We’ve all heard about the 5 W’s of writing. The Who, What, Where, When and Why. (Also, there’s the H: the How).
But when I apply the 5 W’s to school, it seems pretty clear to me that there is one W which ought to come before all others.
The Why. As in Why the heck am I being asked to learn this?
In so, so, so many classrooms across our country, the students simply do not have an understanding as to WHY they are being asked to learn the things that are perpetually rolling across their school desks. Algebra, photosynthesis, the people that signed the Declaration of Independence… we “assign” these things under the banner of “you need to know this” and yet, I am not really too sure we are explicating WHY they need to know this.
If you doubt me, do a survey. Ask your kids about the reason they are learning the things they are learning in another teacher’s class. Ask them about WHY they are dissecting a frog in biology? Ask them about WHY they are learning about the great stock market crash of 1929.
And then see the fuzziness. Witness the vague-ness. See the lack of precision in their comprehension of the WHY.
And then (if you have the guts) ask them WHY they think they are learning whatever it is you are teaching them this week in your own class. Try not to give away any clues or hints or answers. Instead, just ask, “Can somebody please tell me – really tell me – why we are learning the parts of speech? Or how to properly use a comma? Or why we are even bothering to read HUCK FINN or this Shakespearian Sonnet?”
So, so, often, I have found that most of my kids really do not clearly know unless I overtly make the point of clearly explaining the reasoning behind me teaching whatever it is I am teaching. (And the lower-performing the student, the less aware of the WHY of learning – that’s another correlation I’ve seen time and time again.)
If a kid doesn’t know WHY they are studying the things they are studying they are, well… adrift. People are driven to pursue things out of meaning. Meaningfulness motivates and inspires our actions. Therefore, if a student doesn’t even know why they are being asked to learn Please Find for X in 3rd period, how well can we expect them to perform at the job of finding for X?
I mean when I think back to my own days as a student in a math class, not once do I ever recall my math teacher explaining WHY it was important that I learned to do things like factor equations.
“Because it is.”
“Because I told you so.”
“Don’t be a smart alek.”
Here’a real story that happened to me when I was a kid in school:
“Uhm, why do I even need to learn this? I know I’m never gonna be a mathematician”
“Mr. Sitomer, would you like to go to the office? Stop clowning around and do your work?”
“But why I need this?”
“That’s it… you are outta here.”
And yep, I got bounced. (Disclaimer: I got sent to the office a lot when I was a kid in school. I think that’s why I’ve always had an affinity for at-risk kids. I sorta see a bit of myself in them.)
It wasn’t until after I had earned a Masters degree that I came across the reasoning for teaching algebra to kids who don’t have any aspirations to be mathematicians.
In short, it’s because Algebra develops the cognitive ability of a kid to think for X. And in life, there are a lot of variables, a lot of X’s, one will eventually have to deal with. It’s like a a boot camp for critical thinking and high level choice weighing. “If this is this and that is that, how do you get X out of a situation?”
If someone would have just taken 2 minutes to explain that to me, I might not have been sent to the office so often.
Alas, I am scared not even my teachers really knew, though. (At least not clearly.) And the thing is, I was a good math student. But I became easily bored when there was no meaning in the work for me. And yet, there was meaning in the school work. I just didn’t know it and no one took the time to explain it to me.
How many kids today are experiencing the same phenomenon?
The WHY… students today need to know.