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How to Motivate Students to Learn Things That Only Make Sense in School

Jordan Catapano

“When am I going to use this?”

This a question students often ask – and rightly so. Each day we ask students to learn, train, practice, perfect, reflect, and otherwise strengthen their academic acumen. But what’s it for, really?

We might offer a number of vague answers in response:

  • “It’s in the curriculum.”
  • “It’s for the test.”
  • “You’ll need this so you can learn the next chapter.”
  • “You’ll need this knowledge some day.”
  • “Learn it now and you decide what to do with it later.”

Sure, there’s some truth to each of these, but they hardly justify why we’re spending time learning certain items in school. Are these the best answers we can give? Which ones are you guilty of?

It might be worthwhile to make a certain distinction to students: Sometimes the specific content we’re focusing on is not what they’re going to use in the “Real world.” Instead, some of what we learn is to focus on the skill, not the content, and other times, what we learn is more for school than for life.

If we can better understand why we are trying to teach what we teach, then we can better communicate to students why they should learn what we’re asking them to – and, in turn, learn how to motivate students.

How to Motivate Students: Some Things Are for the “Academic World”

In addition to what we call the “Real world,” there is also what we might think of as the “Academic world.” This academic world is rich and vibrant and full of knowledge, but often restricted to the world of schools, universities, professors, and esoteric journals and publications. It’s the world of theory, practice, research, ideologies, and so on. It’s a very smart, but very school-centric kind of place.

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This is not a new way of looking at the academic world. We’ve heard the term “Ivory Tower” before, referring to an educated elite who separate themselves from the world fabricating their idealistic sentiments about the world based on their deep learning. These are intellectuals engaged in pursuits disconnected from the down-to-earth practicalities of everyday life.

I wonder sometimes how much I create a school environment that operates on this ivory tower mentality. When we teach, how much of what we teach should be geared toward generating this kind of intellectually elite academic experience that, despite its deep channels of thought, can become disengaged from the real world?

When I think of the ivory tower, I think of the things we teach students they could only apply later in another school setting. When our answers to the student inquiry, “When am I going to use this?” is “You’ll need this next year,” or “You’ll need this in high school or college,” we might be guilty of facilitating this educated elite “ivory tower” mentality. The world of academia is one we should continually encourage our students to engage in; however, we must avoid crafting an academic experience that negatively presupposes that our intellectual pursuits are so deep and high-minded that we cannot find an intersection with the common human experience.

How to Motivate Students to Understand What They Do Learn That Applies to the Real World

I don’t feel automatically obligated to explain to students the exact real-world instances that each lesson applies to. But I do seek to consciously understand the “Why” of the content and skills we cover. Yes – some of it highly pertains to preparing them intellectually for their next level of study; yet much of it also has pertinence and connection to real-world opportunities for engagement and growth.

Before I tell students what exactly we’ll learn, I emphasize that our class is about “Thinking.” I tell them that I don’t care if when they graduate they can recite all the details we discussed about “Romeo and Juliet” or “Lord of the Flies” (although I hope they can). Instead I’m interested in them being able to read or experience anything and be able to think critically about it when they graduate.

What do you want to stick with your students when they graduate?

In addition to the content of academics that may or may not pertain to real-world opportunities, there exists a host of experiences that equip students with all kinds of practical learning. They’ll learn how to:

  • Deal with setbacks.
  • Organize their time and workload.
  • Collaborate with others, even others they don’t know or like.
  • Explore their personal interests.
  • Entertain themselves while bored.
  • Build confidence.
  • Communicate their thinking with accuracy and confidence.
  • Navigate the social spectrum.
  • Use new technology for academic and personal pursuits.
  • Think critically and apply new information.

When a person is working out at a gym, they do not ask their personal trainer, “When am I going to use this exercise in real life?” It’s an impractical question, since the objective of working out is to be healthy and physically equipped to tackle any challenge they encounter in real life (and to look good, too). The same often applies to academics – we can’t necessarily say moment-by-moment what the application is, but we can say that we are interested in holistic mental fitness.

Giving Students Real-World Application Opportunities

While it’s important that we communicate to students the real goals of our classroom studies, whether academic or life application, we also want to help provide opportunities for students to see how what they’re learning connects to real life. When students see how what they’re studying has outside-of-the-classroom implications – and when they apply their learning themselves – their opportunity for growth becomes exponential.

  • Show students real-world examples of what you’re studying in action.
  • Show students your personal ways you’ve applied what you’re learning.
  • Have students talk to their parents and other adults about the subject they’re exploring.
  • Present students with real-world problems/issues that relate to your area of study.
  • Have students select one specific avenue of study and find a practical application for it.
  • Connect students to real people in the community and allow them to work alongside them.
  • Let students use blogs and social media to connect and discuss with others beyond the classroom.
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning

The ivory tower can be a good place to live as long as we also teach students how to use the elevator, come down, and get their hands dirty in the fields as well. When we teach students that learning is only something that only applies to school, we do them a grave disserve.

But likewise when we teach students that learning only provides immediate, practical application, we overlook the deeper and further reaching implications of a rich education. Let’s commit to understanding the “Why” of what we teach and explaining to students both the immediate and long-term, academic and real-world applications for what we’re pursuing.

How do you approach the real-world and academic components of teaching? Do you see this distinction yourself, or are there other ways of looking at how students applying their learning?

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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