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Relevance Begins with Why

In classrooms everywhere, at all grade levels and in every content discipline, the following will occur unless specific efforts are made to overcome it. Here's the predictable scenario.

Ms Jones has done a thorough job in planning a unit of study that fits well into the course sequence, aligns with the mandated standards, and builds upon the prior learning activities of her students. She is animated and engaging as she introduces the concept to her class when a hand shoots up. Ms Jones: "Yes, Julie?" Julie: "When are we ever going to need to use this?"

It is important to note that Julie is not attempting to be rude or flippant with her question. She is genuinely perplexed. It is easy to surmise that other members of the class are in the same boat, even in their silence.

Julie, and her cohort, are challenged with finding a path to guide the construction of their learning. And, she is not alone. Learners of all ages need to understand the context and the purpose of what they are being asked to do if they are to hold any hope of finding the associated activities relevant or remotely interesting. An experience I had as an adult learner might illustrate this point.

Several years ago, I was in a conference room at our district administrative center for a secondary principal's meeting. The deputy superintendent for teaching and learning was presenting to our group, outlining a dizzying array of initiatives and priorities. It was clear that she found all of the topics to be vitally urgent. However, the further she went in her presentation, the more confused and disjointed it all seemed. I recall feeling a degree of mounting frustration. It felt as though I was reading tea leaves in a sand storm.I was struggling and I could not fathom where to even begin as I considered what an implementation plan might look like. The body language and facial expressions of my colleagues confirmed that my feelings were not isolated. So, I spoke up. "Linda (not her real name), would you please help me connect the dots here?" Her pointed, and seemingly impatient, response was: "Connecting the dots is not up to me. It's your job to connect the dots." Sheepishly, I retreated into silence.

What Linda and Ms Jones neglected was a process of assisting their learners in understanding why. "When will I need this?" and "do these dots connect?" are fundamentally the same question - why is this important and deserving of my attention?

Simon Sinek, a British-American organizational consultant, advises his clients to begin with a clear understanding of why an undertaking is important before considering what it is or how it will be accomplished. His wise counsel is as crucial in effective instructional practices as it is in business organizations. Teachers are taught to start their planning with the standards, learning targets and outcomes clearly in mind, the what. They then apply their creativity, ingenuity and experience in constructing learning activities and assessment strategies in support of the standards, the how. Just like Ms Jones, they plow ahead with well intended enthusiasm, offering their students "this is what we're going to do, and this is how we're going to do it. Won't that be fun?"

It may be fun. However, it will not be meaningful if the students don't clearly understand why they're engaging in this line of inquiry in the first place. It is possible that teachers, because of their training and approach to lesson design, may not have stopped to consider the "why" of where they are next taking their students. Effective teachers must be able to clearly articulate the "why" of the next step in the instructional journey in a way that both they, and their students, can appreciate, embrace and understand.

Ideally, the development of a common understanding of "why" will be a collaborative effort among the teacher and her/his students. Teachers should not operate as the gatekeeper of information. Rather, they should offer a conduit for discovery. Consider this approach: "Class, today we will begin our study of the mating rituals of tarantulas.(Yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek.) Before I describe for you why the exploration of this topic is important, I want you anticipate why this might be worth studying. Think about what we've done so far in this class, and then review the learning target charts on the wall. Can you predict, make an educated guess, on why we're studying this next? Take a few minutes for 'think time' and then share your idea with your elbow partner. We'll compare notes in five minutes." With this simple activity, the secretive "why", known only by the teacher, can become a collective understanding. I can only imagine that the levels of student ownership and engagement will be enhanced by this small investment of time.

My why. . . Your why. . . Our why. . . "Why are we doing this?" should never be the foremost question in a learner's mind.

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