The answer to: “What’s the point in studying this?” (feat. Brian Cox)

“What’s the point in studying this?” 

Teachers are often asked this question, especially (I suspect) in secondary school where the tantalising promise of subject choice at GCSE and A-level overshadows option subjects in the earlier years, and where the contrast with option subjects subjects English, Maths and Science teachers to the same question in the later years.

I was never really satisfied with the answers that I came up with for my French students; there doesn’t seem to be one answer that satisfies everyone who will ask that question of their teacher.

Now, I have come to think that there are three approaches teachers can take.

Answer 1) “Because you’re doing well in it, and it will make you more clever.” A bit of a white lie maybe, but might work with those students who are asking this because they are finding the work difficult. I think it is important that students experience mastery of a topic. As a teacher you should try to spot the (at times small) improvements they are making and point them out. An answer that addresses the ‘big picture’ of the validity and benefits of what you are studying won’t address the essentially emotional trigger behind the question in the first place. If this question is born of frustration, then you owe it to the student to get them to experience some success and try to boost their confidence by pitching the work right and pointing out real improvements to them.

Answer 2) “Because some day, you might have to help your kids learn this too.” The truest answer that you can give. The purpose of an education system is to pass on what we already know as humanity, so I think it’s essential that we teach a curriculum that’s as broad and deep as possible, for as long as possible. It’s true that my students may never use French again, but at least they can make that decision as adults having had a genuine option to do the opposite. As parents, it’s their children who might end up being francophiles who want to go on to study French at university or move to Quebec or something. At this point, what they studied in school, might suddenly become helpful again. We should remember we’re educating future parents.

Answer 3) “Because Brian Cox says so.”

Have a read of his concluding remarks to the BBC Human Planet series (2014)

“Science is unreasonably effective. It’s generated knowledge beyond all expectation. It’s also delivered perspective. Yes, we are an insignificant speck in an infinite universe but we’re also rare. And because we’re rare, we’re valuable. So what are we to do to secure our future? We must learn to value the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and not just because it grows our economy or allows us to build better bombs. We must also learn to value the human race and take responsibility for our own survival. Why? Because there’s nobody else out there to value us or to look after us. And finally, most important of all, we must educate the next generation in the great discoveries of science and we must teach them to use the light of reason to banish the darkness of superstition. Because if we do that then at least there’s a chance that this universe will remain a human one.”