Why do I have to learn this when I will never have to use this in real life?

Thanks to a video by suli breaks that is going viral at the moment (at least 10 people have sent it to me) this question is rearing its ugly head again.

For the record, I like Suli. I think that unlike many he is standing up and saying something and all credit to him for that. Much of what he says is well considered and intelligent.

However this question has always annoyed me for several reasons.

  1. Are you seriously telling me that aged 12 you know what you will and won’t need to know for the rest of your life? When I was twelve I had no clue what I was going to do with my life. I suspected my dreams of playing football for Arsenal or playing cricket for the West Indies were not going pan out. If you had told me I was going to be a teacher I would have laughed in your face. If you told me that Latin I was learning was going to turn out to be useful for anything other than learning french I wouldn’t have believed you…
  2. This is a depressingly utilitarian view of the point of school. For me the point of school is not just to make people employable or get them a qualification. The point is to make people smarter, to make them know more, to open minds and open windows of opportunity. If we only taught things that we could say with absolute certainty people would use in “real life” then the curriculum would be very limited and spectacularly dull. Pupils need to be taught how to concentrate, persevere, co-operate, collaborate, seek help, research, figure things out. School is supposed to take the best of the thinking and knowledge that has gone before and transmit it to the next generation. That, done correctly, should make pupils employable and give them knowledge they will use in “real life”
  3. Pupils need to be able to do things that are dull, things that are difficult, things are complex, challenging. Ultimately “real life” is full of things that we have to do that we don’t really want to. If I hadn’t been forced to do lots of things that I considered to be tedious nonsense at school how would I have coped with the endless tedious nonsense working as a teacher throws at me? Think how difficult the world of work would be if people encountered enforced, tedious dullness for the first time at work.
  4. While school isn’t solely about making pupils employable (see point 2), it is about making pupils employable. I have lost count of the number of ex-pupils I have bumped into who have been sacked from numerous jobs because they never learned that sometimes you have to do what you are told whether you like it or not. They never learned that something being boring or “long” is not a valid reason to not do it. Some schools abysmal performance where behaviour management was concerned left many pupils virtually unemployable. If school doesn’t teach pupils how to interact with employers and managers then who will (having said that I hardly would hold myself up as a good example of how to interact with management…)
  5. Holding up Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey or Alan Sugar as examples of those who made it to the top without being qualified helps no one and is fundamentally dishonest. Telling pupils they “need good grades and a good degree to get a good job” isn’t lying. If you look at the people at the top of the financial pile then the vast majority are educated. If you look at the people at the bottom of the financial pile then the vast majority are not. There will be exceptions but they are the overwhelming minority. Most people that leave school without qualifications do not become Alan Sugar. It is POSSIBLE to be successful without being well qualified but it is highly, highly unlikely and it is much harder. Rightly or wrongly qualifications opens doors and not being qualified closes them.
  6. In this age of instant celebrity pupils geniunely believe the are going to be rappers, footballers, actors, models, musicians etc. There is nothing wrong with those aspirations but there is something wrong with believing you are going to make it big as any of those things WITHOUT WORKING AT THEM, without having any discernible talent at them, without learning how to do them well (or even properly). They also get offended when confronted with realities like “Most people who work at being successful at those things don’t make it. Most people with real talent in those areas don’t make it and you think a lazy, talentless waster like you with your bad attitude and your complete absence of social graces is going to be a winner. Get real.”
  7. Pupils believe they are going t be gangsters. I had a pupil spend my afternoon registration making “shotgun rounds” out of paper because he is “gangster”. The don’t seem to realise that crime is pretty Darwinian. Judging by the number of ex-pupils that have wound up in jail or dead I would have to say that only the smart pupils who go into crime survive. Not even all of the smart ones do. I tell them to put themselves in the position of gang boss. If someone is a complete idiot who doesn’t know anything, can’t do anything and won’t follow instructions would you trust them to do anything important? Why would you want them in your organisation? Obvious answer, to take the blame if anyone gets caught.

I agree with Suli. Don’t let an exam result decide your fate. Don’t ask me “Why do I have to learn this when I will never have to use this in real life?” either unless you want to listen to a rant of epic proportions.


7 thoughts on “Why do I have to learn this when I will never have to use this in real life?

