Monday, February 18, 2019

Wasting Time In School

It's tax season, so it's time for this sort of meme--

These are just another version the compliant that teachers hear all the time-- why are we learning this? When am I ever going to use it? Every discipline has its own version. English-- when will I ever need to know subjects and verbs? Math-- when will I ever need to know the quadratic equation? Phys ed-- when will I ever have to do a shuttle run? History-- when will I ever need to know any history at all? (History teachers have it he worst.)

The answer, of course, is that we have no idea. Maybe life will take you to a place where you need to pick apart sentences. Maybe it never will.

When I was teaching, I had three main responses to this general complaint. Here they are-- and you can feel free to use them, because until the Board of Directors and my grandchildren get a little older, I won't be using them for anything.


Nobody ever said, "Dammit-- I wish I hadn't learned so much. Being educated totally messed up my life."


Most of our athletes spend a ton of time in the weight room, even in the off season. Why do they do that? Has anyone ever been at a football game and the play action totally stopped so that they could bring a bunch of equipment on the field so that the teams could have a bench press competition? Of course not. Operating those weight machines is a skill you will never use doing an actual game, so why bother going in for weight work?

The answer's obvious-- you won't use those particular weight machine skills, but you will absolutely use the muscles you developed. I was an English major in college. I took some advanced math in high school, and I have never used it since I took my last algebra test in 1975. But I do use the muscles I developed, the mental math-flavored thinking that becomes another tool for picking apart and taking in the world.

Every course develops a particular set of muscles, muscles that you can continue using long after the coursework is done.


Consider the game that was played last week. It was just that two minutes of play that determined the outcome. So why waste time playing the whole game. Next time we'll just play for two minutes-- you know, the two game-deciding minutes. We won't waste time on the rest of it.

Of course, we can't. Nobody has any way of knowing ahead of time which moments will be the critical ones, or for that matter, how much those two minutes were influenced by the other "unimportant" minutes.

This is life. Some moments are unimportant, some are very important, and some change everything, and despite our best efforts, we can never know ahead of time which are which. Any attempt to fix school by paring it down to "just the important parts" is a fool's game. Or to put it another way, it's not possible to really educate people without seeming to waste time.


Bonus round: The more educated you are, the more jokes you get.

Double bonus: A person with a well-rounded education might learn about how to do taxes-- but that decent education might also render us capable of figuring out things like how to do taxes all on our own.


  1. I always tell my students... we are sending our brains to the gym.

  2. As a math teacher, I face this all the time. I explain the brain research, how engaging in math, even making mistakes and then correcting, physically causes the brain to grow. I explain how learning to do proofs and reason mathematically is a cross-curricular skill (deductive logic and all that) that is needed for whatever a student chooses to do in life--knowing how to make a proposal and back it up with evidence is essential. I could go on, but sometimes I get so tired of it my only response is: you'll use it now if you want to pass this class. :D :D :D (the only way to stay sane as a teacher is to have a sense of humor!)

  3. Why knowledge/learning matters:

    Life becomes more interesting
    You become more interesting
    You become more interested
    You become smarter
    You become a better conversationalist
    You become more confident
    You become more valuable($)
    Knowledge opens doors of opportunity
    that you would never know existed.

    The truth is, ignorance is not all that blissful.

  4. Ignorance my be blissful, but it sure is boring and the pay sucks.

  5. So, there is actually a legitimate complaint buried in these memes, under the stupid (the hard part of taxes isn't the math, people who make memes, it's finding your numbers and understanding the legalese). It comes from the idea that math professors should be the ones setting the curriculum, instead of asking, "What math should we expect a reasonably educated citizen to have?" as our normal math baseline.

    It's part and parcel with the whole CCSS problem. Math has a *severe* practical application problem for the vast majority of people, and all the "useful" stuff for non-STEM people happens below 7th grade. Meanwhile, statistics and financial management are COMPLETELY left off the curriculum, leaving a lot of people open to fraud and bad math that can literally take our economy down (hi, balloon loans and subprime mortgages).

    "Content Area" subjects are incredibly important as voters and people; they genuinely help people vote in our democracy and lead fuller lives. English is there so you can understand the information being given to you and (again) so you can lead a fuller life, and be an empathetic person.

    Meanwhile, math teachers are DEAD ON from K-7. All that stuff is incredibly important every day; fractions, decimals, pie charts, division: all vital. But the best justification I've heard about 8th+ math is that it teaches "mathematical habits of mind," but logic is never directly taught, and the idea of displacing, say, algebra 2 for logic and stats would be met with shock by all. Most schools don't even offer any financial literacy *units*, and those that do keep it to their "low-level" students when it's something everyone needs to know and deals with super advanced math.

    Math needs a reckoning, but of course, in our country, I'm not sure how well it would go.

    But, TL:DR: Those memes aren't all wrong.