In a recent post on his Practical Theory blog, Chris Lehmann wrote about “the question that many teachers hate to hear from students in their classrooms”: Why do we need to know this? (Full post here.) I remember hearing that question, and sometimes my answers were better than at others. Too often teachers answer in the heat of the moment and provide a rationale designed to generate compliance rather than understanding—usually that it will be on the test. After all, they’re kids, we have a curriculum to cover, and time is a’wastin’! If we do become more philosophical, it’s often with a vague statement about knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
When this happens, though, we miss key learning opportunities for everyone engaged in the educational process. I totally agree with Chris when he writes, “Students deserve an answer to the question. And we, as educators, need to understand that if we can’t answer the question powerfully, we have to start questioning what we teach and how we teach it.” Striving for answers to that very question has been a sometimes subtle, occasionally overt theme of this blog. Here comes more of the latter.
As one should expect from someone who include the word practical in the name of his blog, Chris provides some concrete examples of how taking a pedagogical approach based on questions can provide some immediate relevance for students. He adds, “Equally as important, all of those questions could lead students to engage in powerful problem-solving, artifact-building, and reflection as they consider their personal answers to those questions.” Yes, that’s what we want. Along with those to become life-long habits which drive a lifetime of personal growth.
But there’s more, which Chris also touches upon: “If we remember that the time students spend in school is supposed to be about helping them to become better citizens, then the question of ‘Why do we need to know this?’ becomes essential to what and why we teach.”
While I agree completely with Chris about the goal—and I don’t know many people who, when pushed and prodded, would disagree—I also wonder how many people think about it that way in the immediate. In my experience most people think about school primarily as preparation for the next step or a necessity for attaining certain objectives. Since Chris leaves the point hanging out there as a given, I want to explore it a bit more…and then offer another reason “we need to know this.”
Since tomorrow we celebrate the 237th anniversary of The Great Signing, it’s appropriate that I look towards Thomas Jefferson. I just finished reading Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. One of the most erudite of the Founding Fathers, Jefferson cited as one of this three great accomplishments the founding of the University of Virginia. He had a long-standing belief in the power of education as vital to the strength of a republic: he wrote in a 1780 letter: “I think that by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” Interestingly, Jefferson saw happiness as a reciprocal obligation, meaning it came only in conjunction with helping bring it to others. For him, learning and the subsequent growth was part of happiness. Note he also links freedom with happiness. Jefferson fervently believed that the better educated the populace, the stronger the republic. Such idealism was particularly important as he battled the notion that government must be based on a hereditary aristocracy. Ours, he envisioned would be a nation based on a belief in the people and their potential, which was linked to that of our nation. When establishing UVa, he wrote, “The institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, not to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson’s phrase “the illimitable freedom of the human mind” leads to my other reason. It’s an abstract one completely without any measureables or distinct action items. But in some ways I think it’s the most important one, and I seldom have heard teachers or anyone else use it to answer that dreaded question. Humans, individually and collectively, have amazing potential. Some of it always remained untapped. Yet I believe part of our responsibility is to strive to realize as much of that potential as we can. I see it as an obligation to both ourselves and to others. It’s a way of showing gratitude for all with which we have been blessed. It’s a point of honor and integrity.
School is busy and hectic, so sometimes it’s natural and easy to give insufficient answers to difficult questions. Plus time is precious, and schools are increasingly asked to do more and more, explicitly and implicitly. Yet our students benefit tremendously when we take the time to answer their dreaded question in depth and have some crucial conversations about the purpose of their education.