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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Question Why?

I encourage teachers to think of a single, guiding question as they craft their lesson plans. How would you respond if, in the middle of delivering the lesson, a child raises their hand and simply asks - "Why do we need to know this?"

If the teacher's response is - "Because its on the regents or state tests or the weekly test...." or, "Because it follows our last lesson, or prepares us for our next lesson" or,  "Because it's on the state required curriculum" or any other reply that eerily sounds like a dressed up "Because I said so!" - then the interest and commitment of that child and others is likely to wane. Everyone wastes their time and energy in that scenario.

Let me share an excerpt from another of my favorite books. The passage that follows is from Made to Stick, by Dan and Chip Heath (page 194). This selection describes how an algebra teacher responded to that inquiry from a learner questioning the value of algebra.

"Frustrated and indifferent students often question, “Why do I need to study Algebra?” Most teachers usually reply that Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for the understanding of the world around us, or more simply, you need it to get your diploma,… Dean Sherman, a high school Algebra teacher responds – “You will never use Algebra. Think of weight lifting. People don’t lift weights to be prepared should, one day someone knock them over on the street and lay a barbell across their chests. You lift weights so you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your groceries, or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden, or parent. Math is mental weight training."

Teachers are regularly faced with daunting challenges. My advice has long been to consider the approach most people seem to have when choosing a book to read or a television program to watch. Imagine that you are interested in reading and you opt to go to the bookstore to buy something to read. You don't have any particular book or author in mind, perhaps just a genre. Typically, you'd examine the rows of books for a title that stimulates your interest. You might pull the book from the shelf and scan the blurb inside the cover or at the rear of the cover. You might even read the first paragraph, but you certainly don't take the time to sit an dread the entire first chapter before making a decision whether to purchase the book or not. Similarly, when we want to watch the television and don't have a special program in mind, we grab the remote and surf the dozens and dozens of available channels until we discover something of interest. If you timed yourself during the channel surfing you'd probably find that you spent only seconds at each channel before continuing onward in pursuit of a particularly interesting program.

Our time is a precious commodity that cannot be replenished. Neither can we call a time-out and stop time from passing. Therefore, we are competing with many other attractions for the attention of learners who have grown up surrounded by overwhelming choices in the marketplace of ideas and multi-media messages. If we can't offer them a lesson introduced with relevance, meaning, and interest then we may not be successful in enlisting the investment of their time, energy, and commitment.

Those of you who are, or have been, parents, fully understand that the "Because I said so," command is often futile because it lacks purpose and reason beyond simple authority. At best, it elicits short-term compliant behavior rather than long-term committed behavior. At worst, it engenders feelings of disillusionment and detachment that create distance.

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