post written by: Marc Chernoff

The Advice Every Teacher Should Give Their Students


Teacher's Advice to a StudentIf every teacher gave this kind of advice to their students, students would be more motivated to learn.  The problem is that most teachers don’t understand their purpose, or they just don’t care enough to give it any attention.  If a teacher only answers one question correctly in their entire career, it should go something like this:

Student: “When am I ever going to use this information? I’m never going to have to do this stuff in the real world!  These exercises are useless outside of this classroom!”

Teacher: “You are correct.  It is quite likely that you will never directly apply any of these exercises outside of this classroom. Their purpose is to coach your mind’s thought process.  These exercises make you think, and over time they will train your mind to think more efficiently.  The only purpose is to build your problem solving capabilities.  You may never be asked to solve a complex factorial in the real world, but if your mind understands how to solve these problems, it will be more equipped to deal with the complex problems that do exist in the real world.  And believe me, the real world is filled with problems that need to be solved.”

Update: The people who feel that indirect education is pointless miss out on the fundamental concept.  While students may not use the specifics of every lesson they learn in school, every lesson does expand the core thought process of the student’s mind. Over time they develop problem solving skills that are universally applicable.  No single lesson can teach this, and no single lesson is more important.

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18 Comments

  • Ever since that one was used on me in school, I’ve had total contempt for it. If your aim is to teach thinking and problem solving, then teach it. It’s not as if it’s something that can’t be taught! This sideways approach for tradition’s sake is ten times worse than useless.

  • No that is not going to help.
    That is also very useless help.
    Why not tell them that these ‘useless’ things they are learning are the basis of getting into highly paid jobs such as Lawyers, Accountants, MBA’z, Med Doctors, etc.
    If you cant master basic math (algebra, trig, geometry) and basic English (grammar, spelling, etc) then you can not get a high enough score for the GMAT or the LSAT which are the gateway for most people to guarantee entry to the upper-middle-class.

    Only American students dont know that they need to pass standardized exams to reach the next level.
    Chinese, Pakistani, Indian students know they must study vigorously to get to the next level of education and success.

  • @Julian:
    Please see my article update above. I do understand where you are coming from, but your perception seems to be narrowly focused on single lessons instead of overall educational development.

    @Henry:
    I think you may be missing my point. I’m not saying that teachers should tell students not to study, or that their lessons are unimportant. Most students want to know why they need to learn the material they are given. There is not always a real world correlation for every lesson learned in school. Sometimes the whole principal behind the lesson is to develop the student’s problem solving skills… which happens to be an extremely vital skill in the working world.

  • The difference is that this expansion-of-the-mind could be addressed directly. Personally I’d love to see a school with lessons focused in laser-tight on “human potential”, both mental and physical, and making use of the discoveries of modern neuroscience as they roll in.

    Although they are absolutely fictional, I offer the Dune concepts of “Mentat” and “Bene Gesserit” and the Heinlein concept of “Fair Witness” as approximations of where I’m aiming with this.

  • @Julian Morrison -

    You’re giving the education system far too much credit. If purely direct mental exercises are encouraged, school will becoming nothing more than IQ test prep.

    Problem solving is not merely solving a known problem at hand. If that was the case, then riddles and number games would indeed suffice. Problem solving encompasses the entire practice of understanding, comprehension, formulating theories, and finally postulating solutions as needed. If the only goal was to solve discrete problems, teaching history and literature would seem useless.

    The goal of reading history and literature is not to solve problems directly but to build an understanding of social constructs, visualize environments real and fictional, and enable the student to express their interpretation.

    This is not a sideways approach, it is an all encompassing methodology. When you train for the 100m race, you don’t simply run 100m really really fast every single day. The training schedule goes beyond running and the athletes incorporate rigorous, healthy habits into their lives.

    Marc is mostly correct on this one.

  • I find myself in agreement with Marc. When I’m doing word problems with my third graders, I sometimes tell them that in real life, we’re probably not going to have to tell anyone how many more crayons Timmy has than Jenny. But we’re doing these problems to make our mind think about whether the answer should logically be bigger or smaller than the numbers we started with.

  • Interesting perspective on education - great post.

    I stumbled it.

    Here via COE - my post on Flat Stanley is included this week.

  • I have told my students that sometimes we do things to exercise our brains which is a good thing to do. Just like athletes, they are constantly training and this training may even be repetitious. Athletes are training their muscles and students need to train their brains. This training may help learning new knowledge easier.

