When will I ever use this?

I’m trying to break myself of a bad habit.

No, not the one about drinking too much coffee! I mean the one that we’re all guilty of at one time or another; the one where we ask ‘When will I ever use this?’

From a certain point of view, it’s a perfectly valid question. You’re asking if the information you are currently learning will ever affect your life in some meaningful way. If you’re paying for your learning, such as in my current case, then you want to know if you’re actually receiving value for your investment. (Actually this is true even if it’s ‘public’ education – your time is certainly worth something, right?) This question can allow for an enlightening discussion of how the current topic relates to a real world application or, unfortunately, it can be a purely tautological answer: “You’re learning this because it will be on the exam.” While this may be true, it’s also the tool of a lazy teacher! Even if a given exercise is unlikely to be used in the ‘real world,’ it should still be applicable to the subject of a given class beyond simply something on which a student will be tested. Most of us are unlikely to ever be paid for being able to explain the theme of a poem, but this is likely to be a core skill in a literature class. You learn this skill because it is part of the basis on which other skills will be learned and not just because you will be tested on it in some way.

Of course the negative side of this question is that we rarely ask this if it’s something we’re enjoying. I think this is what I’m actually trying to break myself of doing — asking this question simply because I’m getting frustrated when learning something which I’m not enjoying. The above example of poetry analysis comes from a current class, and actually one which I am enjoying. I have yet to find myself asking “why am I learning this?” even though this skill is extremely unlikely to ever be a factor in web page development! (It may be hard to believe, but it is rare that you find a client which specifies that the PHP source code must rhyme, even if it is written in lines.) I love to read and actually enjoy poetry, so it really doesn’t occur to me to ask about practical use, even if I’ve never used this skill in my professional life.

On the other hand, I do find myself asking this with my pre-calculus class. This is not a class I particularly enjoy and I’m honestly struggling a bit to keep up with it. Just as with the literary class and analyzing themes, I can’t recall ever being called upon to factor a polynomial equation by hand, so from that point of view, these skills are equally inapplicable to my professional life, yet because it is the one I’m not enjoying, this is the one I’m finding myself questioning. I understand that these math skills are going to be needed in later classes and that complex math skills actually do apply more directly to my profession than most things from the English curriculum, but that doesn’t keep me from grumbling about it!

So when will I ever use this? This may be one of those times when having done this process backwards I can better see the sense in things. The real answer is that it is very unlikely that you will directly use everything you learn in school. There are certainly skills I’m learning as part of my Computer Science classes which I can look at from the view of someone who’s been in IT for more than 20 years and say that I’ve never used … or at least not directly. I can say that I’ve never written a mathematical proof as part of a development project. Yet, I have written many routines which had to follow specific steps and flows of logic. I note that doing proofs are oddly similar to that process! I may never learn to enjoy proofs (or polynomials, or imaginary numbers, etc.), but I think I will be more reluctant to dismiss this as irrelevant to my profession.


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