What are the three reasons we teach stuff?


  1. It’ll be useful
  2. It’ll allow you to access higher level content
  3. It’ll help you make sense of the world


I think we linger around 1 and 2.


It’ll be useful

‘When will we ever use this?’ is the refrain oft heard in maths classes, but I’ve heard (and said) it elsewhere.

‘What’s the use in learning French, everyone speaks English anyway.’

‘What’s the point in English?  I can already speak English!’

‘When will I ever need to know that the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1066, except for a pub quiz?’

‘Why do I need to know Newton’s Three Laws of Motion?  I want to become a writer, when will I ever use this?!’

It’s probably the weakest case.  Outside of primary education, and some basic mathematics and literacy, we will directly apply very little of what we learn in school.


It’ll allow you to access higher level content

‘You need to learn this so that you can have the choice to study it more fully, later.’

Yeah true… but why?  In the end this line of reasoning lands on either ‘contributing to expanding the body of knowledge’ i.e. become an academic, or to allow access to a choice of jobs or careers.

Valid, but hardly inspiring.  Why did I waste my time studying all the other things if I was just going to end up doing this one thing here?

Three years ago I wrote my first blog post, noting that ‘to get a job’ is not the most inspiring reason for study.


It’ll help you make sense of the world

This is the one I think we miss.  It’s passive, so we don’t realise we do it when we’re doing it: we read, we listen, we engage in conversation, we think, …we think, and we do it all within the confines of what we know.  The more we know, the more we can think, the more we can engage, the more we can make sense of the world.

We do it without even realising we’re doing it.

So we teach stuff so that, in the future, it might help children, who become adults, to make sense of the world around them, and the people in it.


If you brought this idea front and centre of your mind, rather than ‘to be used directly’ or ‘to lead to the next thing,’ would you change anything about the way you teach your subject, or the way you think about its place in the curriculum?

Do you agree that these three capture everything, or have I missed something?

Are they ‘MECE‘?


About Kris Boulton

Teach First 2011 maths teacher, focussed on curriculum design.
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