When am I ever going to use __________ (insert relevant subject here) in the future?
It’s a dreaded question. One often asked by the student in the back of the classroom looking to get a rise out of the teacher. We bumble through an answer about critical thinking skills or the real-world application of mathematics, hoping the lesson might be able to move on. “You need to be able to read so that you don’t sign a contract that comes back to bite you.” Statements like this are tried and true deflectors for a seemingly impertinent question. However, what these questions reveal about our education system is telling and they may be more important now than ever.
Questions about the practical application of learning, essentially WHY we need to learn certain things, come about because we’ve designed a system that encourages them. We’ve told students that learning is about preparing them for the future.
Think about school. So much of the narrative around schooling is preoccupied with preparing kids. Preparing them for the future, for the next grade level, for university. You need to be ready for the end-of-year exam, so that you do well and can go on to the next level. We’ve over-indexed on learning ‘for the future’ and on learning as a function as opposed to a process. We’ve told kids that learning is the function by which you succeed and are able to go on to further learning. It’s seen as a painful prerequisite students have to undergo if they are going to make it in the world.
When our gaze is set firmly on the future benefits of learning, we miss what might be staring us in the face. Such thinking shifts our focus from what is currently happening in our classrooms. Why is that student posing the question in the first place? We may put it down to a sense of cheekiness and an inability to comprehend the value of learning, instead of asking, why can’t that student see the point in what we are learning or why are they disengaged? We’ve become more interested in convincing our students that the content we’re teaching them is really important for their future.
What if instead, we asked ourselves the question, “Why are we teaching this?”
Society’s preoccupation with learning as contributing to future success often leads us to view learning as a necessity. But is this the only point to learning and if it is then what does that mean for the future? With generative AI throwing old notions about what is necessary out the window, we’re forced to ask questions like “Do students really need to be able to write?” When learning is a function, as opposed to process, then it’s easy to see AI making core competencies such as reading, writing and mathematics redundant.
But reading and writing aren’t redundant. Just because I don’t ‘need’ to read and write, it doesn’t mean they aren’t of value. Take this blog, for example. Could I get generative AI to power out blog posts in my writing style about topics I am interested in? Likely I could, but the purpose of my writing is not merely content generation. I enjoy the process of writing, synthesizing and thinking about how we learn. If I choose necessity, then do I need to be able to write anymore? Potentially not. If I ask myself, “Do I want to write?” Then the answer is absolutely yes.
So what then is the purpose of learning if not for necessity’s sake? We’re keen to provide young people with the skills to navigate the future but what about what is happening in our classrooms right now?
What if instead we focused on the present, where students are at in the moment. We already do in a sense. In examinations. “You need to know this because it will be in the exam” is another common refrain to the dreaded question above. We are constantly measuring where students are at in their progress (comparative to others), in order to predict their future success. Examinations measure the now and dictate the future, which is a bad metric for potential.
The 2023 film 'A Million Miles Away' is a true story about José M. Hernández, an astronaut who was rejected by NASA’s space program 11 times before finally being accepted. In his latest book, Hidden Potential, organizational psychologist Adam Grant argues that Hernández's rejection from NASA is because “our systems for judging qualifications are flawed,“In schools and workplaces, selection systems are usually designed to detect excellence. That means people who are on their way to excellence rarely make the cut.” (Grant, 2023) Hernandez's different experiences working as a farm labourer when he was young and overcoming adversity didn’t count towards his potential applicability to be an astronaut. But it should have.
So a student’s grade on an examination tells you very little about their future potential. In fact, their future self isn’t even necessarily tied to who they are now.
Psychologist Hal Hershfield, professor at UCLA, devoted his career to studying people's relationship to their future. Hershfield’s research found that neurologically our future selves look like different people.
In 2007 Hershfield got participants in his research to lie down in an MRI machine. The researchers would ask them questions about who they are right now. Questions like, “Are you funny? Are you smart? Are you sarcastic?” Then he’d ask the same questions about two people they didn’t know personally but likely could picture in their mind - Matt Damon and Natalie Portman. Different sections of the brain lit up depending on whether the questions were asked about yourself or about these celebrities. Where it got interesting was when Hershfield asked participants the same questions about their future selves. The same region of the brain lit up as when people were thinking about Matt Damon and Natalie Portman. In other words, in the brain, the future self looks like another person.
Hal Hershfield says that when you think about your future you, you might as well be thinking about a colleague who you kind of see around the office but don't really know that well. Essentially there could be a future version of you who you don't feel all that emotionally connected to or invested in.
No wonder it’s hard to get a kid to care about reading and writing and math if they cannot see the future benefit. If they aren’t connected to their future selves, why would they make decisions in service of them? So who gets to make those decisions?
Well to some extent, we as teachers get to decide what the purpose of learning is, in alignment with the curriculum of course. If the present isn’t a good measure of future potential and the future isn't a good measure of current learning, then where does that leave us?
What if the purpose of learning encompasses the past, the present and the future of a child? It’s about understanding where a child has come from, the challenges they’ve faced and the growth in their learning. Like Hernandez, what if the distance travelled and adversity overcome was our measure of potential? In the present then learning is not a necessity or an investment in the future but rather a process of growth and enjoying the process of learning. As for future thinking, it’s about designing a future we want rather than one we need. A future where people want to read and write and engage critically in the world, regardless of its relevance in their career. How then might this change our metrics? How might it change our response to that student sitting in the back of the class arguing that they don’t need to read ‘The Kite Runner’ to be a builder?
Grant, A. (2023). Hidden potential: The science of achieving greater things. Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Zomorodi, M., Gutierrez, A., & Meshkinpour, S. (2023, June 16). How do our brains perceive our future selves? One psychologist wanted to know. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/06/16/1182387784/how-do-our-brains-perceive-our-future-selves-one-psychologist-wanted-to-know