level of this.

So, it looks as though what the student is saying is that everything that is worthwhile is useful. That’s an assumption that it looks like the student is making. Now, I’m going to contend in just a moment that they don’t actually believe that, but let’s just think about that assumption for a few moments and recognize that most of the best things in life are not useful. Your friendships are not that useful. If your friendships are useful, you’re using your friends, and they don’t really like that very well. Most of the most important things in life are not useful in the sense of making more money, becoming better self-actualized, and so on.

Maybe what the student is saying is, “I don’t see anything valuable in this material.” And certainly one of the things they might be saying is that they know what is going to be useful in their future.

Now, I’ve tried using this line–it doesn’t work. “I know so and so who studied this and didn’t think it was going to be useful, but later in life, they found that they were really glad they knew it.” None of that really connects with my students.

So on the surface, it looks as though students are saying that what is worthwhile must be useful.

Now let’s just recognize that they don’t actually believe that because the number one answer that students give when you ask them “what’s your favorite subject at school” is recess. And lunch. Lunch is useful. It gives you sustenance, right? But recess is not useful. Think too about how many people, when you’re sitting at an airport, how many people are sitting there doing a Sudoku. Not useful. So I don’t think students actually believe that the only things that are worthwhile are the useful things. Here’s what I do think is going on. Well, sometimes what’s going on, is that students are confused at this moment.

Teaching

In the book, How I Wish I’d Taught Maths, the author puts it this way.

I’ve never had a student ask me that question when they’ve just gotten loads of questions correct. They always ask it after they’ve gotten stuff wrong. So, when I hear a student asking me, “When am I ever going to use this?” I don’t tell them this, but what I’m hearing is, “I’m confused right now as a student.” What I hear when a student asks me, “Why do I need to learn this?” “When will I use this?” Is I hear them saying, “I’m confused right now, and I’m also not being stimulated.

We’ll get back to the “I’m not being stimulated” in a moment.

“I take it as a call for myself to be clearer in my instruction, to be more inviting in my approach.”

However, at the same time, I would argue that there is an opportunity for growth in the intellectual character of a student who asks that question. So while we bear some responsibility, we bear a lot of responsibility to teach as well as we possibly can, we ought also to recognize that when a student asks this question, they have not fully developed the intellectual character trait of curiosity. Curiosity is innate in young children, but somewhere along the way we tend to lose the development of curiosity. Schools get blamed unfairly for this; we’ll get back to that as well.

Developing curiosity

Curiosity, the way I’m going to define it is, that it is an earnest desire to know the truth. It’s a habit of asking “why” often enough that you get to the real meat of the thing, not accepting the simple answers, the simplistic and shallow answers that do not lead to any growth.

It’s the habit of asking, “Why?” Not the “why do I have to learn this” kind of question, which is removing my responsibility to do anything further; it’s “why do trees lose their leaves in the fall?” “Why don’t pine trees lose their leaves in the fall?” And so on. “Why?”

Curiosity is noticing the interesting and puzzling both in the everyday experiences of life and in what’s unexpected.

What do we do to make our students curious? Here, kindergarten teachers have an advantage. Their students haven’t lost it yet, and your job is just don’t kill it. I think it’s Howard Hendricks who said, “If you want your students to bleed, you have to hemorrhage.” So if you want your students to be curious, perhaps maybe being curious yourself is a good place to start.

One of the things we need to do is to stop killing curiosity. And the best way to kill curiosity in students is to spoonfeed them everything they need to know.

“I am the source of knowledge.

You are the receptacles of my knowledge.

I am going to pour my knowledge into your heads, and then you will have everything you need.”

That does not invite students to become involved in their own learning in any way.

The quote is attributed to Einstein, but Einstein said a lot of things he didn’t actually say. The quote is, “It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” And that’s kind of a cutting quote, really. But if our formal education is this spoon-feeding of everything the students need, then what we’re going to do eventually is we’re going to kill all of their curiosity.

One of the things that we can start very young, and should continue all the way into 12th grade, is to invite our students to observe. Take a kindergarten class, give them a flower, and ask them to observe it. Just say what they see. Take a third grade class, give them a complex picture, and ask them, “What do you see?” Ask the question, “What stood out to you?” And then give time, just give some time for students to observe, and then cut it off before they’re quite done. Just like you want to want one more bite of dessert, like you want to run out of dessert when you still want one more bite. Gives you a much better memory of the dessert than if you’d have one extra bite. Same with this. Same with this.

When students are invited to be involved in their own learning, their curiosity can flourish. When students are given activities and challenges that invite them to further exploration, their learning can flourish. But again, curiosity is not enough. Just giving students a challenge is not enough.

Building the Scaffolding

I also enjoy Sudokus. We get a magazine, a weekly magazine that has a Sudoku in it. And I’m not very good at them, okay, I’ll just put that out. I’m not very good at sudokus; I enjoy them. They rate the Sudokus by how hard they are. If it says super hard, I don’t even start. Why? Because I know that I’m going to get frustrated, and I’m eventually going to have to quit because I can’t solve it. Maybe some of you can give me tips and strategies for doing that. In the same way, inviting our students to explore, that’s good. But we also have to give them success along the way.

So, one of the things I want to do for my students is I want them to be able to do their own independent science report or, actually, their own independent science project and write a really good report about it. So I have these great ideas of what I’d like them to do. But if I just throw them into that and say, “this is what you’re going to do,” and I don’t scaffold along the way, I don’t build them up to it, they’re going to get frustrated. And frustration kills curiosity. So I’m saying that we need to take time to develop their observation skills. We need to give them hands-on activities. We need to get them involved in their own learning process, their own learning. We need to have a vision for them to be curious about the world around them, but we need to build them up to it.

When you achieve success, what happens inside your brain is that there’s a little dose of dopamine that gets released, and when that happens, that’s a reward that you seek again. So, going back to my example, this intricate identity in trigonometry. If students have been built up to it, they can see this as a puzzle–and some do–but if they don’t have the proper background, it’s just confusing, and they’re not going to be curious anymore.

So what should I have done? They need to know it to pass the test. What do I do?

What if, instead of walking them through all these intricate steps, I just ask them what they know. And we take a little longer, but I have students involved in the process. What if, before doing all of that, I check and make sure that they actually understand all the background material needed? What if I put a couple of trig identities on the board ahead of time just to make sure that they have those in hand? In other words, what if I build them up to seeing these math problems the way I do?

[Question from Audience]

One of the things we need to do is we need to be paying attention to where our students are. Sorry, I’m going to throw a big term out. Zone of Proximal Development is a term we need to be teaching. So if you think about the students’ knowledge as being kind of like an island, the zone of proximal development is the beach on the island where you can kind of extend things. It’s the area of knowledge in which they can learn. If I’m trying to teach calculus to third graders, I don’t care how curious they are, they’re not going to follow me, right? If I’m trying to teach addition facts to 12th graders, they’re going to be bored no matter how curious they are because that’s well within the island. So that’s part of us being good teachers, is recognizing where their zone of proximal development is.

It’s a great question. Thank you.

Conclusion

I believe that our schools should be places where curiosity flourishes. I believe that our students ought to learn in our schools, but more importantly, they ought to learn to love learning. Our schools ought to be places where we as teachers and they as students together can enjoy the process.

And when that happens, no longer will it be said that curiosity has to survive formal education. Rather, curiosity survives longer because of formal education. I should say that it flourishes in formal education. And if that is true, then indeed “knowledge will grow from more to more.” And, more “reverence will be built in us.” And then “the mind and soul” together “will make one music as before,” but faster.

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CONTRIBUTOR: John Mark Kuhns

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