“What’s the point of learning Pythagoras?” A parent’s guide to motivating teens to learn things they ‘don’t need to know’

“What's the point of learning Pythagoras' Theorem? I'm never going to use it in real life.”

That's what one of the members of The Extraordinaries Club was moaning to his mum.

If you're the parent of a teen studying for exams, you may well have heard the same complaint about any number of things they ‘have' to learn for their GCSEs.

In this article, you'll find out:

  1. Why all students should learn Pythagoras' Theorem
  2. What to say if your teen is moaning about learning any other part of the curriculum – because they don't see it as relevant to them.

“What's the point of learning Pythagoras?” A parent's guide to motivating teens to learn things they ‘don't need to know'

Why Pythagoras' Theorem is worth knowing

If your child isn't naturally mathematically minded they might be wondering why on earth they need to learn that in a right-angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

This is why…

1. Many professions and jobs use it daily

Architects, engineers, carpenters, farmers and mathematicians will use Pythagoras' theorem on a daily basis.

Even someone wanting to do their own DIY might use it.

Consider a situation where you need to fix your own roof. You haven't got a ladder and need to buy one. But, what length ladder should you buy?

If you know the height of the house, you can use Pythagoras' theorem to work out what length ladder you need to buy or borrow. It's quick and easy and stops you wasting time faffing about with ladders of the wrong length.

2. It helps us understand the universe

An article on varsity.co.uk says:

Einstein's formulation of his theory of special relativity required nothing more than some basic physics (speed equals distance over time), his considerable brainpower and, of course, Pythagoras’ theorem. It is incredible to think that a theory which changed our perception of space and time is one we all learn about at school.

3. It can be used to solve crimes

Crime scene investigators can use the theorem to determine a bullet's path, and where a shot was fired from. Blood spatter from an assault can also be analysed in this way.

4. A step into understanding geometry

Phythagoras' Theorum is a relatively simple place to start understanding geometry. And, once you start down this road you never know how it's going to spark your interest and where it's going to take you.

5. Awe, wonder and beauty

I'm no mathematician, but even I can look at this simple equation and marvel at how an ancient Greek, millennia ago, came up with something so simple, yet so useful, that has been used down the ages.

Even if mathematics isn't a language you'll ever be fluent in, you can appreciate how beautiful and amazing it is to boil something that could be complex and difficult to work out into a simple and elegant equation.

How to motivate your teen to learn something when they ‘don't see the point'

I hope the above has helped you to understand why learning Pythagoras' Theorem isn't a total waste of time.

Now, let's think about how to motivate a reluctant teen to learn anything at all that they ‘don't see the point' of.

1. Get curious

Curiosity is the biggest motivator. The people who ask questions and are hungry for knowledge are the ones who are intrinsically motivated to learn and discover answers.

If your teen doesn't see the point in something – get them to get curious.

They could:

  • Google, ‘What's the point of learning ……'. That's how I found the Varisty article I linked to above.
  • Ask your teacher – they should have a good idea of why this knowledge is worth knowing
  • Ask other adults you know

Fundamentally, all knowledge is useful – even if it's only about demonstrating possibility. If you think about things like the great explorers who discovered and mapped the world – they could have sat at home in Europe smugly thinking they had everything they needed from life. But, then we wouldn't have coffee, tea, spices, foreign holidays, exotic fruit and vegetables and ideas and ways of looking at life from other cultures.

The same can be said of space travel – a famous example of something useful that's come out of space travel is Teflon – which saves hours of scrubbing in the kitchen through its use on non-stick pans. If no one had had the curiosity to head into space (which the human race didn't strictly need to do), Teflon wouldn't have been invented.

There are countless other examples of knowledge that we only have because of someone's curiosity. These things had to be discovered before we knew what their point was.

2. How does it help your life?

Prime numbers are beautiful and mysterious to mathematicians. To the rest of us, they might be a bit of an enigma. But, we all use them every day if we use the internet because prime numbers are fundamental to encryption.

When I was teaching geography, a topic that many thought of as dry and boring was soil. However, when you really get down to it soil is fundamental to the survival of the human race because, without it, there would be no food. Some people may take food for granted, but doesn't it make us better human beings and contributors to society if we understand how soil is made and how we should be looking after it for ourselves and future generations? Having this understanding helps make us better citizens and participants in democracy.

Finally, just knowing what's possible, what knowledge is out there, could help you in the future. If you take on a project, or are managing people, or need to recruit someone, then knowing that certain knowledge and capabilities are out there will help you on your way.

3. Society says it's important

Even if things aren't useful for you on a day to day basis, there are things that we should just know, according to society.

GCSE stands for General Certificate of Secondary Education – basically, it's been decided by the people of this country what it's important for young people to know at the age of sixteen. By electing a government, that government sets its educational agenda and works with Ofqual and the education sector to implement that agenda. If a young person says, ‘This information isn't for me,” they're saying that they don't want to meet the minimum educational standard of a functioning adult in this country.

4. The satisfaction of knowing things

I studied both biology and chemistry A-Level. Most of what I learned has not been very useful to me in a direct and practical way. However, it's given me knowledge that has helped me understand the world I live in and live in it more happily.

An example is studying the chemistry of paint. As a result, I understand the different types of paints, their properties and how they might be used. This makes it easier for me when I step into the paint aisle, with all those hundreds of different cans to choose from, to make an educated choice.

Similarly, learning about nutrient cycling in biology (and geography) hasn't been very useful to me apart from being able to teach it to other people. However, it made me understand why it's important to compost kitchen and garden waste and how it helps the environment – making me a more responsible citizen.

Over to you…

What piece of knowledge has your teen questioned why they need to learn? Use this article to help them understand why it's not a waste of their time.

And, if you have other issues with their motivation to study join The Extraordinaries Club where you can do the Boost Your Motivation module and ask me questions, like the member who inspired this article did, on our live coaching calls or in the Facebook group at any time.

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