Back when I was a classroom teacher, the question I least liked hearing from my students was, “When will I ever need to know this?” My late spouse, who taught fifth grade, liked the query even less than I did.
We were lucky. She was teaching foundational skills in reading, writing, and mathematics, content that arguably shows up in most people’s adult lives. Even if her kids don’t need to know the name of the builder of the steppe pyramid at Saqqara (part of her “Egypt unit”), they’ll still see pyramids and maybe remember a few things (if not why the Lower Nile is in the north, but, hey.)
I was mostly a humanities teacher, and I came into the field when the old days of detailed grammar analysis and the memorization of lists of monarchs (with dates) were largely over. I could make the case for “critical analysis,” global awareness, and effective writing, a case that might have been harder to make for being able properly to identify and use the past perfect subjunctive, or the rigorous diagramming of sentences (which I admit I sort of enjoyed as a student). At least when I periodically taught Latin, the whole enterprise was understood to be patently irrelevant in the sense of future application, except for “It’ll help on your SATs.” Did it? Mihi vincet.
I look back on this line of questioning and realize that I heard it less and less as I taught older students. “Why?” seemed ever to be on the tongues of my middle schoolers, but junior and seniors tended to absorb unquestioningly whatever they were being asked to learn.
It occurs to me that all learning in the latter years of high school, no matter how obscure or filled with tiny motes of content to be memorized, is probably seen, like Latin, as having enormous if utterly unfathomable instrumental value: “You need to know it for college!” And probably, too, for that awesome job you’ll get after graduating from “a good college.”
At the panel discussion that closed the Disrupting Education Symposium at Perkiomen School (an ICG Partner School in Pennsburg, PA) in November, the received truth of curriculum being relevant simply because it is what we have decided to teach came under fire from Ted Dintersmith (the producer of Most Likely to Succeed and the author of the recent What School Could Be) and others. I am guessing the other members of the audience were also a bit taken aback, for I imagine that just about every teacher finds themselves sometimes hiding behind a kind of shield that protects us from looking at much of the content we teach from the point of view of whether we’ve ever used it in adult life. Factoring polynomials? I just figure math folks, CPAs, and scientists do it all the time. Splitting infinitives? I always imagine that someone in the Grammar Police is reading whatever I write, and so I try, usually, to not not to do it.
But factoring polynomials received unanimous acclaim from the panel for its notable absence from anyone’s adult experience, as did Coulomb’s Law—this from a panel that included two electrical engineers. No one dragged out “quantitative thinking” or “fundamental understanding” as justifications for having kids learn this stuff. Building “grit” through the process of mastery was about the best any of the panelists could come up with. (Or “up with which any of the panelists could come;” sorry, Grammar Cop.)
I’ve written here before of relevance, but the points made at Perkiomen made me think about the concept in a new and clearer light. I don’t want to start a debate with those who believe that all the minutiae of their course content is essential to a meaningful future life, but I wonder how much of what we teach in the belief that it is somehow paradigmatic content could be completely—completely!—replaced by more practical, more authentically relevant learnings when embedded in far more experiential and problem-based kinds of curricula?
As I listened to the discussion at Perkiomen I was challenged to reflect on my own responses to “When will I ever need this?” I wonder now if my high-minded (and slightly defensive) belief in what I was doing clouded my ability really to see the implications of the question and to give an honest answer based on my own real experience. Maybe, or maybe not. But I finally realize that it’s not a stupid or annoying question; at worst, it’s just a slightly clunky adolescent paraphrase of the real question, “Why does this matter?”
At the risk of troubling your sleep, I invite you to ponder the totality of what you may be teaching and ask yourself, “Why does this matter?” There are solid answers, compelling answers, but let these answers lead you to deeper and more comprehensive ways of considering content.
As we seek these fundamental perspectives, I believe, we can begin to discern hints and even outlines of new and more effective ways of conceptualizing and teaching what truly matters.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)