The Compelling "Why?"

Posted on: Tue, 01/07/2020 - 09:00

It is a question that students have posed for decades, so I think it is safe to assume that teachers and parents will continue to hear this question in the 2020s.

Is there a teacher or parent who has never been asked by a child, “Why do I need to learn this?” The compelling “why” deserves a reasonable answer. This is probably even more true in 2020 than it was in the years before students carried a high-powered computer in their hands.

Many years ago, when I taught middle school math, I often heard this question from my students, especially since they felt they could just use a calculator instead of solving a problem. That answer was easy—think about estimating and using math facts! [Just a note: I was and am still a firm believer that having memorized your multiplication facts is key to future success in mathematics and life.] I reminded my students that it was always important to use estimation in order to recognize a mistake on the calculator. While they argued that a calculator would never make a mistake, I reminded them that a calculator is only as correct as the person entering the information. So, if they wanted to be sure they were being charged correctly on their credit card bill, they should estimate (a skill that is much easier when you know your math facts!) the answer they expected on the calculator to be sure the output was reasonable. Then they could verify the accuracy of their credit card bill.  But that’s an easy example to relate to real life and using a skill in the future.

Last year, a high school senior asked me the compelling “why” question about a course he believed was useless and should not be required for graduation—geometry. “Why does everybody need to take geometry, Dr. Alban? I’m never going to use that stuff again!” Gee, I really could not think of a recent example of using specific geometry content in my current role; however, I knew that I used deductive reasoning frequently. So, I spoke to the young man about the way he had been taught to think in geometry.  Learning to think deductively is a skill used in many professions—law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges, doctors and dentists were the first that came to mind. Even an actor has to use deductive reasoning to figure out the mannerisms associated with the character being portrayed. Why, I think I have even used deductive reasoning in attempts to win an argument with my husband!

The student looked at me quizzically and then said, “Well I wish my teacher had told me that. Maybe I would have liked geometry better!”

As our students are able to “Google” the answer to almost any question, it becomes critically important for teachers and parents to be able to answer the compelling “why” questions students pose. Learning cannot be solely about content—it has to be about thinking, creating, problem solving and stretching our brain in new and wonderful ways.

I have asked several teachers to be guest bloggers and share the compelling “why” related to their courses and content areas. Stay tuned. And if you have a great example of a compelling “why” that a teacher or parent shared with you, please share it with me!