Asking, “Why?” is an INeffective question when it relates to behavior. For example, the answer to asking a young person, “Why are you doing that?” will prompt answers such as, “I don’t know” or an excuse, such as, “I have ADD.”
In contrast, asking a student, “Why are you LEARNING that?” and receiving a similar response, “I don’t know,” is a reflection on the teacher, not on the student.
Sharing the “why” for something you would like young people to learn is an extremely effective teaching technique for promoting learning and effort. It becomes “purpose driven,” which, in turn,
• prompts self motivation,
• sustains that motivation,
• diminishes resistance, and
• enhances better decisions.
When you reflect on this idea, you will quickly realize that the principle of explaining the” why” holds true in any leadership, teaching, or parenting situation. A teacher and I discussed this idea. As a challenge, she asked, “Why study World War II?” My impromptu response:
• to learn about the quest for power
• to learn that economics has nothing to do with morality
• to learn how previous political decisions affect history
• to learn that appeasement invites aggressive behavior
• to learn that any situation must be viewed in context, suggesting that Gandhi’s approach would only work in democracies and that it would be short lived in Japan’s imperial quest or Germany’s Nazism.
History teachers can list a plethora of additional reasons to make the topic worthy of study. My point, however, is that a teacher’s sharing with students the “why” to the importance of the topic (1) challenges the teacher to reflect on the reasons it is in the curriculum (thereby promoting enthusiasm for the teacher) and (2) sharing it is one of the most effective approaches for reducing student apathy towards learning the topic.
“What’s in it for me?” is the intuitive question asked by any purchaser, and that is the reason that successful marketers always talk in terms of the “sizzle” rather than the steak (the BENEFITS, rather than the FEATURES). Teachers are marketers of information, knowledge, learning, character development and a host of other FEATURES that bring BENEFITS to their students. Most educators just don’t think of themselves as marketers. But imagine how learning could be so much more effective if we did!
Or to think of it another way, how successful would marketers and advertisers be if they told their clients to just put merchandise on the shelves? Forget about the benefits. After all won’t consumers purchase what you want them to buy just because you present it to them? Isn’t it their obligation?
I agree that identifying why the material is important is key. I also believe that involving students in answering the ‘why’ question is critical. Do you find that every student has a different answer for ‘why’?
THEY EITHER ANSWER “I DON’T KNOW,” GIVE AN EXCUSE, or LIE.
I often ask my students “Why do you think we are spending our time talking about…?” or “What’s the point of …?” I’ve found that at first, they give vague answers like “it’s important’ or “we have to”, but after I push them a little, we are able to really get a better understanding of why the topic has value.
THE KEY QUESTION IS, “DOES IT CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOR?”
After reading your article, I am thinking that dedicating more time to the ‘why’ when using PBL or student-centered instruction would be helpful. I’ve been trying to improve my use of SCL and have run into a few challenges:
ALL INSTRUCTION IS STUDENT-CENTERED. IS THERE ANY OTHER KIND?
I think that encouraging the students to discuss the ‘why’
a) why getting them invoved is needed
b) why their effort is essential
c) why working with peers faciliates learning
THIS IS A TOTALLY DIFFERENT SUBJECT THAN ASKING WHY A STUDENT HAS CHOSEN TO MISBEHAVE.
would really move the SCL instruction forward. Thank you for your post. I saw your article on the Teacher Net Gazette originally, but will plan to follow your blog.
-Jennifer Davis Bowman, Ed.D.
THANKS FOR YOUR CONTINUED EFFORTS TO IMPROVE EDUCATION.