“Why Do We Need to Know This?!”

Hubble Deep Field Image

How do you explain to your students that what you’re teaching is important even if there is no obvious real-world application?
— B., Ohio

I’m sure every teacher has heard this refrain!

I found that students question what we teach when it is dull and repetitive. So, trying different strategies may work.

You can appeal to them on a philosophical level: explain to them that most of us don’t know what may be personally useful n the future.

The history of science is full of discoveries that were ahead of their time. It took time and the right people to reveal the importance or usefulness of that knowledge. Classic stories you can relate to your students: Michael Faraday and electromagnetism; Wilhelm Roentgen and X-rays; Alexander Flemming and penicillin; and many more.

My favorite is Christian Doppler who, in 1847, studied and determined why sound coming towards you is higher pitched than when it moves away from you (think race cars). Twenty years later astronomers discovered that the light followed the “Doppler Effect” and they could identify stars moving away or toward our solar system. In 1929, Edwin Hubble’s observations of galaxies indicated that they were all moving away from each other at ever-increasing velocity. This is the basis for the “Big Bang” theory, part of our current model of the universe. From Doppler’s curiosity about how train whistles change pitch we now have the current theory of the cosmos!

As a last resort, you can always just say the people who write curriculum felt it was important to understand. They can always complain to the government.

Hope this helps!

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/STScI Hubble Deep Field Team

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