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Students are gathering for the first day of school. It is a new year, and their first class of the day is middle school math. The teacher uses the time to get to know the students, set some ground rules, and maybe even give them a teaser of what to expect for the first part of the year. Rules and rituals are established, and the teacher is ready to get started.
But often there is an important question ruminating in the minds of those students, and it may well remain unanswered: Why? Why am I learning any of this in the first place? What relevance does it have for my life in the present and the future?
Admittedly, not every student asks these questions. Some students just trust that math is one of those subjects you are supposed to study in school. They might reason that it is important so that you are ready for high school math class, and high school math is important so that you are ready for college math. Others don’t worry much about the why at all. You pay attention and strive to do well in the class so that you can pass the tests and get a good final course grade. That is the extent of their thoughts about why.
Yet, this question about the why of learning is important for many reasons.
It gives a sense of meaning and purpose to what students are learning.
That in return can add some important motivation. If I am asked to start digging a hole in a certain place in the backyard, and I don’t know why, I might do it to be helpful. But if you explain to me that we are building something important or that there is buried treasure, then I have extra motivation to help out. I’m participating in something that matters. That tends to motivate people.
It connects what happens in the classroom with the rest of life.
We learn math so we can use it to accomplish important tasks in life outside of school. School is a place of preparation, not a final destination point. There is great value in helping students see and make that connection. We can do that by inviting students to interview adults about how they use math in their life and work. We can bring in guests. We can share cases and examples from life outside of school. We can also show how math can help you serve and be a blessing to other people, living out one or more of your vocations.
It nurtures ownership and agency.
Our goal is not to have a class of fully compliant students who do what they are told and don’t ask any questions. We want them to ask questions. We want them to take pride and ownership in their work, and it is easier for students to do that when we help them see the why in what they are learning.
I should clarify. I’m not talking about just a compelling “why” pep talk on the first day. I mean making “Why?” questions a central part of every lesson and unit. As I’ve been known to say to some groups, “Persist with the why until they buy.” In other words, stick with activities that help students discover the importance of learning something until they truly understand and value it. This will not happen quickly for some, but the benefits of helping students discover this are quite powerful.
There are certainly times in our lives when we have to do things and no clear reason is shared with us or evident to us. In fact, as Christian educators, we know that God does not give us answers to every question. Sometimes we must learn to trust even in the absence of a reason. Sometimes the reason becomes clear later in life; other times it does not. Yet, we join the disciples in saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68 ESV). At the same time, the Bible is a powerful example of this concept. The more I study Scripture, the more I see a litany of answers to important why questions about faith and life.
Delving into the why behind what students are learning is also a prime opportunity for them to explore the intersection of faith and learning. Students might learn the exact same math concepts in a Christian classroom as in a public school. But when we explore the why behind learning math, the why behind the logic we see in the world of math, we have ample opportunities for faith lessons.
I’ve challenged many educators to consider infusing more “why” into their classes, and I consistently hear stories of the difference it made for them and their students. Why not give it a try yourself and report back how it goes?
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