Well this got a lot more traction than I expected it to. Look, it even got taken by the We Are Teachers Facebook group and reposted.My normal response to "when will we use this" from students is "Some of these things are not directly useable. But that doesn't make them meaningless. Your favorite football player will never do a squat in a game, so why do a ton in practice? The skills add up to a whole."— Doug Robertson (@TheWeirdTeacher) September 1, 2019
Someone even liked it enough to give it one of those squinty eyes laughing mouth emoji faces, which I think is a good thing. Unless it's in pain. Can an emoji feel pain? I hope so, because they should for being a part of that movie.
A tweet catching like this makes me nervous because even though I think this is as concise as I could have made the message while still getting all the important information across with context while avoiding misunderstandings (hard, but not as hard as some professional thought leaders would make it sound since that's basically what writing is), it is still only a tweet.* A tweet can only convey so much and when something goes wide like this I want to talk about it more.
First- I really do say this to kids, or something along these lines if football isn't en vogue when the topic comes up. It's good for any sport, and if you've got kids who speak music you can replace squats with scales. Actor kids can relate to learning monologues for plays they might never perform. The point is, I didn't make up a hypothetical situation to impress EduTwitter. Too much real stuff happens in my classroom to pretend online about what might happen. I actually work with kids so I get to test run these things on human children and see how they work.
Which brings me to the next part- This example does actually work. It re-contextualizes the learning we're doing into something understandable. Adults all over the interwebs it seems really like what I said, but we all know that doesn't mean anything when it comes to teaching. How something hits adult ears is a thousand times less important than how something hits kid ears. And this conversation works. It has to be a conversation. As we all know, you can't drop something like this on kids and expect them to just nod and accept it. You've got to give them lots of examples and support, both with the sports (or whatever) example, and then with the learning that is actually taking place in class. No, I'm honestly not sure when you'll use dividing fractions outside of this class, at least not in a way that doesn't involve yet another cooking example. But yes you still have to learn it. Because the more you use your brain, the stronger your brain gets.
But that only works- "the more you use your brain, the stronger your brain gets"- if they've seen it happen in class already. We do a lot of making in my class, because making allows students to see growth in a concrete way, and they can apply what they're learning right away. You can see the thing you're making getting better. We do hobby projects that drive the point home. We're constantly reflecting on the Why of things. You may walk into my class to hear me say, "Nowhere in the standards does it say 'students will learn to build a cardboard arcade'. You do not need this skill. So why did we spend a week on it?" And you'll hear my kids give real answers about applying their learning in specific ways. Answers that demonstrate meta-cognition and reflection and understanding that purpose and process may not always be clearly aligned, but they are aligned.
Why do we do x? Because we don't know when the skills we learn while doing x will appear in other forms other places. Because we see education as a whole and not as pieces. This idea that "Some of these things are not directly useable. But that doesn't make them meaningless. Your favorite football player will never do a squat in a game, so why do a ton in practice? The skills add up to a whole." is a holistic approach to education. I believe this is pure STEAM. Moreso than building things or coding, students internalizing the idea that all of these skills are connected in ways that make us stronger as a whole is the essence of STEAM.
In the words of every conspiracy theorist ever, "It's all related, maaaaaan."
As long as we're here, let's address some of the concerns people voiced about what I said.
For the first one- It's a metaphor, so yes, it's a reach. All metaphors are suspect always. They're never as clear as they could possibly be, but they often allow things to be seen in a different light and that helps understanding. And I agree, we do need to be teaching kids things that are applicable to life outside of school. Things like seeing how various things connect in unexpected ways, things like learning for the joy of knowing something new. I didn't say that this was always my reason or that I'm only teaching things that act as mental squats. It's a piece of a whole. And anyone who has done squats knows that they're pretty rigorous. Or this person is assuming that the rest of my class is not rigorous based on the one tweet.
And the second one- You are purposefully misunderstanding the entire point while agreeing with me that squats improve overall fitness. Knowing things, working out your brain, does that as well. And bless you for calling chemistry and algebra impractical to real life. I look forward to scrolling through those 29 replies to see math and chem teachers correcting you so I don't have to.
It's like the people who say, "If students can Google it then you don't need to teach it" like that actually makes any sense or the Google gives real answers and isn't just a needle in a stack of needles. "This isn't practical" means you aren't trying hard enough friend.
I'd like to address one more thing before we call it a night tonight. And I want to make clear when I share this that I think the teachers who said it were joking or at least partially joking, while also covering for the fact that "Why do we need to know this?" is a hard question to answer sometimes, especially when you're in the middle of jumping through district hoops and everything in your brain is screaming, "BECAUSE YOU GOTTA RIGHT NOW!" A non-zero number of people jokingly (I think, benefit of the doubt and not mocking them) said they've told kids, "Because if you go on Jeopardy this might be an answer." We can all agree this is not motivational or is it inspiring or helpful, right? I'm not judging, I've probably dropped that on a kid at some point too. But can we agree that "Winning a game show" is not a great answer to why someone needs to learn something? We can? Cool. Thanks.
If I were to be completely honest, in a perfect world my answer to students about why they need to learn something would be, "Because learning is a joyful thing, and a beautiful thing. To learn is to live. You should learn this because our thirst for knowledge should be insatiable and every new skill, new fact, new connection makes the world brighter and better, less ignorant and ugly."
But poetry works in tweets and blog posts. With nine year olds, it's better to be straight up and practical. "Because it makes you stronger, and everything we do is connected." Then actually connecting everything we do.
*that's a hell of a sentence there, Robertson. Maybe less coffee before sitting down to write, huh?
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher. And I'm on Instagram at TheWeirdTeacher too.