Why are you working on that?


I’m astounded at how often my children do things for class without understanding the bigger reasons behind WHY they’re doing those things. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: What are you working on?
Them: [random learning task]
Me: Why are you working on that? How does that fit into the overall picture of what you’re learning/doing? Are you going to do something with that later? What purpose are you trying to achieve? What is the reason why you were asked to work on that?
Them: I dunno.

I’m also astounded at how hard they work on those things. They’re very diligent, despite having absolutely no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. There seems to be a lot of trust (or at least compliance?) by my kids that they’re being asked to do the right things. I confess that I’m usually much less certain.

And, of course, there are the kids who are less compliant and/or trusting than mine…

Image credit: Untitled, Dan Buczynski

10 Responses to “Why are you working on that?”

  1. So true, so true. My four teen-age children bring home school work that leaves me scratching my head. Because of the recent published research from Alfie Kohn, Sara Bennett, and others, I am skeptical of the learning value of homework anyway. You are exactly right, educators need to repeatedly ask themselves “why” when developing lessons, creating assignments, or giving assessments. If there isn’t an answer that affirms a substantial benefit to student learning, then most likely, it’s a waste of time. This leads to the next question, what is the value or purpose of grades? But, I leave that for another conversation. Like you, I am impressed with the trust and compliance of many students, but I believe that can only last for so long. Thank you for creating this forum Scott.

  2. Although I don’t have any kids, I am a pre-service teacher who is exploring new blogs to follow. Looking back to my younger days as a student I always wondered why I was learning certain things and when I would ever use them in the real world. This is exactly one of the reasons I wanted to become a teacher so that I could show students the meaning of learning and how they will be able to use these skills in life. I’m eager to see future posts!

  3. I have found that teachers are typically not big picture thinkers in terms of their curriculum. I say this from 30+ years of experience and having done a lot of staff development with schools in recent years. It is difficult for teachers to identify the “take-aways” for the unit and why they matter in the scope of life. This frustrates big picture learners who, although the minority, are very frustrated when teachers do not give reasons why they must learn what the teacher is telling them. The teacher gives them no hooks to prior knowledge, and consequently our big picture students, who may possess the kind of skill sets we need in the future – problem solvers, strategic and creative thinkers, etc., are actually demotivated by teachers who fail to keep the big picture in mind.

  4. You bring up a great point. As a pre-service teacher, I’ve been bombarded with activities, strategies, lesson plans, etc. The more experience I get, the more I learn that doing activities just because they are “fun” isn’t always the best. I want everything I do in the classroom to have a purpose, and I want to communicate that purpose to the students.

  5. As teachers, we should always make sure that students know why they are performing a certain task, otherwise it defeats the purpose of teaching it because they will not be able to apply it in the future.

  6. Teachers not giving meaningful assignments is a problem. As a veteran teacher and instructional coach, I’m reminded that even teachers with carefully designed assignments should check that students are able to identify the purpose of their work.

    • As someone who uses inquiry learning, I have to disagree. Many times the “purpose” of the activity is to think, or practice a skill. One of the courses that I teach is Astronomy, hardly something that has a “clear purpose” other than trying to understand our Universe. Can you do things as Inquiry? Certainly. I have the students try to figure out which craters are older and which ones are newer, and discuss what they used to figure that out, and how we can use the amount of craters to date how old a surface is. What’s the purpose? It’s not to date craters, it’s to learn how to make inferences based on evidence… probably not what the students would say.

      • Bill, if the purpose of the activity is ‘to learn how to make inferences based on evidence,’ couldn’t we help students understand that’s why they were doing what they were doing? It seems to me like a simple discussion (with lots of repetition, perhaps!) could go a long way toward facilitating students’ understanding of the why, even when we’re talking about process skills?

        • At which point the “purpose” would be to develop Meta-Cognitive Skills, and would they recognize that? 🙂

          I just get frustrated at the people who state that all learning must be “real world” or something that the students can relate to (vs. say Astronomy or Dinosaurs), or that all lessons must clearly have their purpose, “standard”, or reason stated or posted on the board. The whole point of Inquiry is to get the students interested in finding out the answer, or figuring out the problem. Stating what the purpose or objective is often short-circuits the activity or entire unit!

          • I think we can/should help students recognize that they’re developing metacognitive skills, label those as such, and understand why they’re worthwhile.

            Now, that said, when you do ‘the great reveal’ of what they’re learning may need to be held until later, as you note. Which is why we should defer to good teachers like you to determine timing!

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