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“Why do we need to know this stuff?”
“Why do we need to know this stuff?” The proverbial question that probably every teacher in
the world, regardless of the age level they teach, dreads to hear. It invariably causes the head to sink,
the eyes to roll around, and the back to bristle, followed by a heavy sigh. Why? Because, quite
frankly, sometimes it’s difficult to explain the need to know certain things to kids. As adults, we know
that there are important reasons for learning some things that may not be clear to kids. They may not
feel the need to know how coal forms but it will certainly be helpful for them to better understand why
they should turn lights off when leaving a room. It would be wonderful if we were all born with a love
for learning, regardless of the content. I think we become teachers because we love learning so much
and want to impart that joy to others. But no matter how important or how interested I am about
teaching a topic, there is always someone that wonders how they will ever use the information in the
real world that I’m trying to convey to their little minds. As a science teacher, this especially happens
within days of delving into the unit on rocks and minerals, a subject that I personally find fascinating
and try very hard to transfer some of my enthusiasm to the little cherubs. And yet, someone would
always ask me, “Why do I need to know this stuff?” Indeed, how often in your everyday life do you
need to differentiate between an igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rock?
In the beginning of my teaching career, I tended to answer, “Because the state of New York
thinks this is important and it may show up on the state exam.” For the record, kids hate this answer.
After learning this I became tempted to say, “Well, there is always that possibility that you may find
yourselves trapped in the wilderness and come upon an igneous rock, thereby inferring that a volcano
is nearby and prompting you to take cover for your lives.” For the record, kids hate this, too. In fact, it
usually generates the same response in them that the initial question generates in the teacher.
Clearly, there must be a better reason for needing to know this stuff. With degrees ranging
from anthropology to science to reading, and fifteen years of teaching experience from middle school
to collegiate level, I’ve actually come up with some pretty good answers to this question. And, believe
it or not, I even have reasons for my eighth graders to need to know rock classification:
First, there is the fact that they are being introduced to the world of geology and they may find
a calling in this area. I have 105 students. Statistically speaking, there is no way that I am the only
rock geek among us all. Secondary education has so much to do with introducing kids to areas of
interest that they may not have known even existed. This helps them to know where to focus their
interests for what they may want to choose later as a career or further area of study.
Second, besides learning about rocks, more importantly, students are learning a skill. As
adults, we classify things all the time: our groceries, our laundry, our paperwork, our bills. The ability
to organize information in a meaningful way is an important skill for children to learn, regardless of
what they are classifying while learning it. Being able to recognize similarities and differences
between several objects and then using that information to draw a conclusion is a higher-order thinking
task that can be applied to many situations that have nothing to do with rocks.
Lastly, although these reasons may sound valid, there is really only one answer to the question,
“Why do we need to know this stuff?” Simply put, the more you know, the more opportunities lay
before you. A colleague of mine would often recite the mantra, “Knowledge is power, and power is
money” to his physics students and he is absolutely right. The more information you have, the better
you are able to decide what to do with the choices that lay before you. With an abundance of
knowledge and acquisition of skills, not only will more possibilities be open to you but you will make
better decisions about them because you have that broad background to help you. You could grow up
and choose an occupation that requires very little knowledge or skill, but without a solid education,
you may have no choice in what occupation you have. It’s all about choice. The more you know, the
more choices you have before you, and the more power you have over your own future.