Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Ideas and Opinions about
Teaching, Learning, and
the Educational System
Teachers, maybe this has happened to you.
You’ve just taught a great lesson – carefully planned, and aligned to the standards. Your presentation fit the needs of all learning styles and levels. If teachers were elements, you’d be gold. Or platinum. Something like that.
Now it’s time for the finishing touch, the icing on the cake – your culminating activity to assess student learning. Maybe you place the students into heterogeneous groups and assign a problem-solving activity. Maybe the students work individually on a creative illustration of the concepts of the curricular unit. Maybe they participate in a panel discussion or debate about the concepts you’ve taught.
And some kid raises his hand, rolls his eyes, sighs, and says “Why are we doing this?”
Or maybe they twist the knife a little deeper and say, “Why are we even doing this?"
What’s your reaction?
Do you stand there with your mouth open? Do you cry? Do you write a referral for disrespectful behavior? Do you play the parent-card and scream, “Because I said so?”
More importantly, do you have an answer? A really good answer?
My friends, it doesn’t matter the age of your students or your subject matter. If you are teaching a student, you need to be able to answer the most important question they can ask: Why are we doing this? When you can answer this question, your lessons will take on a new, deeper meaning and relevance for your students. That relevance leads to more student engagement and success, and a more productive learning environment.
In this TeacherScope post, we’ll explore the most important question in your classroom: Why are we doing this?
The Importance of Why?
Why? is an important question in education today. And guess what, teachers -- we started it!
Fifty years ago when I began 1st grade, Why? wasn’t a question we concerned ourselves with. We learned in the world of who?, what?, when?, and where? As I continued my education in the 1960’s and 70’s, I never asked my teachers why? and they never asked me either. Facts, not theory ruled the day.
Of course, now every good lesson requires upper-level questioning. What would happen if…? How does this impact that? How would the result be different if…? And why? is a part of the process. A good teacher asks why? several times a day. It’s only natural that students would adopt that inquisitiveness.
It’s easy to see Why are we doing this? as a disrespectful challenge to our teaching ability and authority. But that response misses the point. A student who asks why? is an active thinker. They’re engaged in upper-level processing, and that’s right where you want them. They’re ready to go to the next level. I want a class full of students who want to know the importance of every classroom assignment.
And remember, Why are we doing this? isn’t answered by writing a curricular standard or an I can… statement on the whiteboard. Good answer – wrong question. Standards and skill statements answer what, not why.
Students asking Why are we doing this? are seeking relevance, not completion. They want to know how your lesson will improve their lives. It’s a good question, and thoughtful people ask it frequently. Last month my auto mechanic wanted to install a new timing belt on my Jeep. At my last check-up, my doctor suggested a comprehensive blood work-up. And just the other day, the company that provides my Internet service offered me faster download speed for just a few dollars more. I asked Why are we doing this? not because I doubted the other person, but because I wanted to understand the importance of such expenditures. Your students' currency is time, and they want to spend it wisely.
The Wrong Answer
Why are we doing this? is a critical, upper-level question in our classrooms. Before we try to answer that question, let’s look at some all-too-common wrong answers. (Or as we say in teaching, some non-examples.)
Because it’s a standard. Sure, it’s an easy answer, and probably accurate. But that’s not what your students need to hear. They’re asking why? and you’re answering what. After 34 years of teaching, I’ve never had a student or parent ask me about a standard. But everyone wants to know what we’re going to learn today.
Because it’s going to be on the test. Again, true. But as much as we teachers alternately cheer and wring our hands, it’s hard to get students to buy-in to the whole standardized testing scheme. Students expect an education, not just an 8-month test prep session.
I don’t know. My guess – and it’s just a guess – is that this answer would be more common than we’d like to admit. It’s a chapter in the book. It’s a standard in the curriculum. I’ve never really thought about it. Not something we teachers like to say out loud.
The Right Answer
First, let’s realize that upper-level questions require upper-level answers. We can’t answer with a when or a what. The answer to Why are we doing this? is an emphatic, fact-based Here's why!
That answer is as varied and diverse as the lessons and courses taught in every classroom in every school. But the bottom line is you – the teacher – need to know the answer, before you begin teaching the lesson.
I can’t possibly provide the Why? for every lesson you may teach. But I can give you this advice to help you find it.
Make It Real
Talk about an area in the child’s life where the skill you’re teaching would be used. Word problems and thought questions in the textbook are good places to start. You can improve on these questions by adding a local and timely aspect. For example, when I taught pre-algebra in a western Alaska village, I tried to relate math concepts to their daily lives. We applied our multi-variable formulas to their commercial fishing efforts, and we graphed the tides. We calculated the hours of daylight as the days got shorter in the winter and longer in the spring. The best time to answer the Why? question is before it’s asked.
Make It Relevant
Make sure that your students know how this new knowledge will become useful in the future. In my first teaching job, I taught public speaking class in high school. Each student kept a running list in their notebook of all of the situations that required good oral communication. We’d brainstorm to get the list started, and students would add to the list during the semester. I even encouraged them to share, and offered prizes for the longest lists. Public speaking was out of the comfort zone of most of my students, but they never doubted its importance.
Building the Answers
Providing the best answer to this important question takes some thought. See if these ideas help.
Put yourself in the learner’s place. You probably decided that your course content was important many years ago. What lead you to that conclusion? When did it click for you?
Think about your teacher preparation program. You couldn’t wait to share your passion for your chosen subject matter with your students. Why were you so excited? How can you communicate that excitement to them?
Engage in collegial conversations. Brainstorm with your fellow teachers. Discuss the importance of your class. Learn how your course content will help students as they progress through their education.
Go beyond the textbook, the standards, and tests. As teachers, we’re usually given standards and textbooks with matching workbooks. We frequently have access to downloadable worksheets and tests on the publisher’s website. These resources can be very useful, but they don’t always shape the relevance of your lessons. The math books I used in the Alaska bush contained word problems about train schedules and car travel. Needless to say, I wrote new word problems that students in a village could relate to.
Don’t be afraid to ask. If you’re new to the profession, you probably haven’t focused on the Why? too much. Your more experienced colleagues will be happy to share their thoughts.
Why are we doing this? is the most important question in any classroom. Left unanswered, the student quickly becomes disengaged in the learning process. And when a large group of teachers can’t or won’t provide an answer, a much more dangerous question takes its place: Why am I even here?
Sure, we teach math and language arts. We teach social studies, science, and a myriad of electives. But really, we teach kids. Our subjects aren’t balloons to be inflated by the number of math problems solved or sentences diagrammed. The measure of our efforts lies in the positive impact we have on our students. That’s why we are doing this.
Give me a room full of students who care enough to ask Why are we doing this? But stand back, because I’ve already thought about my answer, and it’s a doozy!
Keith Kyker (M.Ed)
is a career educator with 35 years of teaching experience. He has worked with every age group from Pre-K to college. Keith's experience includes stints at suburban mega-high schools, neighborhood elementary and middle schools, and a tiny K-12 school in a Yupik village on the Bering Sea.
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Important note: the ideas and opinions expressed on this blog are the those of the author, Keith Kyker, and in no way reflect the opinions, policies, or practices of any of Keith's current or former employing school districts.
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