The woeful word why

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The woeful word why

  • Explicitly teach the why of our lessons.
  • Don’t expect motivation through how and what.
  • Motivation drives performance.
  • Quality instruction alone is insufficient for higher order learning.
  • Invest in big-picture thinking with our students.

Teenage boys have many human traits and behaviours that an prove challenging. As an arguably graduated alumni of the gross, adolescent lad club, I’m not immune. Just ask my parents. They endured an endless stream of unwashed dishes, clothes that didn’t quite make it to the hamper, unmown lawns, some outlandish bodily smells and highly questionable song lyrics emanating from my walkman as I discovered combinations of death metal, Samantha Fox and Kevin “Bloody” Wilson.

“The bird is powered by its own life and by its own motivation.”
– A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

It can’t have been fun for them and I congratulate them on surviving a period from around 1985-90 that isn’t exactly my finest body of work.

Of all my misdemeanours, mum was most agitated by the state of my bedroom. Despite being tucked away at the rear of the home and out of sight, earshot and smell of most family members and visitors, mum was always on my case about cleaning my room. I moaned “What does it matter?” and “It’s my room. I like it like this.” and “Nobody ever sees it except you anyway,” among other such stereotypical laments. There was no change in the tension between mum and me over the bedroom issue.

You see, mum was very big on telling me what I needed to do, which is fine for the period of our life where we seldom question orders. Unfortunately, this period ends around our second birthday. Until then, you could ask your toddler to collect you your oxy welder and to try to make dinner and they would probably give it a go. And then they discover a new word: Why. What an awful, distasteful word that is. And what a drain it places on the stamina of any busy and well-meaning parent and carer.

But the truth is, we all like to know why we need to do things, far more than we like to know what we need to do or how we are expected to do it. Human motivation is largely driven by a clear purpose. Many of us chose teaching as a profession because we wanted to make a big difference in the lives of students, a why, and not because of the occasional opportunity to show students how to conjugate verbs, that’s a how or what.

Even the motivation to do well on exams or tests can be a very low-level why to many students. However, good starting points might include talking about:

  • the importance of igniting curiosity before a science lesson
  • the thinking patterns of highly successful entrepreneurs when studying economics
  • the collaborative skills required by the modern workforce when teaching social skills or
  • the feelings we’d like to experience on a coming excursion.

Think about yourself as student for a moment in an alternate or how/what model. You’re unsure why you’re in a class other than that coming to school is the pattern of your life. An adult appears before you and demands you perform academic backflips, apparently for their amusement. Are you likely to be motivated to comply? Imagine a random older adult appearing before you as you read this article and asking you to do twenty push-ups – are you not likely at least to ask why?

For students of all ages, spending a little time in your instruction to unpack the big picture for the learning path you are placing them on can provide a direct boost in student engagement and performance. Learning intentions are valuable and it’s great when they can describe what students are learning and how they will know that they’ve learned it. However, there is a ceiling on the creative application of this learning unless students are motivated to do something wildly interesting with it.

So, both the advantage and the imperative of pausing on the why of learning is that it encourages students into higher order thinking where creativity, design and problem solving are fostered. Not only are these skills and qualities that are highly relevant for future success in the global workforce, but they are also much more interesting for students to deploy. Interest and motivation is then driving engagement rather than the well-worn path of simply following a teacher’s request for lower order thinking such as remembering, recalling or knowing.

We ignore this critical component of our brain’s social and academic inclination at our peril. Which brings me back to my darling mum. While no strategy is perfect or instant, especially with disgusting fifteen year old boys, mum was hammering me with what/how instructions. It may have taken more than one go, but if she had sat down and told me why she felt this was disrespectful of her home and why she just wanted me to be an independent young man, she may have had a much better chance. … or at least a little better. I love you, Mum!

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