  1. missmcinerney

    Great post. Nothing amused me more than finding an ex-student who had continually complained during her Citizenship lessons in my local polling station leading the charge. She was a managed in electoral services and the local councillor’s office. “Who knew all that politics would actually be useful Miss?” she said with her trademark giggle. Err….your teachers?!

  2. missmcinerney

    Wow, that’s a terribly written comment. She was a *manager, not a managed. And she didn’t do her Citizenship lessons in my polling station, whatever my terrible language skills have made it sound like!

  3. Ian Lynch

    On the other hand, Latin was the only subject I failed at school. Why? I couldn’t see the point. That was a Catholic Boys Grammar with rigid discipline so it was not that there were not sanctions for not learning my declensions. In the end if the children don’t see any point to something they are not going to do as well so part of the teachers’ difficult job is to get them to see the point.

    The gangster thing is a bit daft. If we believe the domain knowledge theories, the best way to learn to be a successful gangster is to study gangsters not the national curriculum 😉

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      There were plenty of subjects I couldn’t see the point of at school. I still did the necessary work to pass them.
      Why? Largely because my teachers said I had to. My parents said I had to.

      I agree that it is part of a teachers job to see the point. It just isn’t always possible to do so. I have taught kids where everyone in their family has been unemployed for generations. They don’t see getting a job (much less a good job) as realistic. If you don’t aspire to get a job then what do you need qualifications of any sort for.
      They still work though, because I say so. Many of them have passed because I won’t tolerate less. That is also my job as a teacher. Kids that don’t see the point should still pass if they have the ability.

      The gangster thing is interesting. I once taught the son of someone quite high up in organised crime. The young man thought he was going to work for his dad and so didn’t need to do well in school. He did work for his dad in the end, as a helper in a garage. His attitude, ignorance and stupidity made him too much of a liability to be given anything involving crime to do.

      Most of the gangster wannabes I have ever taught have either ended up unemployed or in prison very quickly. Studying gangsters isn’t exactly easy as I’m not sure the aforementioned gangsters would be thrilled by the notion (especially if the person doing the studying is an idiot).

      Studying the national curriculum might not make you a good gangster but being smart can only be a help and good exam results show that your smart. Crime covets smart people just like any other business.

      If a pupil is ignorant or stupid then if a gang lets them in at all it will be a prison fodder. They will be the one that takes the blame, the one that gets caught and the chances are they’ll be too stupid to know that’s what they are until it’s too late.

      Gangsters need useful skills or to show they have the capacity to learn useful skills otherwise…

  4. Ian Lynch

    I’m sure there are teachers who would have motivated me to work at Latin. And that is the problem, all the theories of cognition in the world are of limited use without the motivation. That is the real nettle to grasp. Teachers are generally motivated by their subject and learning. That’s why they become teachers by enlarge. It’s always difficult to find out what motivates people when it is something we are not interested in ourselves. Just being good for you is not enough otherwise all teachers would go to the gym and eat healthy diets. And of curse if you are good at it and it comes easy to you it is easy to tell other people they should just “man up” and do it.

    1. bigkid4 Post author

      I’d agree with that to a degree. I would say, however, that pupils lacking motivation do learn and often learn enough to get a decent grade. Is it the best grade they could get? No, but it’s good enough for them and for the school.

      What I’m saying is that you could have passed Latin if you had tried. You didn’t because you viewed failing latin as a viable choice. My parents made it clear to me that failing was not a viable choice and my respect for my parents, fear of disappointing my parents and faith that my parents knew what was best for me made me not even consider doing so little work at a subject I might fail.

      Thus while several subjects and several teachers did not motivate me at all I passed those subjects anyway. I feel it is as much about what pupils consider a viable option as it is about motivation.

      1. Ian Lynch

        Good enough is an interesting point. Mostly if you have good enough qualifications, your success in life is determined by other things. I’m at a stage where my qualifications are irrelevant. OK, I needed good enough to get a foot on a ladder but once you start work your competence is more and more the issue – especially if you are self-employed. Motivation is about consideration of viable options. On the positive side the reward is too big to miss, on the negative the pain is too much to endure. Sadly, a lot of kids don’t seem to have parents that provide the “not succeeding is not an option” thing. You and I both breezed the system so its easy for us to say to those that find it more difficult just work harder and be like me. I could say if anyone is unhappy with their terms of employment as a teacher be self-employed like me. Is that a fair expectation? I’m not saying we should not expect kids to do well, I’m saying we need to understand motivation theory to give them the best chance of doing so.

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