Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Why Are We Learning This? What Is This Stuff Good for Anyway?

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Why Are We Learning This? What Is This Stuff Good for Anyway?

Article excerpt

Understanding why we do things is central to motivation. Students at all levels, Bob and Sheri Vavilis remind us, need to be challenged to discover why they study various subjects, and teachers need to help them do so.

UNDOUBTEDLY, every secondary school teacher at some point in his or her career has had a student ask, "Why are we learning this?" or "What is this stuff good for, anyway?" We have found in talking with teachers and students that, while the responses to these questions may vary, most leave students unsatisfied or frustrated. In some cases, students may feel temporary satisfaction, or even triumph, after posing such questions because they believe that their teachers cannot justify why they are teaching specific content. Students who feel this way can come to believe that "teachers only teach us this because they like it" or "they don't know what else to teach us."

Needless to say, the learning climate in such situations can become so negative that both students and teachers become frustrated and even disenchanted with the subject matter. Adding fuel to the fire, some teachers have responded to such questions with statements such as, "You need this because it's on the next test," or "Next year, when you take _______, you will need to know this." Life in the classroom then goes on as if the matter has been settled.

As teachers, we also have fielded such questions and comments from students in our classes; admittedly, we have not always offered meaningful responses. Early in our teaching careers, we often handled such student questions with replies similar to those above. However, as we gained additional teaching experience and reflected on students' frustrations at the content we were teaching, we sought to address their challenges. This attempt to answer our students more effectively led us to critically reflect on the concepts we were teaching to our secondary math students and helped us to create a classroom environment that encourages meaningful dialogue, debate, and inquiry.

The following classroom dialogues are taken from our high school math classes. The dialogues do not focus on mathematical content, but rather on the nature of schooling. We selected them to illustrate our position that fostering a classroom environment of philosophical inquiry is vital to students' intellectual growth. That is, the discussions represent our attempts to encourage students to continue to ask questions about their education and to participate in an epistemic environment that includes dialogue, argumentation, and further inquiry.

Readers will note that, as teachers, we were "off-task" when we allowed such discussions in our math classes. We did so because our view of these student questions had evolved from dismissing them as examples of student sarcasm to seeing them as what are often referred to as "teachable moments." These dialogues exemplify how teachers can temporarily place subject matter on hold in order to engage students in meaningful discussions about the purposes of schooling.

Dialogue One

John: I'm so sick of this stuff. (Some laughter from the class.)

Teacher: What's wrong?

Anne: John's having a bad day. (More laughter.)

John: No, I'm not. I mean, c'mon Mr. V., who cares about "completing the square"? Do we really need this for any kind of job?

Teacher: Probably not. I've never seen a job ad calling for someone who could "complete the square." (Some laughter.)

John: So, you see? How can you stand to teach this stuff when you can't use it?

Tom: You can probably use it in other math classes.

John: Yeah, but that's about it. I'm talking about using it for something real, man.

Cathy: Yeah, Mr. V., we don't mean to be a pain, but so much of this math stuff is just stuff to do -- but I don't see why we're doing it.

Teacher: Okay. I think we should discuss this. …

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