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Why Must They Learn That?

By Marcus L. Herzberg — March 27, 2002 3 min read
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I teach an introductory course in the social foundations of education for students considering becoming teachers. As a course requirement, my students must complete a 10-hour field experience in a local educational institution. The other day, as the class and I were discussing how things were going at these sites, one of my students asked for advice on a problem he had encountered. While tutoring a 7th grade boy who was having difficulty in his coursework, my student had been asked this question: “Why do I have to learn this?”

How do you justify to students having them learn something that they don't want to, despite your attempts as a teacher to foster interest or increase motivation?

This was difficult for him to answer, the student admitted. For lack of anything better to say, he’d simply told the boy he would need to know the material in high school. This was probably true, and may have been enough to satisfy the boy for the time being. But my student wasn’t satisfied. He explained to me how, during the tutoring sessions, he had employed strategies to make what the boy was learning more relevant to him. This, I told him, was an important role for a teacher to play, making important but seemingly irrelevant material more interesting and enjoyable to learn.

I added that, often, when students ask the “why do I have to learn this” question, they are really saying, “It’s difficult for me to learn this.” And then the teacher must look for a way both to motivate the discouraged student and assist him in learning the difficult material.

Still, my responses didn’t entirely answer the boy’s question, “Why do I have to learn this?” Nor had I answered the deeper question I thought my student had asked me: “How do you justify to students having them learn something that they don’t want to, despite your attempts as a teacher to foster interest or increase motivation?”

While some would argue that the best sort of teaching builds on students’ curiosity and interests, the reality of K-12 education, especially in an era of high-stakes standardized testing, is that teachers are probably being asked, “Why do I have to learn this?” with increasing regularity. Moreover, answering this question is often difficult for teachers because they themselves may view the material they are supposed to teach, whether it is prescribed by a district’s course of study, or necessary to pass a state-mandated test, or simply required by the force of tradition, as of questionable value to their students, both immediately and for their long-term enrichment.

Of course, like my student, most teachers can readily supply a valid, albeit at times uninspiring, stock answer to the “why” question. Here are some that come to mind:

“Because you’ll need it later on in life.”

“Because you’ll be tested on it.”

“Because it will be useful in getting or doing a job.”

“Because, unfortunately, there are a lot of things that we all have to learn but don’t want to and may not enjoy.”

“Because I told you to.”

Explain to the student that perhaps this isn't so much a case of his having to learn this, but that he should take the time and make the effort to learn it.

After giving the matter more thought, I’ve come to believe that there’s another, better way to answer the question. And it’s especially effective if the teacher suspects that learning the material at hand may be of value to the student. The teacher can explain to the student that perhaps this isn’t so much a case of his having to learn this, but that he should take the time and make the effort to learn it. Then the teacher can tell the student to pick any one of the following reasons:

“Because, simply put, it will make you a more educated person.”

“Because, just as simply, it will make you a less ignorant person.”

“Because it may keep you from being taken advantage of by someone more informed than yourself.”

“Because you can’t really decide whether or not you want to know something, or whether or not knowing it will be valuable, until after you’ve learned it.”

“Because the number of television quiz shows is growing exponentially, and one day, knowing this may help you win a grand prize.”

“Because it may help you see your world or your community in a way that you weren’t able to without knowing it.”

“Because it will give you something to think about.”

“Because what you’re learning may represent some of the best work by some of the greatest minds in human history.”

“Because it may give you the clues or the background to discover something yourself.”

“Because you have the freedom and the opportunity to learn it, while many people in the past, and many people today, have not.”

“Because you can learn it, and after you do, you will believe that you can.”

“Because, even though this may be difficult for you to learn, I’m here to help you.”

Marcus L. Herzberg is an instructor at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, and a doctoral student at Ohio State University in Columbus.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Why Must They Learn That?

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