This is why your child is learning Pythagoras

Lisa Ashes

Lisa Jane Ashes is a self-employed teacher and author of Manglish: Bringing Maths and English Together Across the Curriculum. She is now a trustee of the charity Reach Out 2 Schools (, founded by Isabella Wallace, who are continuing to fund education-centric work in countries such as Nepal, India and South Africa. The organisation is also working on education projects within the UK, with Lisa using her knowledge of creativity within the curriculum to build better education for the most in need.

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Image credit: Pixabay // geralt. Image credit: Pixabay // geralt.

“When am I ever going to use Pythagoras?”; “Why do I need to know what a noun is?”; “What’s the point in learning this?”... Sound familiar? You must be a teacher. If you’ve been teaching for some time, you probably know that questioning the purpose of education is nothing new. Do you ever wonder what your parents were like at school? Did they ask the same questions when it was their turn?

Many parents of school-age children will have been lucky enough to experience a knowledge-rich education. The introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 was “Parents can send a loud, clear message that school is a waste of time.”designed to ensure that all children had the same standard of education. Such a curriculum has the potential to support social mobility. All children have the option of studying subjects that, before the Education Reform Act, they may never have had the opportunity to take. How many students know this? How many parents know this? How many (younger) teachers know this to be the case? How many care?

Do we understand where our teaching fits into the bigger picture for the many, or do we just teach what we have been told to teach without really knowing why? Could we convince a parent, someone who has felt no real benefit from their own education, that they must encourage their child to do well with theirs? Why should they believe you if nothing much has changed?

Parents are an example to their children. If they experienced the National Curriculum and its (seemingly pointless but wide-ranging) information base and benefited from it, how likely is it that they will be able to encourage their children to stick with it until they are ready to choose their own destiny? With parents as champions, regardless of whether pupils understand why the curriculum is the way it is, students are more likely to stick with it through the tough GCSE years and land at the other end with a choice when it comes to their next steps.

The knowledge-rich curriculum is a base that can open doors to higher education. When parents have experienced this with success, they can encourage their own children to do the same. These are the parents that turn up to parents’ evening, even though they know you are rushing through your meetings with “She’s a pleasure to teach” on repeat to get home at a decent time. The parents are engaged, the children are kept on board through tough times and... eventually succeed to bring the same to their own children.

Conversely, parents can send a loud, clear message that school is a waste of time. These are the parents you really want to see, but they do not see the point in turning up. The parents of the child with potential that you wish you could get through to, but you cannot keep their attention, nor get them to care enough to learn. For these parents, “It’s like watching your grandma try to Skype on a Nokia 2310.”school was not a doorway to success. How much of the knowledge that these parents were given at school is still being used today? How fondly do these parents look back at their time in education? How much of this is passed onto children through their home experiences? How less likely are these children to put down their phones and engage in the hard slog of 10 different subjects, nine of which they hate? You know that studies show if you can engage the parents, you can engage the child. How are you going to do it? “When you see his parents, it all makes sense.” Real words spoken by a real teacher. This attitude seeks to alienate, not engage. What can we do to change?

Pupils from all walks of life and cultures may struggle to translate school into their real lives. Lives of sensory overload, instant gratification, 24-hour communication and funny cat videos versus learning about tectonic plates via a text book. Watching teachers attempt to cut through that world by ending lessons with a paper cut-out of a tweet is like watching your grandma think she can Skype call on a Nokia 2310 she found in the bureau. It just doesn’t work.

The problem is not how to bring the digital world into the classroom to engage pupils. It is how to ensure students and their parents see the purpose behind the hard slog of their education. How do we get them to believe that this knowledge base is worthwhile if there is loud and clear proof that it didn’t work for their parents before them? How often does the cycle have to repeat before we will stop and examine how we can break the disengagement?

“Why is my child learning Pythagoras?”; “How will recognising a noun make a difference to my child’s future?”; “Why are you teaching my child that?” If they dared to ask (they probably wouldn’t, but if they did), would we have the answers?

Perhaps you only have one or two hard-to-reach parents. Will you reach out to them and bring them back in? Will you help them to break the cycle for their children? Perhaps you have a whole community that needs to be reengaged. How will you plan to bring that community together?

If your school is in a community that has experienced the long slog of education without reward, you will have a tough time convincing the next generation that learning algorithms will be more beneficial than watching yet another perfectly-pitched video on their Snapchat feed. If, however you can convince their parents that their child’s chances still exist… could children’s attitudes change alongside their parents? There’s no easy fix to the issue of disengagement from a curriculum that was designed with everyone in mind but has failed so many. You cannot ignore the parents’ role in this, hoping to fix it on your own; the school must team up with the community and openly discuss how we can come together to make a change. Do not expect to bring disengaged parents on board easily. Their experience is real, and their school scars may be deep.

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