PROCESS POST: Why Over How or The Why:How Ratio

Here’s a challenge, or experiment, for us school people to try. As we teach, administrate, facilitate learning, etc., for the next week or so, keep a tally of how much we are focused on the WHY versus the HOW.

For example, in math class, as we instruct on the lessons of linear inequality or side-angle-side geometry, are we more focused on HOW to do the math or WHY we are doing such math?

In an upper-grades course or elementary-classroom topic like history, perhaps it helps to switch the HOW to WHAT, and play out the same basic experiment. Are we more focused on WHAT happened, or are we spending as much time on the SO WHAT?

During a faculty meeting, perhaps we should be spending more minutes discussing and activating implementation around such things as WHY we assess, in addition to working on HOW we assess.

In recently reviewing a syllabus of a highly respected colleague, I marveled at a section of norms and philosophies that influence how this teacher – this learning facilitator – approaches the learning and teaching moments.

Why Over How – I heard it said once the, “The people who know how will always work for the people who know why.” I hope to equip students with the tools to understand why to use a particular font, cut here in a video, or design a menu in this way. In the age of technological accessibility knowing how is important, but the pursuit of why is the greater challenge that I hope to teach.

Certainly, the thinking above has great influence on why I feel so strongly about transdisciplinary education, contextual pedagogy, design thinking, #Synergy, and other threads of the tapestry blurring lines between “school” and “real life.”

For in capital-P PBL (Project-based learning, and, for me, the overarching organizer of the approaches in the previous paragraph), the WHY drives the voyage and motivates the journey. The HOW comes as the need-to-knows reveal themselves from the intrinsic lurches compelled by the WHYs.

If you conduct such an experiment and count your moments of focus on the WHY versus the HOW, then I’d love to read feedback on your WHY:HOW ratio.

A piece of “what:” map making, problem finding, messy searching

Rebecca Chapman, literary editor of a new online journal called The New Inquiry, was quoted in the New York Times. “My whole life, I had been doing everything everybody told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything.”

The only surprising thing about this statement is that some consider it surprising.

Rebecca trained to be competent, excelling at completing the tasks set in front of her. She spent more than sixteen years at the top of the system, at the best schools, with the best resources, doing what she was told to do. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, no one is willing to pay her to do tasks. Without a defined agenda, it’s difficult for her to find the gig she was trained for.

[Then, later…] Education isn’t a problem until it serves as a buffer from the world and a refuge from the risk of failure.

(from section 35, pages 53-54, of Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams.” Read the entire section and manifesto here.)

In my jobs as teacher, school administrator, husband, father, educational innovator, etc., I am having to search and discover what needs to be addressed, celebrated, ceased and desisted, opened, studied, innovated, reiteratively prototyped, and enhanced. No one is digesting the messiness for me and handing me well-crafted assignments to complete. While I was in formal school, I think the tasks given to me and the work assigned to me taught me invaluable lessons that I would not trade for the world. I am eternally grateful to my school teachers. But my life has also been filled with the need to make maps, not just read them. I have found it essential that I find problems, not just solve the ones given me. I have needed to search through mess and muck to explore possibilities, connections, relationships, and opportunities. I don’t think I learned these things enough in my formal schooling. Why shouldn’t we incorporate more of this set of modalities into school? Why can’t we create and design more balance into the system of well-defined problems and ready-made assignments?

As the school year begins, are you…

  • Letting students wander in search of their own questions and curiosities, or just directing them to the ones you’ve already defined?
  • Designing space and time for map making, or just promoting and teaching map following?
  • Getting off to the side while students find problems that they think need solving, or just having them solve problems with answers that can be found in the back of a textbook?
  • Making room for students to explore what various real-life work feels like, smells like, tastes like, and sounds like…or just handing them the packages of industrial-age school?

[“A piece of ‘why,'” A piece of ‘what,'” and A piece of ‘how'” are strands of a series on why school needs to change, what about school needs to change, and how schools might navigate the change.]