  • As a former teacher, I agree with the ‘advice’. It really doesn’t matter what you teach, as long as the students are learning skills they WILL need later and exercising their brains (As Pat said).

    Think how different things were a hundred-plus years ago and how they taught children then. The information then was still kind of ‘useless’. Who’s going to need to memorize poetry or speeches of presidents if they were just going to be a farmer or a factory worker?

    Today’s information is obviously more centered on technology and mathematics, which is what the world uses more of every day. So while a student may never see a factorial again, he/she at least has a mind finely honed for numbers in the information age.
    And you can’t have that if all you do day in and day out is simple addition problems, which ,incidentally, they will see and use every day.

    Unfortunately Marc, I have to completely disagree with one thing:

    Students WILL NOT be more motivated to learn by this speech.

    I’ve been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt. Maybe my 6 years wasn’t enough to get a true gauge of normal student’s thought processes, but I’ve got to say that our society (Well, in the U.S. anyway) has become a morass of “ME ME ME” and “NOW NOW NOW” additudes. The sheer selfishness and apathy in todays students is highly depressing.

    SOME students may be motivated to learn more, but typically those will be the ones who wanted to learn in the first place. The other 90% will still be sub-par.

  • Depending on the student, I might go with a rhetorical question, like “Do you hit tackling dummies in a football game? or stop at the 20 yard line and bench press 200 pounds?” These are the practice drills that will get you ready for the big game.

  • I think this is poignant and valuable information. And it’s true. You don’t use most of it in every day and it does help you train your brain so to speak.

    It also does something not listed. It helps direct you towards something you might like to do. There were many topics in school that i liked and the one that really struck a huge chord with me was the class we all took in computers. Granted, at the time we had one lab and 12 computers in the entire school but we learned how to write simple programs in COBAL (dating myself here) and sparked a love of computers.

    It has led me to a career path that i enjoy very much and I have school to think for it.

  • The thing I noticed the most about school was that it wasn’t the subjects I took that determined if I enjoyed them, but whether or not the teacher actually liked teaching.

    My naturally favourite subject was piano and maths. Two teachers single handedly destroyed any ambition I had to further my studies. I still enjoy maths and piano on a personal level though.

    At the same time I was never really interested in religious studies until I met one teacher ill never forget, who somehow transformed my perception of education into something pleasurable, enjoyable and actually educational. I’ll always appreciate that man.

  • I agree with your conclusion, but I have my own argument. It comes from this talk:

    >Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

  • I have to disagree with the post. While I agree that problem-solving is the most important thing students should learn, I disagree that they’re really learning that in the classroom.

    The model of most classrooms is that the teacher dispenses knowledge, and the student receives it and then must spit it back out. That’s not really a good problem-solving method — it makes the student reliant on an authority giving him knowledge, and the robotic obedience to authority does nothing for problem-solving skills.

    I’d like to see problem-solving and independent thinking taught more in schools, but I think we need to change the model for schools in order for that to happen.

    Note: This is not to blame teachers — they do a great job w/in the model they’ve been given, but the model itself is flawed.

  • @Leo: I have no argument against your points. Well stated. Thanks for the comment.

  • Well said.

    I tought in east Africa where memorization is often the standard teaching technique. Not only were students lacking in problem solving skills, but they tended to completely forget the memorized facts later anyway.

  • What about computer/video games that involve problem solving and thinking? There are lots of those in existence. The thing with how maths is done in schools is that most of the time it’s really boring. This is bad for a simple reason: kids eventually associate thinking hard with boredom, it becomes a tiring and tedious thing for them to do, so when faced by a difficult problem in real life, they would much rather avoid it. Because thinking is annoying effort, like maths. They will avoid thinking as much as they possibly can.

    Simple solution: use games instead. Fun strategy/logic games. This way there will be no need to assign homework and give kids detentions for not finishing their work… because there is no “work” - it’s all fun, and most of all, it won’t cause the association between thinking and tedious effort. Thinking will become fun. Not to mention many games have much more real world applications for most people than logarithmic functions and whatever all else that I can’t remember anymore.

    This is the 21st century, schools are still living in the 19th. If schools are aiming to make students think more in their free time, they are defeating their own purpose by stubbornly insisting that everyone do things their way.

  • i agree. at the moment at school i’m studying war poems by wilfred owen. i can’t say they’re not boring, but once i keep in mind that they reflect the real world nowadays and that they’re making me understand what most probably i’ll never experience, it gets somewhat better.

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