What should a teacher do when a pupil asks “Sir, what’s the point in this?” or “When are we ever going to use this stuff in real life?”. These questions are commonplace in the maths classroom but I would imagine also appear in other subjects on a fairly regular basis.

My instinctive response would have been “Well….if you really think about it, what’s the point in anything?”

However, you cannot in good faith impose an existential crisis upon a pupil who is about to leave at the ring of the next bell.

For myself, I found myself in a small debate with 2-3 pupils that lasted much longer than I would have had time for had I not been just observing the class. We spoke about how schools and teachers don’t know, and can’t ever know, exactly what skills will be needed, or exactly what each individual pupil will use in the future. All a school can do is provide a broad base which keeps as many doors open as possible. This was met with understanding

Then I spoke about how many doors are opened by having a grasp of mathematics. And the transferable skills adults love to go on about at university and beyond: Analytical thinking, problem solving, just the general ability to learn something new and confusing and then use it in a variety of ways. These are important things to be able to do. This was met with a little less understanding but a couple of blank stares thrown in along the way.

After this talk, their work rate did pick up but only very slightly. I worried that I had taken up their class time, been led astray by their questions, maybe they were just looking for a valid excuse not to work. Upon reflection I think that even if that was the case, and they were just playing on the student teachers chattiness, it was still a useful conversation to have. However, it would never have taken place had I been teaching the class.

There really is no good, yet also brief, way of responding to a pupil saying “when are we ever gonna use this?”.

One teacher on placement informed me they usually just respond with “You’ll be needing this for the test” or “We are learning it because I’m teaching it” or something similar. This response has the benefit of being brief, but the downside of completely ignoring a pupil genuinely frustrated with their education, not understanding why they are there, why they are learning this specific piece of knowledge. Call me a radical, but I think it would maybe be better to take the time to address how the pupils feel about their work, rather than breeze past it on to the next question, next chapter, next page, next test.

So what can we do? Well the inspiration for this post came from watching the recently uploaded TED talk about Fibonacci numbers.  Its brief (about 6mins) and well worth a watch if you’ve forgotten than sometimes maths can be fascinating.

http://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_the_magic_of_fibonacci_numbers.html

In this talk, Arthur Benjamin advocates a new way of teaching mathematics. Simply for its own sake. It’s own beauty and magic. (One of his other TED talks is called Mathemagic and is well worth a watch)

Try and tell a pupil that maths has put man on the moon, or aircraft in the sky, or made possible the amazing phone in their pocket, and they can’t deny it is true. But it doesn’t excite them. This is entirely understandable to me. They cannot see how solving an endless list of equations has anything at all do with with any of these brilliant complex things the human race has achieved. It does. But because they can’t see it, they don’t care.

I myself experience this feeling of disinterest all the time when I attend a talk or read an article on something I don’t really understand. Scientists and academics are experts at selling their research. They are always explaining why it is so fundamentally important to the human race that this research is being done. Just read a couple of abstracts and you’ll see this is the case.

But when I read these abstracts or watch these supremely important lectures I am filled with scepticism that it all really is as important as everybody is telling me. I am not excited in the least by somebody else claiming that this is important. I have to find that out for myself, it has to become important to me. But sometimes I really just can’t be bothered thinking about complicated things on the off chance it may be important to me. So I sit back in the lecture and switch off. Or I put the article down and make a cup of tea.

And this is exactly the situation pupils face every day. Probably multiple times a day.

No wonder they throw rubbers.

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