Why the Whys Matter More Than the Whats

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Whys and Whats… it’s all about the whys and the whats. For years, decades, centuries even, teachers have regularly engaged in dishing out the whats… giving fact after fact. My question is, does it really matter?

The answer… is maybe. You see, I am a firm believer that the question of “Why?” matters far more than the “What?”  Now, before you start heating up the vat of tar and getting the feathers ready, hear me out.

When a student asks, or is given a “What” they are given a fact, something that is an answer. Something that ends the discussion at that point. Ok, so what has been learned? That “What” and only that “What”.

You may think that, certainly, this doesn’t happen. I would argue that it happens far more than we think. Teachers give “study guides”. These are typically filled with “Whats”. It is  series of questions/statements that are singular events that can typically be answered with a multiple choice question. Sure, not everyone does the multiple choice thing, some make their kids answer in a short answer format. It’s still the same thing. A simple answer to a simple question. Usually a DOK1, or, at best, a DOK2 question.

Now, move on to the “Whys”. When we ask students “Why?”, we ask them to take that “Whats” and use them in their thinking. We ask them to speculate, to ponder, to hypothesize, to wonder, and we invite them to be amazed. Students begin to learn more than simply what is, but they learn why it is as well. Many of us take teaching to this level, and this is good. But, even these are not really fulfilling the potential of the “Whys”.

You see, to give a “What” and follow it up with a “Why it is” is a step, but it is still relatively simple task. It is still something that can be easily given out on a study guide. I would argue that the right “Whys” make all the difference. Instead of simply asking, or telling, “Why it is”, instead, I would challenge you to ask, “Why does it matter?”

You see the difference? Now, I can’t put the answer so easily on a study guide. Instead, I have opened up the floor for a wider range of possible responses.  Students, at this point, are allowed to speculate as to why something is, and why it matters. It becomes an easy extension to have them justify their reasoning. When we have students detail why something matters, then justify this, or perhaps, defend this position, we have opened the door to discussion. Debate. This is where the real learning happens.

We can easily transfer this thinking to ourselves. Consider it this way:

  1. What do you do? You teach.
  2. Why do you teach? This answer may vary a bit, but probably a bit predictable.
  3. Why does your  teaching matter? Now, this is where the rubber meets the road. If you teach simply to get from year to year, to force kids to regurgitate facts, and to get that easy A, then you may need to spend some time reflecting. What difference does your teaching make to each student? To the world around us?

So, instead of settling for the “Whats” or the simple “Whys”, go for the “Why it matters”. You will get far more out of your students, and out of yourself.

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