Let’s Get Impractical!

Having been an educator for years now, I hear one particular question more often than any other:

“But when am I going to use this concept in real life?”

I’m not going to lie: this question bothers me.

I’d like to propose that there are better questions to ask than whether everything in class is practical.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people stop trying to form connections between what they learn and their real life. On the contrary, being able to understand a concept enough to be able to apply it to daily life is one of the highest goals a student can achieve!

What makes me sad is the pervasive myth that all education provided in schools needs to be practical.

It doesn’t. And perhaps it even shouldn’t.

I’m sure you want me to explain that rather gutsy statement, so here are several reasons I believe that it is important to teach kids things they will never use for the rest of their lives:

1. Student Have Diverse Needs and Interests

My university’s template for lesson plans includes a section for “rationale”: in other words, we teachers are required to articulate exactly why the lesson is necessary for the students to participate in. I admit, sometimes I stare blankly at the gaping void that is the “rationale” field of the template, before I inevitably cop out to something as lame as, “I am teaching this lesson because the curriculum tells me I have to.”

But honestly, even if I’m teaching something incredibly practical, and even if I know my students fairly well, I have almost no clue about how they’re going to use that concept in their lives, because they might not even know.

For example, I could teach my students the names of various sports in French. Maybe a student wants to converse with her Francophone uncle, or impress his girlfriend, or spend summer vacation in Morocco, or join a telemarketing company that sells athletic equipment in Québec.

How am I supposed to know how—or even if—the students will ever use what I teach them? That’s completely up to them.

2. Memory Isn’t Dependent Solely Upon Applicability

I hate to admit it, but it’s true: Teachers’ words are rarely immortalised. Think back to when you were in school (or if you are in school, think back a few years). How much do you actually remember from that time?

It’s ridiculous to assume that students have to be able to apply everything they hear in class, because they probably won’t even remember most of it, so how could they even start?

I can already hear your screams of objection: “Well then, why don’t you make your classes more applicable so they will be more memorable? Didn’t Confucius say something about ‘doing’ leading to ‘understanding’?”

Integrating action into teaching is wonderful—even necessary!—but it’s far from an educational panacea. If all classes were nothing but experiential learning, don’t you think it would become normal for the students? The students’ brains would be just as full as before, and the forgetting would commence.

The style of teaching doesn’t change the fact that students are going to forget a lot of what they are taught. And that’s okay.

So why do we even bother with school at all? Well, that leads me to the next point …

3. Students Learn Skills Indirectly

Among even the brightest students, it seems that most everything is completely forgotten ten minutes after the final exam. And why shouldn’t it be?

Final exams are often simply compendia of the student’s knowledge of trivia (fill-in-the-blanks), random luck (multiple choice), and compliance with the teacher’s personal communication style (written answer questions). None of those is always an accurate gauge of the student’s abilities or proficiency.

These days, information in and of itself is no longer meaningful, and I think as educators we’re realising that it never should have been the point of an education system in the first place. In almost every case in real life, the latest and most up-to-date information on a subject is always just a Google search away, so why spend thirteen years of your life memorising information that is probably out-of-date by the time you’ve all got it in your head?

School is the time to learn skills, not data.

One concept I’ve heard students contest the practicality of—despite my demonstrations that show the contrary—is that of arithmetic series in pre-calculus. I admit, the practicality is a bit contrived, unless you happen to be both window-dresser and inventory clerk of a grocery store and you need to know how many soup cans you need to make a triangular display. But to be honest, it’d probably just be faster to come up with the answer to that question without using the arithmetic series formula.

In solving these problems, though, there is learning going on! You learn how to interpret a situation and translate it into mathematical terms. You learn problem-solving techniques, like drawing a picture (or with enough practice, mental math). And perhaps most importantly, you learn to see patterns in the way the world works.

There are so many more important skills than finishing your calculations correctly.

4. Students Get Opportunities for Mastery

How many people do you know who’ve picked up a musical instrument once years ago, tried to play a song, got frustrated, and never touched it again? Isn’t it so sad to see the potential wasted because that person didn’t have the patience to practice?

It’s not fair to judge a subject after just a few classes. How can a grade 9 student know whether she’ll like chemistry if she’s never given it a fair chance? How can an art student cast away an entire part of his personality because he can’t draw what he has in his head to draw (at least, not yet)?

A hundred hours of struggle (or more) may be necessary before a student can develop proficiency in a subject. Only after some mastery can the student have an informed opinion as to whether or not that entire branch of learning is even interesting or whether it matches the student’s gifts. Once interest forms, the student will be motivated to pursue further knowledge, and education becomes valuable. Some may consider that sense of value a good enough reason for education, irrespective of the specific applicability of the knowledge itself.

5. The Practical Is Limiting; The Possible is Boundless

In terms of applicability, some of humankind’s greatest achievements have been useless. Scaling Mount Everest, writing the most beautiful descriptive poetry, or sculpting a photorealistic masterpiece out of a block of marble … all functionally useless. But they’re still important, because they add to the picture of how humanity defines itself. Such achievements are among our most special because they transcend the practical.

This is so much closer to the point of education. Practical knowledge is only step 1.

Exploring not what is practical, but what is possible, can lead to discovery of what we think is impossible.

Take theoretical math, for example. What we now know as complex numbers started as a thought experiment by a few curious Italian mathematicians in the 1500s. Throughout the next few decades, all sorts of axioms and theorems were formed on the premise that these numbers existed, and a new branch of mathematics was born. However, many believed these numbers didn’t exist because they aren’t physically representable in our universe. To their thinking, why should anyone keep exploring math that’s useless? It wasn’t until almost 200 years later that practical applications of complex numbers were discovered, and now they’re a staple of physics and engineering, and they make all sorts of complicated calculations much easier (or even possible).

Take a look at quantum computing or the P-vs.-NP problem in computer science, or string theory or black holes in physics. There is so much we don’t know, and sticking to what we can tangibly demonstrate will likely never get us to any knowledge we don’t already have. In fact, it may even box us in and prevent discovery, since our knowledge will be narrowed by perceptions of the universe that may be inaccurate or incomplete.


I could continue, but I don’t want to belabour the point. Hopefully, though, you can see where I’m coming from.

Practicality just scratches the surface. Let’s get impractical!

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