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Answering the Inevitable Question

As parents and educators, we answer a host of questions every day. Some are purely factual, for example when students want to know what time class ends or what the plan is for dinner. Others are more complicated, such as when students ask you to explain a concept or to give some advice. However, there is one question that every parent and teacher has to answer because every student, particularly in a moment of boredom or frustration with school work, has asked.

Let’s set the scene. Timmy, our fictional student for today’s blog post, is ninety minutes into his homework for the evening. He has finished his English essay (a subject he rather enjoys) and finished his algebra homework. He doesn’t like algebra as much as English, but he really understands the material for this unit, so the homework is interesting enough. Now, it’s time to move to chemistry. Chemistry is Timmy’s least favorite subject because of the confusing subject matter, but also because of the teacher. Mr. Smith is an old-school teacher who has banned the use of computers in class. He also is a big fan of pop quizzes and a notoriously difficult grader when it comes to lab reports. Again, Timmy has been working without a break for about ninety minutes. He takes the balancing chemical equations worksheet out of his binder and dives into the first problem.

Five minutes later, having not balanced the first problem, Timmy slams down his pencil and stomps to the kitchen. He gets some fruit snacks and a glass of water, turns to you and, with as much teen angst as possible, mutters the unoriginal quandary of every teenage student:

“Chemistry is such a waste of time, why does Mr. Smith even assign this stuff? It’s not like I want to be a chemist or a doctor; they should let me skip this class.”

Now what? You didn’t particularly care for high school chemistry when you were sixteen either, but you know you can’t tell him that because you don’t want to feed this line of reasoning. The kid has a point after all, doesn’t he? Why do we make kids balance equations? I haven’t had to use anything I learned in high school chemistry, and my career has been successful. So, what should I tell him?

Key Idea: School isn’t always about the subject matter; it’s also about the core skills students need to learn to succeed beyond the walls of the classroom.

Before any parent or teacher answers Timmy in this fictional scenario, it’s important to think about the context of the question. Timmy didn’t ask about the broader purpose of homework when he was writing a five-page essay on The Great Gatsby. He didn’t say the homework was pointless during the forty-five minutes of factoring he did for his algebra homework. Why not?

Students never ask this question during subjects they enjoy or subjects in which they feel skillful. Natural interest breeds excitement that helps students push through grueling workloads or boring formatting requirements. Likewise, when students feel confident about a subject or a particular skill, they have no problem doing the work, even if it seems pointless. If we’re good at something, it’s only natural to want to keep the dopamine train going by beating challenge after challenge. The real problem comes from the dual-threat subjects, those that are both boring and difficult. Chemistry is a popular example because it’s the first time many students find a subject both difficult and impossibly abstract. Likewise, high school English class can stop a student in his or her tracks if the class-assigned novel fails to grasp the reader (I’m looking at you Tess of the d’Urbervilles).

So, before we answer Timmy’s question, it’s important to point out the causal factors: he’s tired, he’s bored, and he’s lost his momentum. We can solve all three of these problems without tackling the existential crises of educational purpose. Maybe, we ask Timmy to take a break before looking at that problem again. Or we can ask Timmy if he knows anyone in his class who could walk him through the first problem. Alternatively, Timmy can search ‘balancing chemical equations’ on YouTube to find a fun, engaging online personality to talk him through the concepts. Another option would be for Timmy to switch subjects for a few minutes, get his momentum back, and dive back into chemistry with confidence. There are lots of options.

Let’s say Timmy presses the issue. He wants an answer about why he goes to school, why he has to take chemistry, and how this stuff is remotely useful in the real world.

Here’s your answer:

School isn’t always about subjects like math and chemistry, just like working as an accountant isn’t always about the balance sheet and working as a doctor isn’t always about the patient’s blood glucose levels. Sometimes, we need to see the problem in front of us with a broader lens. Sure, maybe you won’t use chemistry in your career as a criminal defense attorney, but you will face difficult challenges that don’t provide you with an immediate answer. You will have to learn new things and deal with difficult people. Being a lawyer isn’t all about writing. Being a doctor isn’t all about science. The best, most successful people in any profession possess certain macro-skills, traits that make them effective in almost any environment.

Whether you are a doctor, a lawyer, or a professional basketball player, you need to be organized, efficient with your time, capable of learning new things, and able to communicate with others. Succeeding in this chemistry class helps your practice all four of these core four skills: organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management. You need to take detailed, organized notes so you have somewhere to go when you get stuck. You need to manage your time well at home and on tests so you can devote the most energy to the most challenging problems. You need to learn how to adjust to the teacher and how, when necessary, to teach yourself a concept using your notes, the textbook, and the internet. And, perhaps, most importantly, you need to learn to connect with difficult people who seem alien to you. There are millions of ‘Mr. Smith’s in the world. You need to develop a support network with teachers, adults, and peers so that you can succeed when things aren’t perfect. So, Timmy, go do your chemistry homework.

At Staying Ahead of the Game, we help students see school with a broader lens. Students need to develop their Executive Function skills (organization, time management, etc.) so they can reach their potential and thrive in any environment.

To learn more about our unique program, please visit our website or reach out today to match your student with an all-star academic coach to answer tough questions like the Timmy scenario mentioned above. Sometimes, a third-party, in your child’s corner can make all the difference.

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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