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Why You Should Study Things that You’ll Never Use

Though I don’t need to address this complaint often in my computer science class, it can be difficult to explain to students why they should spend time studying things they’ll never use. I recently heard a story about a student asking his teacher the common question in geometry class, “when am I ever going to use this?” Expecting a clever, snarky response to an inquiry of the same nature, the student was caught off-guard by the teacher’s honest reply (and I paraphrase):

“Chances are you’re not going to use this exact principle at any point in life. But the skill gained from overcoming the struggle to master this material has universal value.”

His response to this age-old question exposes the essence of pursuing the Art of Study. Not always will the material learned in class have a practical application. Even less so is it guaranteed to remain with us for life. If the criterion for value in knowledge is utility, it follows that proving the congruency of angles seems a waste of time. But there is more to it than that.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a defense for the merit of the liberal arts (which you can find here). This is a defense for the merit of doing difficult things.

Difficult tasks are not accomplished without effort. Nor are they accomplished without time and discipline. You can’t expect to complete a marathon without training. Instead, you increment your efforts until reaching a goal (this isn’t to say that your son goes to class only to practice studying; he should never discredit the intrinsic value of knowledge). Study presents the optimal opportunity to condition habits of mind, and virtues thus gained are invaluable in every discipline and profession.

Unveil the Opportunity

Students often fail to recognize study as an opportunity. It reeks of “work” and “boring” and offers no immediate satisfaction to the adolescent appetites. Worse yet it brings with it its sibling opportunity, failure. Approaching a healthy eagerness to study begins with alleviating these toxic misconceptions.

Of course, there’s no phrase I could tell a student that would change the way he feels about studying. There’s also no phrase a coach could tell a player that would change how he feels about running laps. But I’ve yet to see players ask their coach, “when am I ever going to use this?

Students perceive a difference in the ends of each exercise. Running laps has a direct correlation to improved performance on the field. Studying advertises a better grade, but in a subject a student might perceive as useless. Finally, study makes no promises of success, making it a bit of a gamble with a student’s time. These misperceptions, however, miss the importance of nurturing the intellect. If the intellect is understood as malleable, then study can be understood as the exercise that expands it.

Do Impressive Things

Even then students may question the purpose of expanding the mind. Beyond its profound societal benefits, exercising the intellect has pragmatic value as well. The reasoning behind this echoes that of the math teacher whose story I began with.

  • Studying is difficult.
  • A correlation exists between how impressive something is and the difficulty of production.
  • You need to practice difficult things to do difficult things.
  • Study is practicing doing something difficult.
  • If you study you will do impressive things.

John Henry Newman goes into more depth in a section of The Idea of a University titled, “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Professional Skill.” But I’m not here to list the purpose of study (you can listen to this podcast for that). Instead, I want to focus on ways to teach study. In the same section, Newman writes:

“The eye of the mind, of which the object is truth, is the work of discipline and habit.”

How can you get students to begin practicing this discipline? It starts with something as simple as teaching them that it has a positive effect on their brain.

Shift the Mindset

Psychologist Carol Dweck’s research demonstrates this principle. Her studies show an increase in student performance resulting from an awareness of the mind’s flexibility. She calls this shifting from a “fixed” to a “growth” mindset. Her research concludes that when students became aware of “how the brain grows with learning … [students] showed an increase in effort and motivation.” Though, it’s not simply the recognition of a growth mindset that begets its benefits. As with any virtue, it comes from habituation.

According to Dweck’s research, one way that you can encourage this habit is through your feedback. Shift focus away from praising a student’s intelligence. Instead, promote his efforts. Sounds simple enough, but also consider the quantity and quality of effort together. As an example, studying for two hours in front of a computer with a cell phone at hand is hardly effort. On the other hand, five minutes of pure concentration is a good start, but isn’t the final product. Keeping that in mind, for the undisciplined student, five minutes might be the best it gets, at least for a time.

Like a trainer, find the most study a student can handle and encourage him to do it. Daily. After some practice, he might notice that he’s able to study longer. More important than that, you want him to notice an improvement in the quality of his study. That he’s able to comprehend material more easily. That he’s eager to challenge himself more. Once he starts recognizing that his efforts have a positive effect, he’ll be more motivated to continue them.

Beware of Gamification/Rewards Systems

The biggest hurdle is getting a student to consistently devote time to this practice. If you’ve ever tried to commit to jogging daily, the beginning is grueling. It’s similarly harsh for an out-of-shape intellect. The truth is that there’s no easy way to start the routine. And even if a student gets started, it’s even more difficult to maintain. But if it wasn’t difficult then it wouldn’t be impressive.

A strategy to be wary of is gamification or a rewards system. Introducing a foreign incentive to promote pure study can misdirect the ends of the exercise. It might work to get a student to start studying, but there are risks. When the incentive is removed, along with it the motivation. Nor is the external incentive scalable. The greater the difficulty, the greater the natural excitement that should result from its accomplishment. Offering a reward for a student’s good effort can be a way to get the ball rolling, but nobody published a novel because of the promise of ice cream. You don’t want the student to end up like those kids with the toothbrush.

Introduce a New Skill

Studying for class is not the only way to discover the reward of hard work. Mastering any skill or craft offers this opportunity. Learning an instrument, a programming language, oil painting, carpentry—all evoke the same thrill that comes with industriousness. Better yet, they have concrete achievements that correspond directly to effort. Nailing the sweep-picking phrase of a guitar solo; solving the intermittent bug in your program that stumped you weeks ago; finishing the perfect birdhouse. These are tangible tokens of accomplishment.

Students might find it trivial that these skills aid the art of study, but they would be surprised to learn that studying facilitates all other skills. That’s not to say that studying makes you better at everything; studying makes you better at becoming better at anything.

You may have already understood that study extends its value to all disciplines. Students, especially at a younger age, don’t find this self-evident. This is because the rigid aversion to study is rooted in the appetitive part of the soul. As parents and educators, it’s our duty to teach why we educate. School does not function to cram practical information and data into students. It is to form them into lifelong learners: human beings whose hunger for understanding guides them through any and all challenges.

About the Author

George Martin

Director of Production

In addition to teaching Computer Science in the upper school and mentoring students, in his capacity as Director of Production for the Forum, George facilitates the publication of content and actively develops and maintains the websites for both The Heights School, and the Forum.

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