Why We Learn Stuff

The GCSE and A-Level exams aren’t going to happen in May/June thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and at the time of writing there is no plan as to whether they’ll be postponed to later in the year or replaced with a teacher/school assessment. Some students at school today were pleased, others were upset, but most seemed to be feeling a mixture of frustrations at the lack of clarity in what would happen instead, and that they wouldn’t be able to show what they have learned over the last two or more years.  I’m not sure any stress was relieved in the announcement at all, though perphaps in the long term once the situation is clearer students will be able to relax.

However, the talk of imminent parties and gatherings also worried me as it doesn’t seem in keeping with the purpose of shutting schools to maximise physical isolation and minimise the spread of the virus. Would we have been better off holding back on cancelling exams a bit, keeping students at their desks a little longer to stop sixteen and eighteen year olds spreading the disease in party mode?

One student said to me that he was annoyed “What’s been the point of learning all this stuff?” he asked?

Inspired by a tweet I’d read the previous lunchtime by Laura McInerney I replied “Learning is never wasted. Exams are a single day, the point of learning this stuff is so much bigger than exams.” However, was not as easily convinced as I was by Laura’s argument. “The only time I’m ever going to use Pythagoras’ Theory is in a Maths exam” he said, “and now I might not sit that exam and I’ve learned something pointless.”

But Laura is right, learning isn’t pointless, students should carry on learning anyway. Revise for exams that in all likihood wont happen, because it’s the right thing to do.  Because knowing stuff and learning stuff is part of what makes us human, and the body of knowledge that we teach kids for GCSE is an important part of our collective cultural capital whether it’s useful in the future or not. The lyrics of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and the rhythym to Dave Brubeck’s Unsquare Dance aren’t useful in any meaningful way to anyone, but they should be known by everybody because they are part of the fabric of our culture and society. Like watching Indiana Jones and Star Wars, things we learn at school such as Pythagoras’ Theorem, the causes of The Second World War, Metal Reactivity Series and how Oxbow Lakes are formed should just be things we know because they represent the best of humanities achievements in each field…..

“I’ve never seen Star Wars.” the student iterruped me.


“I’ve never seen Star Wars. And I’ve never even heard of Dave Brubeck.”

“Well, we’ve found a couple of gaps in your cultural capital which need filling this summer during your physical isolation from each other.”  So instead of Partying and spreading a virus, in between topping up their revision for exams that probably wont happen I suggest you plug some gaps in your cultural capital…

But like searching for knowledge on the internet that you haven’t been taught about, students can’t plug gaps they don’t know are there. So here are some recommended cultural capital for my students for this summer.

Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list, but a few of my personal favourites from a range of genres for a teenager to get their teeth into during a summer of physical isolaton but social connection.  So here we go kids… With your fancy internet connections and devices you should be able to sort this lot without leaving the house and should kill a week or so of boredom. Happy to be pointed towards gaps of my own in the comments…


Dave Brubeck – Greatest Hits

David Bowie – Station to Station

Lauren Hill – Miseducation Of…

The Roots – Things Fall Apart

Pulp – Different Class

Led Zepplin – IV



The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins

1984 – George Orwell

Killing Floor – Lee Child

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

What If…? – Randall Monroe



Life of Brian

Withnail & I

La Vite E Bella


Star Wars

Big Hero 6


TV Shows


West Wing


Star Trek TNG

Fawlty Towers

Stranger Things


1 thought on “Why We Learn Stuff

  1. lindsay macvean

    Depending on who you ask, the ‘why am I learning this question’ has different answers:

    Economists – preparing individuals for work (presumably in the case of Math it is for a technical profession)
    Philosophers – prepare individuals to think for themselves so they can make good decisions (i.e the most important decision being who to vote for)
    Governments – because we have to teach all of you in the hope that some of you will make the country some money
    Parents – because I need you to be doing something when I am working and it might help you to survive in the world after I have gone

    In general as a teenager you have to have faith in the system and the educators (teaching what might appear to be pointless things) will eventually reveal something richer, help make better decisions and/or you to go on and learn something more sophisticated later (I have finally discovered a use for Calculus nearly 15 years into my career). However I am definitely an advocate for a future of curiosity led learning which would hopefully negate this question from ever being asked (I am thinking of the drop out teenagers in October Sky who eventually teach themselves rocket science).

    Finally, Trigonometry is actually one of the more practical skills and comes in handy when living on a hill and needing to put in a zip line for ones daughter.


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