I was observing a middle school math class a few weeks ago and the teacher started diving into an algebra problem. He was explaining to students how to solve a multistep algebraic equation. But the lesson finished without ever touching upon why students should learn algebra. Later that night I a look at some of the most popular learning sites: Khan, CK-12, and iXL. They all focus on the how, but none of them touch on the why.
This is a common problem across our education system.
There is a lack of focus on the why. And why questions form the bedrock for learning and improving, they also provide students with the motivation to persevere when things get difficult. How gives you the tools, but why gives you the motivation. The gap between these two could be the difference between learning enough math to get by and solving problems for pleasure.
So, why should you learn algebra?
Algebra, like all math, is about learning how to solve complex problems. It helps you to develop logic, and a way of thinking that will help you even when you’re not solving math problems. And algebra is the foundation for many of the concepts that Einstein developed, so understanding it will help you to understand the world. Learning algebra, like any new subject, will literally rewire your brain.
It doesn’t matter what you’re learning – be it basic math or advanced algorithms – if you’re not sure why you’re learning it then you will never succeed. Focusing on why will inspire you, and enable you to push through the inevitable roadblocks of learning. Knowing why you are doing something helps you to be more present in the act of learning, and cut out distractions.
In fact, not knowing your purpose will hold you back long past the end of your formal education. Marcus Aurelius, in the Meditations, pointed out that “the value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.” I see it all the time in the workplace that people focus from a lack of presence, and this often stems from a lack of purpose.
Knowing why you have to do something makes it a lot easier to focus on how you will accomplish that goal.
For more information on how vs. why watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk – How Great Leaders Inspire Action.