“Why Do I Need to Know This?”

That is the ubiquitous question from teenagers to teacher: “why do I need to know this?” The truth is, you probably don’t. While nearly every high school student takes algebra, the vast majority never use algebra beyond algebra class. The same goes for history, literature, biology, and more. 

So why learn these things?  Most of what you learn in school you will never use directly – emphasis on “directly”.

It is well established that bodies benefit from exercise. People spend hours on cardiovascular workouts – running, biking, and swimming – and on strength training.

But when in “real life” does anyone need to run 5K, bike 80 miles, or bench press 175 pounds? Probably never. Nonetheless, people work out because they know their bodies work better and feel better as a result.

The same is true for the “intellectual workout” of studying and learning.  Exercise your brain regularly, and it will work better and feel better as a result.  And just as with physical exercise, you get the maximum benefits only if you push yourself beyond what is easy or comfortable.

Muscles atrophy with disuse; and so does the brain. Regular use of reasoning and problem-solving skills helps keep the brain in top condition. Studying now makes your brain more effective later – it might help you understand a contract before you sign it, recognize an opportunity when you see it, or see through a scam before you’ve been had. 

When it comes to citizenship and participation in democracy, a fit mind will help you see through the campaign rhetoric; so you aren’t fooled into voting against your own best interests.

Learning new things not only exercises the intellect, but it builds mental connections as well. Building connections with existing knowledge is one of the fundamental ways new learning takes place. Thus, the more you learn the easier it is to learn more. Learning new concepts and skills becomes easier – it might help you excel at a new job, earn a promotion, or manage your personal finances more effectively.

Sometimes I let my students in on a little secret about the true importance of studying:  it’s not about the content.  It’s not about mitosis, or the FOIL method, or the Gettysburg Address.  Studying isn’t about these things any more than bench pressing is about moving a barbell.  These activities are important not because of the direct and immediate effect – factoring an equation or re-locating some weights.  Rather, they are important because of the long-term cumulative effect they have on bodies and brains.

Why do you need to know this? The truth is you don’t. But you can greatly improve your quality of life if you do.  And that “quality of life” thing – whether good or bad – is contagious.   The quality of life for each individual affects society as a whole.  That’s why each person’s education is so important to all of us. 

And quality of life is nebulous, too.  People sense when things are well and when they are not, even if they can’t quite articulate why.  When stressors arise in our society, uneasy people often look to public schools to make things right.  Sputnik, for example, precipitated a massive interest in education reform.  The same is true of today’s economic recession.  But unlike Sputnik, a recession increases poverty; the effects of which then manifest in the classroom and escalate the unease.

Too often, education reform efforts cling to content-based details as if they were the end rather than the means.  If only we could get everyone to bench press a few more pounds, all our social and economic woes would magically disappear. 

So we raise the benchmark and weigh our barbells over and over again until we completely lose sight of why we exercise in the first place.

Some might suggests improving our bench press scores by creating a centralized online database; so that our trainers could log on, see how much we lifted, and adjust our training accordingly.  Still others might suggest we don’t need trainers or weights at all, and we should replace them with virtual-reality computer-simulated bench press training systems. 

Eventually, we may grow so desperate in our misdirected efforts that we begin to dream of super-heroes swooping down to lift us skyward.  But there are no super-heroes here.  There are only people.  Perfectly imperfect people.

No human endeavor can achieve perfection no matter how many times we measure it or how bloated our measuring system becomes.  Blame and shame games won’t get us there, either.  Perfection is a fantasy. 

Why do we need to know this? Because studying builds our minds, allows us to outgrow our Superman fantasies, and brings our heads down out of the clouds.  With sharp and steady minds, we can push past our fears and stop trying to build a better ruler. 

We will understand that, fundamentally, the really important outcomes of education are beyond measure.

Reminder: Monday, November 22, is the National Day of Blogging for Education Reform. Bloggers across the Internet will be posting and advancing debate on how we can all work together to improve education in America. Be sure to visit EdVoices on the National Day of Blogging for Education Reform, as we will be featuring the latest posts from education’s top bloggers.

Comments (10)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention “Why Do I Need to Know This?” | Edvoices -- Topsy.com

  2. It’s sad that we’re getting to a point where developing critical thinking and analytical skills isn’t valued any more. We are so obsessed with test scores and beating other countries, and we’re removing from our schools many of the traits that have made our country a world leader — like creativity and critical thinking. You can’t always measure those things, but they are important. Education is different from when I was in school, but I’m not sure for the better.

  3. Chris — It’s true. If it’s not going to be on a test, many students don’t want to bother with it. One of the things I always try to stress with my kids is that very few teenagers know what they are going to end up doing with their lives. They need to expose themselves to many different types of knowledge to find what they are interested in.

  4. Remember a time when students would learn something because the teacher said it was important? Must be a generational thing.

  5. A. Morris – I think it IS a generational thing, specifically…a generation who have lived their entire school experience under NCLB. The test-mania has taught them that the only “important” things are those on the test, and nothing else matters. I touched on that in my earlier post (“D-minus?…”). Here’s a piece written by a fellow Kansan, just prior to Kansas hopping on the national standards bandwagon: http://www.examiner.com/k-12-in-topeka/cookie-cutter-curriculum

  6. I do see some point to this. In most subjects, I got it and didn’t need to know “why” because I saw the inherent value. But in math I had a hard time with that. Calculus and trig – I *knew* I would never use these things in my daily life, so I had a hard time trying to figure them out. Not just because I didn’t think I’d need the information in 10 years, but also because in that moment, I couldn’t connect the crazy numbers and symbols to anything real. So it may be about more than just exercising the brain, it may just be a connection they need to make to be able to learn it properly. (Opinions are my own and not that of my employer!)

  7. Jennah – you just described my calculus experience perfectly! I could “do the math”, so to speak, and wind up with the right answer – but I was mostly clueless as to what any of it meant. In hindsight, I think that largely reflects teacher talent. Anyone who is good at math can show someone which numbers to put where so they can calculate the right answer. But it takes talented, skilled teacher to convey meaning within all that process. Here’s an essay I wrote a while back (the title alone gets to the heart of this): http://www.examiner.com/k-12-in-topeka/those-who-can-do-those-who-can-do-more-teach

  8. Mr. Reber is correct, most students will never use the Algebra. However, Algebra is about developing a thinking process. Something everyone is complaining about….not expecting our students to think except in test answers. Algebra is about estimating an answer and actually doing the work it takes to be sure your are correct. Algebra is about writing a language, difficult for most. I teach Algebra and I do tell my students why they need to know this. Many times it isn’t just for the concept, many times it is for “the thinking”.

  9. Where did you get the brain flower for your ed voices

  10. DeeC, I agree with you. The thinking is what our 21st century students need to be able to do. They need to learn how to sequentially think and in the right order. So many of our students do not think ~ we are in the age of fast pace, I want it now, I’ll HAVE to deal with the consequences when they arise. It is our jobs as educators to teach our students so much more than ‘algebra.’

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