Answering the Essential Student Question: Why Do We Need to Learn This?

Answering the Essential Student Question:  Why Do We Need to Learn This?

Mark Fairbank is a 2009 PAEMST Awardee who teaches science in Paso Robles , Calif.

Teaching the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is more than something we ought to do.  It’s the key to providing a thriving economy in the United States.

Directing our educational focus toward improving student knowledge in these areas both will provide students with a greatly needed knowledge, and it will enhance their understanding and appreciation of the world.

Perhaps my colleague Mark DiMaggio best explains why future generations’ ability to understand and appreciate the world depends on our ability to view the world through another’s eyes, through the eyes of all other living creatures.  DiMaggio says,

As my career as an educator continues, I find myself more and more frequently taking time to reflect on the ever-present “why do we need to know this” question with my students.  And you know what?  I NEVER tell them it’s because you’ll need to know this for a question on the April state tests.  What do they care about state tests?

Why should we learn about the oceans?  Because they feed about 600,000,000 people every day, regulate climate, cycle the nutrients you need to stay alive, and they provide a source of mineral wealth  a vital shipping link.  On top of that, the ocean provides water to sail, on, makes waves to surf, and are endlessly beautiful and inspiring!

We are required by law to teach the standards; but let’s not lose sight of our real task, to inspire, encourage, support, care for, and help mold a citizenry of thoughtful, compassionate, hopeful, caring people.

STEM education is pivotal because these fields changes the direction of humanity from generation to generation.  Understanding how we affect the natural world is critical in creating both balance and sustainability.  Science exploration and research provides the very knowledge of drastic changes that are occurring in the natural environment of the world’s ecosystems.

Without fundamental knowledge of human and natural systems, our very culture will eventually collapse.  Education provides humanity with a means to share previous knowledge with future generation through discovery and interactions.  Teachers provide the very thread that sustains and enhance our very existence.

Mark Fairbank

Read about Secretary Duncan’s reform discussion with 2009 PAEMST Awardees.

Read Paul Karafoil’s blog about the PAEMST awardees’ week in DC.


  1. A student recently posted to Facebook: ” I hate Trigonometry!!!” and other chimed variously. I commented: “I’m using trig in an iPad app I am developing”. That may have given them pause.

    Back in High School myself (~1966) I had the opportunity to take a class in “computer programming”. I asked why in the world I would need to stand in front of some spinning magnetic tapes with a clipboard in a white lab coat (the stereo type at the time). I took the class but didn’t get that programming was /exactly/ what I needed to solve puzzle and such that I enjoyed doing by hand until I began /applying/ it to my own problems.

    A steady diet of dates and facts are not going to motivate. So much more can be learned by relating knowledge to our current problems, technology, our moral and ethical decisions.

  2. Learning all areas of life allows a student to make educated decisions about their life and what can happen when they make the wrong decision. History teaches past experience whether the students want it or not. Students are given choices of what to study when they get to college. Elementary, Middle school and High school give the students the basics and the knowledge to continue their education whether in college or on the job. General knowledge of past activity and where the student can aquire more information is important to business owners.
    As a teacher in High school, I frequently am asked by employers why I am not teaching students to add, subtract, multiply and divide fractions, and other simple mathmatics that are used in everyday busness activities. Especially without a calculator. We try, but students refuse to learn.
    We must now present our content in “entertainment” mode to keep them interested and mask the learning process when the process is what they need to learn to keep them moving in a forward motion.

    One of the biggest complaint I hear from imployers is that the student has no motivation, they just want the pay not to do the work required, they want to be intertained on the job not just be successful.
    We need to stress that we teach processes using the subjects not just the subjects themselves

  3. As a history teacher, I get this question all the time. I have even had parents in meetings tell me that my job is to teach their student useless knowledge. And while I love history, they are correct. This knowledge is not immediately useful. However, in the process of how I am teaching the student, there is the lesson of learning certain skills that they do need to know. They learn critical thinking, analysis, synthesis, writing technique and much more. These things may not be inherently obvious to the student, as they can, at times, only see to the end of their nose and no further. The brain’s network of neurons needs someone to direct them as to how to fire, and then have them fire those pathways frequently to gain better usefulness. Yes, there is some key knowledge that is important, but our most important job is to teach the skill of thinking. That is the role of the teacher in the 21st century.

  4. The fact that the question itself is so widely asked should be a red flag for you. If a vast majority of students find a piece of information to be irrelevant to them–which it often is–why not omit it? If a student is honestly interested in oceans, give them resources and time to learn about it while other students can study what interests them. Then they can share what they know and feel more accomplished, as well as allowing them to study things that interest them as opposed to things you think they need to know. The fact is that most of the things after primary school (with the exceptions of algebra I and geometry) aren’t very useful. Give students the option to learn what they want to learn.

  5. DEfinatly, short and simple….I think anybody can understand this!
    “these fields changes the direction of humanity from generation to generation. Understanding how we affect the natural world is critical in creating both balance and sustainability.” we NEED A COMPLETE HUMAN, NOT ONLY A WORKER ANT!

  6. Students don’t need to learn science topics, they need to figure out How to learn science and how to teach themselves.

  7. I wonder that we even need to answer the question “why do we need to learn this?” If it isn’t obvious, shouldn’t we be rethinking what we teach?

    I see a big part of the educational crisis today being that nearly every part of the curriculum is “adult-driven.” Someone in fact asked me today why students need to know science (I am not a science teacher, mind you) – meaning, why all the idiosyncratic facts about cells, etc, if they are not interested in them? Be truthful – how many non-science professionals can still name the parts of a cell (other than the basic ones)?

    I am reminded about the time I ranted and raved for about 20 minutes to a mother driving me home from a babysitting job in 7th grade about my need to know the quadratic equation. I’m still mad about it, by the way… She commented that it wasn’t that I was ever going to need to know the actual equation, it was that I was going to need to know the thought process I used in working with it. That quieted me down (hard to do), but then the question is what thinking did I do with it? What thought process resonates with me even now when I remember working with it?

    The answer is not none, ironically enough; the answer is the follow-up memory of me sitting in my sophomore math final figuring out that I could plug the multiple choices into the equations to find the right answer, and with knowing little more than algebraic logic, ace my final with no studying. Creative? Yes. Indicative of our crisis of stuffing students with facts and merely asking students to regurgitate them back to us with no thought involved, therefore removing the joy and passion for learning, and any effort to really learn that accompanies it? Certainly.

    You’ll always have your “Rachel” students – students who always find the right answer because it is a validation for them and their place in society, but those students are becoming fewer and fewer, and are never able to deal with situations that don’t have a correct answer bubble. But, for the rest of us who decided early on that school wasn’t about learning, school was about beating the system, we either play within the lines, and loose our creative souls, or tune out, and its sad to say, sometimes drop out. Because there is always the question “why are we learning this?”

    Needless to say, “why are we learning this?” should never be uttered in an American school. We are too good for that question. Instead, we need to think about what we are teaching, and HOW we are teaching it. I’m all for standards, and expecting that each child knows the parts of a cell, but I plead and beg that students be given an choice and a voice, and the parts of a cell learned spark an interest in biology which then leads to a research project on cancer cells, which leads to a community service project with cancer patients, which leads to another project interviewing cancer researchers, which leads to a scholarship to Johns Hopkins, which leads to grant, which cures cancer. I am begging and pleading to allow teachers to instill passion in their students once more. So, instead of the question “why are we learning this?”, teachers should have to respond to this question ever day: How does this piece of information tie into the bigger scheme of what I want to learn more about?”

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