The Most Important Question to Answer in Learning (Part 1 of 2)

I was teaching my techniques class last semester and had one of my students come up to me before class. This student was very excited and wanted to share a personal story with me.

Question Mark Sign by Colin K on Flickr
Question Mark Sign by Colin K on Flickr

She stated that she was in a particular class and there seemed to be some lingering confusion among the students about the course and its bigger picture as it tied to other elements of their life. The teacher had caught wind of the rumblings within the course and decided to do something different for that class hour. Instead of launching into the discussion for the day, this teacher decided to build bridges of understanding and answer the bigger question as to why that particular class was important, what it would do for them in the long term, and how it tied with other courses in their discipline.

The student was very excited as she relayed to me how much she appreciated what the teacher did that day and what it accomplished for her and her classmates: it answered the “why” question. In other words, those islands of knowledge were suddenly connected with mental bridges and meaning took place in the minds of the students. Immediately, the context of the class began to take on new relevancy and having to push students along morphed into leading students.

Why was my student so excited? A simple yet profound reason: the “why” question was answered. As fellow educators, I am sure that we all feel the pressure to perform and “cover that content.” Yet in the midst of the flurry, it is easy to overlook answering that one question that provides the clear lens through which our students view a course with more energy and motivation. And without that answer, students will either just complete course requirements and never connect to change in their thinking and behavior or they will just flounder.

So what is the solution? Easy. Answer the “why” question for your students every day. Have you done this with your own students? “Why is this class important?” “How does this class fit a bigger puzzle that will properly prepare and create meaning?” “Why is this lesson necessary?” “Why do we need to dig deep and discuss this topic?” I think you get the picture.

One change that I have begun to make in my own classroom is that I answer this question before every class period. I first need to answer the “why” question for myself for every lesson of every day. If I cannot answer my own “why” question, how do I expect my students to get it and create relevant meaning? And so one of the first things I do as I disclose the topic for the hour is to answer the “why” question for them. I tell them up front how the topic is going to help them and why it is beneficial for us to take this journey together. And it seems to make a difference.

I will admit that as I have asked this question of myself, I have found the need to modify some topics or eliminate them altogether. And that has not been a bad thing as I assess my own lessons to make sure they are relevant and meaningful. It is a fair question that deserves to be answered for us and for our students.

Reflection: So what do you think? Is answering the “why” question a lacking component of teaching today?

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