How many times did you ask yourself this question when you were at school?

For many teachers, it should come as no surprise.  After all, many kids find themselves in lessons that they don’t want to be in for much of their education and have no intention later in life of using certain things they learn.  It leads to them questioning why they are learning certain topics and what their value will be later on in life.

I wrote last year about a survey where people looked back on their school days and considered the ‘least beneficial’ subjects they ever did – read: pointless and useless.  I discussed how subjects like Religious Studies and Art were definitely topics down to taste and not for everyone.  More often in these lessons I found myself asking why I ever needed to learn this – was there any point to learning how to draw 3D structures and perspective-based imagery if I was never going to use it?


Author and educator Dr Allen Mendler considered this notion in an article, written for the educational website Edutopia, part of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.  He looked at what the question of ‘what’s the point’ was being asked and what teachers can do to help.  It is a rather fascinating read – you can find it here.Some of the key conclusions that he made included:

  • Despite our teacher’s best intentions, much of what we learn will be forgotten (or at least never used again) after that final exam.  For instance, Dr Mendler remarks that he cannot remember anything he learnt after his 11th Grade exams.
  • A digital age means that everything we learn can be done differently in later life.  For example, if mathematics was tricky for us, we just would get out a calculator.  Therefore, he comes to the conclusion that the relevancy of all that is taught could be brought into question at some point.
  • He offers three suggestions to teachers as to how best to keep it interesting for students and how to respond to that awkward question.  Those three were to:
    1. Imply that what you’re teaching will be vital later, even if it isn’t now.
    2. Find a humorous way of responding to the complaints, especially when referring to an important test or similar.
    3. Finding away to relate all of this to later goals in life and relating it to success.

Then again, that is advice for teachers – it shows what can be done by teachers in the classroom to help ease the effects.  From a student’s perspective, however… there are always two sides to the argument.

Keep it practical

For many, there is a great argument that, because there is a concern that you will learn things purely for exams and it will carry little value later, that things should be stripped down to the skills that people will need later on in life.  Schools are little more than exam factories anyway, churning out results mainly aimed at improving reputation – it seems that many years of government league tables lead us to this.

The idle collection of information that many lament over their time in education is sometimes questionable in its real-world value.

There is a great argument to say that over time schools need to phase out the information that carries little value.

Of course, it’s jolly hard to decide on what is considered valuable to people’s future, since that would mean kids having to choose a career path or specialism very early, to ensure that the specialisation works.  Then what happens?  Do all kids get streamlined and only fed information relevant to their interests and plans at that time?  The trouble is, very few have a dream that they stick to forever.

Imagine sitting down and thinking about what you chose in around Year 7 and compare it to what you wanted to do Post-16.  I bet it changed.  Even then, if you compare it to whatever you’re up to now, I bet it changed again!  I guess that is one major argument against the whole theory of specialisation – you can never be totally sure until you’re there.

Ultimately, the question we’ve got concerns the use of material later in life in a practical sense.  Of course, when you get to A Level you can more or less pick what you like, so one would guess that you would pick something that will indeed be useful.  Even then, for those who want a well-rounded education some of the finer details of subjects like maths might present a bit of a conundrum and lacking in perceived value.

The other side of the argument is that of course nothing is in the curriculum if it serves no real purpose.  It’s all designed to keep your options open as long as possible before you have to decide.  It’s playing a law of averages really: OK, so some of it won’t be totally relevant or useful later, but rather that than you wanting to do something and realising you don’t have the skills for it.

Aside from that, whilst some of what you learn might not be relevant from a work point of view or in terms of what you study later, it might be useful in social interaction.  My knowledge of religions from those good old RE days, for example, has managed to let me engage in different conversations over time.  And of course, when your best mate happens to be Muslim, it served me a useful reminder not to serve pork sausages when he over for something to eat at my house.  You get the idea.

Ultimately, it’s worth considering all the different options to you later on in life and what impact your studies have.  To simply view something as impractical later in life might be a little dangerous.  For example, I never paid enough attention with my French verbs early on… I’m here in Grenoble on Erasmus.  Somehow I think I might have made a little bit of a mistake now!  Paying attention would have been so useful…





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