There can’t be a teacher in the land who hasn’t at some point in their career heard a pupil’s plaintive cry “what’s the point of us learning this?”.
Unfortunately, this question isn’t only asked by pupils. In reaction to a shift away from teaching generic learning skills towards subject-specific knowledge, the refrain of "what is the point of children learning this?" is rarely far from the lips of critics.
From the magazine: The art of ‘shushing’ to manage pupil behaviour
One of their main lines of argument is that adults don’t remember what they were taught in school and use even less of what they can and so this shows that much of the content of lessons really doesn’t matter.
How do we know what learning matters?
The trouble is, it's not that simple.
My history teachers seemed pretty convinced it was vital I learned about the lives of Native American people. I was expected to learn about their culture and the way they used their natural environment, the way they constructed shelters and the roles of different people within their society.
I have barely thought about any of this since and it would certainly be possible for me to argue that learning this was pointless. However, what I don’t know is how much of this material became a foundation for other things that I learned.
Perhaps knowing this information about the Native Americans allowed me to understand novels set in this time, or perhaps it helped me to better understand resource management and sustainability?
It could be that learning this has helped me to understand why other societies collapse or the attitude of and towards colonialism.
It may have helped me to understand how narratives spring up around groups of people whose stories are simplified.
I just don’t know. I can’t know.
Although it is difficult to look back after decades have passed at an education we received and pinpoint which of it has been useful, I do think there is something we can do to make it easier for our pupils to understand why we are teaching them certain things in the context of the subject discipline.
Two little words, "so that".
Two powerful words
"So that" are two words I often hear from experienced teachers in a classroom but hear a lot less from trainees and those who are more recently qualified.
Experienced teachers will make very clear how what a class is learning today links to what they will be learning about tomorrow.
“We are going to learn about Russia’s climate so that you can understand the country's reaction to the threat of climate change.”
“We are going to learn about the impacts of the Black Death so that you can understand how it led to changing power dynamics.”
This helps pupils to make sense of what they are learning and how it fits into a bigger picture. There is now a purpose to what is being taught and what they are expected to learn.
It doesn’t only work with the objectives of a lesson but for individual tasks as well.
Talking to pupils about their work in the classroom is always enlightening and one thing that often comes up is the disconnect between the teacher’s belief in why a task has been set and those of the pupils.
From the teacher’s point of view, it is obvious why they have asked the class to create a climate graph or write about an event from a character’s perspective or try to mimic an artist’s technique. It turns out, this is often a lot less clear to those doing the work.
"We are drawing a climate graph so that you can see the relationship between temperature and rainfall” helps the pupil to see how the task fits into the bigger picture of the lesson, and hopefully then into the bigger picture of the subject.
The idea that pupils should understand the objective of a lesson, or of a task, is nothing new. In the past, it led to bizarre practices like insisting that pupils painstakingly copy objectives into their books at the start of each lesson, regardless of whether they had ever actually thought about what they meant.
As with so many odd practices in education, the copying of objectives was a shell that had grown up around a sound principle. The principle was quickly ignored, hidden by the visible practice.
I think it is worth reminding ourselves of this principle so that pupils no longer need to ask “what’s the point in us learning this?”
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College, East Sussex. His latest book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, is out now. He tweets @EnserMark