Engaging the Disengaged, Number Two

The Power of Why

Many of my husband’s classes as a high school student began with the same daily fuss:

History Teacher: Rex, get your history text book out.
Rex: But why?

Math Teacher: Rex, do the problems on the board NOW!
Rex: But why?

English Teacher: Rex, pay attention!
Rex: But why?

Although the rest of the class loved the distractions Rex caused, no one understood that he was truly expressing the human need to know “why,” and not simply trying to get the rest of us to laugh. When teachers spend precious time at an in-service or a meeting, they want to know how this time will benefit their teaching. When any adult is asked to learn something, they want to know what is in it for them. The Sisters, Gail Bushey and Joan Moser, explain the importance of understanding “why” to students as young as five:

We all have a deep need to know why we have to do something. Children and adults alike tend to recoil at answers such as, “Because you have to” or “Because it’s our policy.” Whether audibly or not we often find ourselves asking, “What’s in it for me?”…We believe that when people understand the reason for a task, it establishes motivation and becomes a force that keeps them persevering. As we think about teaching each one of the Daily Five, we start with explicitly explaining why…

The Daily Five, p. 22, 2006

Quate and McDermott emphasize the importance of having adolescents understand “why”:

If students don’t see the work they’re being asked to do mirrored in the world outside of school, they’re not as willing to play the school game. Talk about a way to decrease motivation.

Clock Watchers, p. 102, 2009

This is why I prefaced most of my lessons over the past 32 years with a short explanation about how doing what I asked would help the students either immediately or sometime later in their lives. Lesson introductions often sounded like:

Kindergartners, if you will work hard in the word-work station, you will learn to read and write more words.
First-graders, if you will practice reading every day during our daily independent work time, you will become better readers.
Fourth-graders, if you will proofread your reports for spelling errors, your audience will be able to read and understand what you are saying in your report.
Sixth-graders, if you will carefully explain your reasons in your persuasive paper, your audience will be more likely to agree with your opinion.
Eighth-graders, if you learn to write an effective literacy essay, you will succeed in college literature classes.

So next time I say to Rex, “Honey, please do the dishes,” and he says, “but why?” I will be armed with research on what happens to husbands who do not do what their wives ask. All humans have a need to know why something is worth doing, especially our students.

Please respond with your stories of explaining “why” to students.