Thursday, 28 May 2015

Addressing the "Why?"

I hear this every day from my own kids.  I heard this with almost every assignment when I was in the classroom.


Why do we have to do this?
Why does it have to be done that way?
When will I ever use this?
What is the point?
How will this help me?

And many other variations on that theme. I'm sure as parents, teachers, even coworkers and bosses, we have heard this symphony more times than we care to count.  The incessant droning of the sentiment is probably why the phrase "because I said so" has become a common answer to the question.

But, in life as well as the classroom, I think there is a lot of justification for answering this question.  I'm going to address this in the context of the classroom but I think that it is transferable to parenthood as well and bears thinking about.

Do you remember as a student having to do a project you thought was idiotic?  Did you ever question the sanity of your teacher for assigning something that seemed to have no bearing on anything in real life?  How many of us made fun of our teachers for something they were passionate about that we just didn't get into?

Why would we think our students are any different than we were?

As teachers, we tell ourselves that we want our students to learn how to think for themselves, we encourage autonomy and responsibility but we get frustrated and defensive if that takes a turn toward questioning what we have decreed is important.  It kind of comes out like, "think for yourself but do what I say."

The difficulty is, we have to occupy our classroom full of students every day for 180 days.  And not all lessons are going to have obvious links to practicality.  While that doesn't make them less valuable, it is harder to explain their importance.  As we help our students move beyond the concrete and instantaneous to the abstract and long-term, what are some tools we can use to explain the value of the lessons we teach?

Here is one suggestion that has worked well for me.  I find that most every concept/lesson falls into two rough categories:


Content refers to the details that are specific to that subject matter.  A biology lesson on cell division has a lot of information that pertains only to that subject but that information is built on learning more about living organisms and can then be applied to how cells work in the body and encouraging healthy living.  This specific set of information is important for the knowledge it imparts.

Process refers to the route taken to understand the concept.  Doing algebraic equations requires a specific process that has to be followed precisely in order to arrive at the right answer.  But learning to follow this process can be transferred to anything that follows a step-by-step procedure.  Cooking, for example can fall into this.  If students can learn and memorize recipes, they can also learn and memorize the steps to performing calculations.

These two categories can and often do overlap and there are going to be important things that may not fall easily into such rough categories.  But I think it's a good place to start.  Because if we can't answer for ourselves "Why" we are teaching something, there is no way we are going to convince our students it's worth learning (and I ask you to extend this to the homework you assign).

Do you have any tips and tricks to answer the incessant... I mean chronic... I mean perpetual student question of "why"?  Share it with us!

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