- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

When the first teacher sat down with the first student (probably a parent and child, by the way), there was most likely a moment when that student asked "the question." You know the one. The one you asked when you were in school. The one your children are always asking you.
"Why do I have to study this stuff anyway? When am I really going to need this in my life?"
Well, technically, that's two questions, but the gist is the same. I remember asking it of my parents and teachers, and being quite dissatisfied with the answer, which was usually something like: "Because it's required if you want to go to college."
Or, "Because you may need it."
Or, "Because I say so."
So here we are now, parents and teachers, and our children are turning to us with the same question.
Actually, this, in itself, is a valuable part of the learning process. If you think about it, the fact the students ask this question means they have a genuine understanding that education gives us tools that help us deal with the challenges of life. A student who is asking about the tools offered has already begun taking responsibility for learning and is trying to discern between useful things to study and useless ones. In essence, the child is asking us for information that will allow him to make a good choice.
In my own experience, the responses I received were sufficient only to convince me that I might as well go along and learn the stuff, only as another hoop to jump through to get to some vague future goal. Why was this unsatisfactory? Because it had the result of making me feel passive and powerless about my choices. To really get a sense of power in learning, a student needs to feel the information is valuable personally, not just a vague asset for an unnamed future.
Therefore, I propose we educators take this question seriously, and work it through in our own minds, as well as with our children.
Here are a few ways we can do this.
First, we can separate the information from the process of learning it. In other words, I may not ever need to be able to calculate the square root of five. The process, however, of learning how to calculate it is itself valuable, because it expands the mind it exercises a set of new mental muscles it creates new pathways that can then be traveled at any future time.
Many things that seem irrelevant in a dry text or on a quiz may turn out to be quite relevant in life. For instance, calculating percentages and working with decimals may seem unimportant to a 10-year-old. If that same 10-year-old, however, goes to the bank to open a savings account and finds out his money can increase by a certain percentage rate over time, it is suddenly relevant.
Memorization is one of those bugaboos many students hate. No wonder they question why they would ever need to know the Gettysburg Address or the preamble to the Constitution or Hamlet's soliloquy. Here again, there are two outstanding advantages to memorizing famous passages: mastering the skill of remembering, which employs many mental skills and functions, and possessing a repertoire of great thoughts, which can shed light in a variety of future occasions.
Learning a foreign language not only prepares students for communication with native speakers of that language, but it also trains specific communication patterns in the brain. Through it, students learn there can be parallel ways to express ideas. They learn other cultures have other linguistic assumptions, which have developed from the history of that culture. They learn that punctuation, capitalization, pronunciation and inflection may play very different roles in various languages. Thus, learning language is more than learning to talk, it's also learning to think and feel and act within different contexts in life.
When students ask "Why do I need to learn this?" we also can respond by engaging them in a discussion, drawing out their views and even brainstorming on answers. It's OK if we don't know the answers, but we can help them by taking the question seriously, and being willing to find the answers together.
We might say "You know, that is a good question. I wonder why it's important to know the periodic table of the elements?" Then you can research it. I often go to people who are experts in a certain area, and ask them the questions I couldn't answer for my children. Sometimes, as we proceed to study it, an answer will appear. Suddenly, the child or I will have an "aha" experience, where suddenly the value becomes clear.
This is empowering for the student, to have the adult take a question seriously and apply energy in discovering a satisfactory answer. It tells the student, "Your question is valid, and I can be mobilized by it, and answers will come when that process takes place." That is the very essence of learning.
Recently, my daughter's trigonometry studies led her to question whether a certain application was relevant. Frankly, I had never even heard of the phenomenon she was asked to graph. But after giving it some thought, I came up with two practical experiences that illustrated the nature of that phenomenon. Once she could see the relevance, her frustration with the problem disappeared, and she renewed her efforts to find the answers.
Did you know that Socrates based his method of teaching on getting students to ask questions, which then led to more and more questions, each unfolding a new understanding?
So, the next time your children sigh, put down their pencils and ask in that complaining tone of voice, "Mom, Dad, why do I need to know this?" just give them a big hug and say, "I'm so glad you asked that. What a great question."
Then congratulate yourself and your children on being active learners, not passive fulfillers of someone's direction, because the great men and women of this world have invariably been the ones who dared to ask the questions and who were brave enough to grasp the answers and apply them.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.

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