The Power of Why

Posted: November 1, 2013 in ETmooc, Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Who, what, where, when, how and why. These questions are the usual suspects that drive conversations and “who done it” mystery novels. They are also essential questions in journalism, research, and education. Lately though, I have been thinking more about the “why”. I seem to notice more “why” questions being asked, especially in education. Why does public education have so many issues? Why does a college degree cost so much? Why do we need MOOCs or online learning?


Theses are all good questions, but I would like to focus on some other “why’s, that may have a more positive impact on education.

I attended the Slate Conference last month and saw the keynote address by Dr. Kimberly Lawless a faculty affiliate with Learning Sciences Research Institute, and a professor and chairwoman of the Department of Educational Psychology at UIC’s College of Education.

In her presentation she asserted that instructors shouldn’t just focus on what students need to learn and how they will be taught, but should instead explain why the mastery of a subject or concept is important, and why students should learn it.

Students should be told the reasons why they need to learn the content provided by the instructor. Dr. Lawless advocates for providing authentic learning experiences using problem based leaning (PBL). Her GlobalED2 project keeps students immersed in real life situations while dealing with critical world issues like water scarcity.

During her keynote, she discussed a book by Simon Sinek entitled  “Start With Why“. In his book Sinek proposes that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.

Sinek has a model that codifies the three distinct and interdependent elements (Why, How, What) that makes any person or organization function at its highest ability.

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 2.56.30 PM

With “why” in the center circle surrounded by “how” and “what” in the outer circles he proposes that a computer company like Apple for instance is more successful then their competitors because they explain the reasons why a customer would want a computer or smartphone. By demonstrating through their advertisements all the things you can do with their devices, not just the specifications and price of the hardware, they give someone a reason to buy their products. Many in the high tech community only communicate the how and what of their products and give no compelling reason to act. Apple not only answers the “why in their ad’s, but also infuses “why” in their philosophy of business.  Apple preaches that their mission is to make products “that empower people”. Their aim is to inspire their customers to create, share and make a difference.

Dr. Lawless relates this same model of placing “why” in the center to the teaching and learning process.  She stresses that a student could potentially be more motivated to learn about a particular subject when they know the why. They have an incentive to understand the importance of learning scientific concepts like the water cycle, pollution, and desalination of a country in need, in order to be able to solve water scarcity issues. A learner inspired by the difference they could potentially make in the world, takes action to improve their ability and knowledge.

dewey-john-youngA hundred years ago, John Dewey hinted at the “why” question when discussing the subject of “interest” in his essay “Interest and Effort in Education”. Interest, he notes, means “being engaged, engrossed, or entirely taken up with” a particular subject. Explaining the reason or purpose, by discussing the” why”, certainly seems to have a similar effect in sparking interest.

Students though, aren’t the only ones that need to know the why.  Instructors would also benefit greatly.

In his post entitled “The Calling of the Online Teacher and Having a Compelling “Why” Dr. Bernard Bull Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University Wisconsin lists some “Why” questions online instructors should reflect on to improve their practice. He also contends that it is very important that a teacher teach from a compelling “why”. Dr. Bull poses “why” questions like “Why do you teach in a given context and for a given group of learners?  Why does it matter to you and others?” He says that “great teachers always seem to have a clear “why?” that inspires them, that helps them persevere through the challenges, and that encourages them to remember that what they are doing is a calling and that it has deep significance.

So it seems that “why” is not just simply a plot twist in a classic crime novel. It is an inspiring meaningful question that Dr. Bull remarks,” helps us keep a passion for what we do, to devote the sort of time, care and energy required to do it well”.

This reflection has encouraged me to start thinking more about the “why.” I hope to integrate the practice in to my work, research and personal life. Why?

Because I believe that if you are going to do something, anything, you should strive to do it well. And I believe in the power of “Why”.  Do You?

  1. Scott Brown says:

    Dr. Lawless’ position is a very powerful paradigm for thinking about education and research.

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