Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why does it matter?

I just read an interesting post, addressing a student's question "Why does this matter?" and it's got me thinking.

As a teacher, being prepared to answer the question of how whatever we're teaching is relevant is important. In fact, I hope that it drives our planning, that we are riveted, fascinated, engaged in the usefulness and application of what we teach. If we are clear about the context, meaning, beauty and application of a given lesson, being transparent about the topic preempts the question.

In my experience, whenever this question does get asked it's not because they actually want to know why a lesson or topic is important. It's because they're not learning. If they have time to ask this question, either they are not experiencing enough challenge or they are not experiencing enough success and one or the other is arresting their learning.

"What's the point" is code for "I'm bored and I don't want to do this because it doesn't matter" or "I'm lost, and I've been lost, and I don't want to do this because it sucks to feel lost." In either case, an explanation of the value of the topic doesn't actually address the real concern: if actually doing the math is not interesting or engaging or challenging enough to capture their interest, no amount of verbal explanation is likely to help; if they are too confused to do the math in the first place, no amount of verbal explanation is going to get them to "get it."

I think it's our job to figure out what to do to get the kids learning again. Even with an awesome explanation for the worth of algebra, if they're asking why it matters then something more basic is missing for them. When they are learning, both feeling successful and being challenged, the question doesn't come up.