Why Does This Matter?

Why do I need to know this?
Who cares?

Oooh, such impertinence. Why can’t students just learn the stuff without asking all these distracting questions?!

First, you’re not wrong. It is frustrating. It is distracting. You put together a whole plan for the day and if you go too far down this existential rabbit hole, you might never get out.

Second, they’re not wrong either. It’s a fair question. But here’s where it gets tricky. It’s not black and white; it’s not either-or (what is?). It’s not true that everything we do in class is necessarily important to a student’s development, and it’s not true that if they don’t instantly see the value that it has none.

Making the lessons relevant to students is not a new concept. Math textbooks have been trying to do this by making word problems about baseball for decades.

Some Truths to Remember in the Great “Why Does this Matter” Continuum

  1. Your job is to challenge students with new ideas, concepts, and opinions.
  2. Students will push back against those ideas. That’s their job.
  3. When student push back, we can take that as a great sign. They’re engaging with the topic rather than just tuning out.
  4. Even if students are bored by the lesson, and even if there just are some things they have to memorize before they can get to the more interesting things, that can be OK.
  5. Boring things can still be important. Students can learn important lessons through boredom.

Some Concrete Things to Do About it

  1. Connect to your own enthusiasm for the topic. Even if students can’t see why it’s important, your own passion can carry the day.
  2. Be ready for discussion. If a student challenges the worthiness of the subject, turn the challenge around. Ask the class to come up with 3 reasons why they think this lesson is included in their education. Once the class makes an argument for the lesson, now they can make an argument against it. “It’s stupid,” or “this is boring,” is not enough. Challenge them to make a good argument.
  3. Strip away the layers of the onion to find the core of why this matters. When you plan a lesson, see if you can answer the “why this matters” question for yourself. For example, “Why are we learning multiplication tables?”
  • Because it’s in the curriculum.
  • Why is it in the curriculum?
  • Because it’s a building block to mathematical understanding.
  • Why do students need mathematical understanding?
  • Because it’s essential to many parts of being a citizen and having a good life. It’s essential to having a stable financial life, to running a company, and to building a house, and it inspires some of the greatest innovations.

Ahh, OK. We’ve gotten to the core. So maybe memorizing multiplication tables seems like busy work, but let’s focus on the long term. It’s not about cramming in facts, it’s about getting students to internalize that comfort with quick manipulation of numbers. That’s the why. That’s what it’s for. It’s calisthenics for the brain. It’s making that brain so limber and strong it can grasp new concepts, and make the multiplication a background computation while the brain leaps ahead to new conclusions and innovations. That’s why.

In the quest for why this matters, you are never but a couple of “whys” from the core.