On the wall in a classroom I visited recently was a poster of ten questions every student asks. It was meant to be humorous, maybe even a little satirical, but there on the list along with “Is this going to be on the test?” and “Can we do something fun today?” was the one that always made me cringe: “When are we ever going to use this?”.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good question, one I always felt obligated to try and answer. And maybe the response was easier for the teachers over in the English department or even downstairs in Social Studies. I just never found a good way to present a convincing case for learning Algebra or Geometry to preteens and teenagers.
In high school, the first justification for almost everything seems to be that doing it will help you get into a good college (whatever your definition of “good” might be), or possibly that you’ll soon need it to pass some high stakes test.
Of course, many kids accept (or at least tolerate) whatever is offered to answer their question but it’s a smaller number than in the previous century and likely declining fast.
We owe them better answers. More than that, we need to completely shake up what we do in school and focus instead on helping students learn to formulate the questions and find their own answers.