It’s a question many of us have faced, especially with students who are at that age where they question why they should have to do anything they don’t feel like doing. At Secondary, students will often throw out this question, at a random point in your lesson and it can derail everything you’ve planned, unless you have a pre-planned system for managing it.
It can feel like your students are being deliberately difficult, or are trying to challenge and undermine your authority. Many of us have had to face that, whether new or experienced and regardless of our level of seniority. It can hurt, it can be annoying and it can get in the way of something you’ve prepared for hours.
You might just reply with, “let’s discuss that after the lesson, or at breaktime/hometime if it’s really important to you”, in order to put off their question, in the hope that it will be forgotten, or that the student will prioritise going home or to see their friends instead. After all, you can then get back on with your lesson.
But their awkward question, although perhaps badly timed, is an important one.
Students should know why they are studying what they’re studying. They should understand how it benefits them to have the actual education they are being provided. This might mean discussing the specific knowledge or skill being taught and how it helps them, or it might be that there is something bigger that you want them to participate in and their participation brings advantages in terms of students’ development.
But whatever you do, don’t wait until they ask. It’s useful for them, but it’s also a huge opportunity for you.
There are so many moments when you can get students to buy into what you’ve planned for them. You could build into your teaching resources phrases like “we are studying this because…”. You can show students at the beginning of a term, scheme of work, lesson, or even task, their current point on the curriculum journey. It’s good practice and many schools do this and have done for a while now.
But don’t treat it as a tick-box exercise. Make it meaningful and explain why your students are studying these things in the order that they’re studying them and why they’re studying them at all. They might not understand why they’re debating, learning about something that seems off-topic, or why for once they’re “doing a practical”.
If they don’t understand why, they’re unlikely to connect that lesson’s contents to other things they’ve learnt. Every lesson is an opportunity to build a deeper and more complex schema, but that’s only possible if students understand the connections that should be made and the significance of those connections.
You might not see the immediate need to refer back to the curriculum journey every time you teach something. But whenever you don’t do it, there will inevitably be some students who will fail to comprehend why they should try their best. When they see the bigger picture, they will understand why this one little piece of the jigsaw matters. This has consequences further down the line. When I read my own students’ extended writing, the ones who score most highly on any given task are usually the ones who are most able to make connections between things and can identify and articulate the significance of those connections.
If, however, you struggle to be able to articulate the raison d’etre for any one of your topics, it might be useful to go back to your Curriculum Intent documentation and discuss it with your colleagues, to explore what you’re doing and why you’re doing it at all. If you can’t articulate clearly why it’s there, it probably shouldn’t be there. And the awkward questions will just keep coming.
So next time your students ask the inevitable “why are we even learning this?”, just take a moment. They’re probably not trying to be difficult, or attempting to undermine your authority. They probably just don’t know. We should tell them.