She leans back in her seat with a look smug self-satisfaction. Here it comes. You can hear the question before her hand is all the way up. In the back row of the class she slowly raises her hand high. Your nerves start crying out like an over tightened violin string. There’s no missing that hand. The class sees your eyes follow her hand and they track your gaze to the back of the room. They know it’s coming too. The question. The big question. The question they all want an answer to, but only she is brazen enough to ask.
“So… why are we learning this stuff anyway? … What’s the point? Does this even matter?”
OK hotshot new teacher: Pop quiz. Do you:
- Tell the kid that they’ll need it for the test.
- Tell the kid it will help them in college.
- Tell them some words about respecting the classroom environment and asking appropriate questions.
- Tell them it is part of the curriculum.
You’ve got one shot to get this right. Succeed and you’ll have established your authority in the eyes of your students and they’ll begin to trust that you know what you’re doing. Fail this test and you’ll be battling for credibility all year.
Correct answer? E: None of the above.
“Ok,” you ask. “You’re so smart: how do I handle that question?” Simply put: You handle that question by answering it directly. The kicker is, that you need a better answer than all the answers above.
None of the answers above will satisfy this student. She wants a real answer. The first two may work for a lot of students. These students will be motivated by grades and college entrance. That’s not necessary a bad thing, but these goals breed strategic compliance instead of engagement. These are the students who do all the work because of the grade, or because those grades will allow them to get into a good college, and only because of these rewards. These are relying on extrinsic motivation. Either of these rewards last only as long as you keep measuring them against that target, but they lose impact as soon as the test is over, or once a student has finished the class. Grades alone do not necessarily create students who strive to learn. The student asking the questions need more than just the next test to keep her interest.
Answer C is also problematic because it discredits the students’ desire for meaning. It tells them that to ask “Why” is disrespectful and inappropriate. Students are conscripts in public education. In order to get students on board with the curriculum we need to explain its benefit transparently and concretely. We also need to make that explanation immediately relevant. We need to explain why this is so important to them that we force their participation for twelve consecutive years.
Answer D is the weakest of the four. By giving this answer you’ve immediately abdicated your responsibility for the content of your classroom. With this response someone else is calling the shots, but they don’t know your students, and you’ve just established yourself as someone who needs to be told what to do as opposed to someone who makes decisions based on professional judgment. The follow up question to this answer is a gigantic “so what?” The problem is that the vast majority of students will only ask that follow up silently and it will consequently go unanswered. This answer does not resolve the initial concern and further reduces your credibility. Not helpful.
Instead of the four options above, you need an authentic and relevant answer. You need to be able to tell students how the work they are doing in that moment will be a benefit to them in their lives both inside and outside of school. The students are trying to make the connection between their schooling and their personal lives; however they often lack the necessary context to make that connection on their own. You as a teacher can provide that context. This student is craving relevancy and meaning from school and learning to write is just as important as learning why writing matters.
The Schlechty Center defines engagement as learning in which “the student sees the activity as personally meaningful,” and “the student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.” This is essential because engagement is the catalyst for learning. It takes thorough mental activity in order to learn new material and student who is merely compliant is not activating the necessary higher brain function. (Medina, 2009)
“What’s the point?” should not be a teacher’s most dreaded question. Quite the opposite. This should be the most highly desired question because it indicates that the student needs meaning, and wants meaning for the work they are doing. This question holds you accountable for the relevancy of your instruction the same way a teacher wants to hold students accountable for achieving intended learning outcomes. If the students are not aware of the purpose for a lesson it is incumbent on the teacher to explicitly provide that meaning. After all, the teacher is the one who designed the lesson and understands where everything is coming from.
Lastly if you are thinking to yourself that, as a teacher, you may be unable to adequately answer the question of “why does this lesson matter to my students beyond school?” You may want to reexamine what you are teaching. If there is no point to teaching it, you probably shouldn’t.