Start Asking Why

Why?  I have several friends who have three-year-olds that seem to do nothing but ask this question all day.  It is probably their least favorite word in the entire dictionary.  But the word “why” is powerful, when used in right way.

Toddlers ask why because they are curious.  They want to understand everything around them and they’re trying to make it fit into their existing world view.  Eventually, though, they grow out of this phase.  By the time they hit school age, they are likely still curious, but it isn’t the only word out of their mouth.  By the time many of them get to high school, the only time they likely ask “why” is when an adult is telling them to do something.

What about teachers?  Do we ask why?  I would say that we do, similar to the high schooler above, when administration or some other authoritative body tells us to do something (think one size fits all professional development or state-mandated testing).  But what about in the classroom?  Do you ever ask your students why?

Today I read an article about some new ideas in teaching mathematics (read it here).  The first strategy the author mentions for changing how we teach is asking students why.  In this case, the teacher is specifically asking why students think a certain way or why their answer works or doesn’t.  They don’t just look for the answer, because the answer doesn’t reveal anything about how the students got there.  It could have just been a lucky guess.

If students know that when they give an answer the word from the teacher will be “why,” it forces them to pay attention to their work and be more thoughtful in their response.  This likely won’t happen the first few times, but eventually the students will start thinking in this way and will be able to articulate the why behind their thoughts.

Why is important for teachers, too.  It’s easy to ask when something is being asked of us or imposed upon us.  But what about the things we put upon ourselves?  How much of what you do in the classroom is of your own choice and how much is dictated by others?  The answers to that question will vary greatly depending on the teacher, school, and district, but the fact remains that some teachers do a great many things that nobody is forcing them to do.

Simon Sinek’s 2011 book, Start With Why, talks about how the “why” is one of the most important aspects of a successful corporation (and, I would argue, school).  Everything we say and do should tie back into our inner “why,” that part that really resonates with who we are.  Everything else is distracting background noise.

About five years ago, I remember standing in an Office Max with a friend during workshop week and she was worrying about her to-do list she hadn’t completed and open house was later that evening.  One particular item of concern was a magnet that she had intended to print out for every family that included her contact info.  When I asked why she was worrying about it, she told me she had always done it and the parents would be disappointed if she didn’t do it this year.  Really?  Unless she had retained a student from a previous year, I was pretty sure that no parent would ever notice or care.  So who was this really for?

If you work in a school, your “why” is likely to do what’s best for kids.  At least I hope it is.  And if it is, then your decisions become fairly simple.  Does a magnet with all of your contact info really help kids learn better?  What about creating new bulletin board displays every month?  What about grading every single homework assignment you give them?

None of these things are inherently bad.  I’m sure there were some parents that appreciated the contact info magnet.  But is it worth stressing yourself out over in a week where you’re already incredibly busy?

I’d challenge you to start asking your students why every day.  You might be surprised at how insightful they are.  And maybe, every once in awhile, you might take a look at your own practice and ask why.  Keep those things that are absolutely vital to making learning happen for kids.  If you have time for more, by all means go ahead.  But be okay to take those things off your plate that don’t fit with your why.

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