Toronto Zoo

Practical Learning

It’s part of human nature to think that others should find our own passions and interests and occupations as important as we do. I understand that. I publish poetry, and I sincerely think that everyone should love poetry as much as I do. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it would make the world a better place if people would read more poems.

On the other hand, I also understand that not everyone feels that way. I’m aware enough of the world and of our current cultural trends to know that most people rate poetry a fair way down their list of preferred art forms, far below feature movies and youtube videos, below other written genres like novels and non-fiction, somewhere in the neighbourhood of macrame weaving and atonal jazz. I may not agree with this, but I can admit that it’s true.

Some of my children’s teachers, however, can’t seem to grasp that not everyone is as passionate about their subjects as they are. My one son’s math teacher, for example, contacted me in frustration because my son hasn’t been handing things in on time or “living up to his potential” as a student.

Which is fair. I get it. I’ve been a teacher too, and I know how frustrating it can be when a student who is completely able do the work gets poor marks because they can’t be bothered. And there is something to be said (trust me, I’ve said it to all my kids on more than one occasion), about learning to get a job done even if you don’t love it, about learning responsibility for your tasks, about learning time and task management, about learning how to learn, and so forth.

If my son’s teacher would have taken this approach, I could have understood, and I would have told him quite truthfully that I would be reinforcing that message with my kid at home. But those kinds of lessons didn’t seem to be what the teacher was worried about. Instead, he kept telling me how important it was for kids to learn algebra in order to be successful in their future lives, and when he said so for the third or fourth time, I couldn’t help but contradict him.

“Listen,” I explained, “that argument isn’t going to work with my kid, because he knows it’s not true. He’s interested in becoming a chef, and he’s perfectly aware that he’ll never need algebra to make that happen. As long as he gets good enough marks to get the credit, he’s never going to care about the material. It isn’t important to him now, and he knows it won’t likely be important to him later.”

The teacher didn’t take this well. “Algebra is an important skill for everyone,” he insisted, “whether you’re becoming a chef or anything else. You never know when you might need it. And you never know when you might have to switch careers to something that might require it.” Surely, he concluded, I could see that as an adult and as a parent.

“Well,” I told him, knowing that it wasn’t going to be helpful, but unable to resist, “I have two university degrees, and I’ve taught at the college level, and I own my own business, but I’ve never once used the algebra that I was taught in highschool until I had to help my son with it just this past week. And I could have told you that in high school. I’m just not the sort of person suited to jobs involving algebra. And neither is he.”

The conversation didn’t last much longer than that, and it ended with the teacher much less than satisfied, but I think the point I made is worth making. Kids are smart enough to know that they won’t ever directly use much of what they’re taught in high school. The general principles will help inform their knowledge of the world, and will hopefully help them negotiate political and social questions that are relevant to them throughout their lives, but most kids will never apply what they learn in chemistry or physics, never find a spot to do practical trigonometry, never need to put together an annotated bibliography.

Should they be exposed to those things? Absolutely. It’s good for them to think about those disciplines, to be aware of what else is out there in the world. It’s good for them to be forced to think in different ways and to see how different kinds of knowledge operate. It’s good for them to develop the capacity to learn and the habit of learning.

But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that the subject itself will necessarily be important to their future lives and careers. Unless they’re going into those disciplines, the fact is that they’ll likely never use what they’ve learned in any practical way ever again. And they know it. So stop lying to them. Tell them all the reasons that it’s important to learn a wide variety of subjects, but let’s stop pretending to them and to ourselves that not having a complete and passionate knowledge of algebra will somehow ruin their lives.