WHY was a simple but rather frequent question that we innately and inquisitively repeated almost every day of our childhood. As young kids, we asked Why? We wondered about every aspect of our surroundings to provide a sense of knowing and to discover truths that wowed us. The whys put purpose into focus. We absorbed everything and had this insatiable yearning to learn more. And what we did learn from our Whys, we took in with much pride and happily shared with others.
Sadly, this inquiry loses its momentum as we grow up. We forget to ask ourselves Why and learning becomes a “chore” or a “must do” as we pass through the education system, particularly within secondary schools. Perhaps our schools are the culprits for our lack of curiosity; for decades what students gained in schools was rote memorization of facts that lacked a greater purpose and connection to the real world. Standardizations and exams were the dynamic duo that paraded themselves as qualifiers of intellectual proof and educational progress. The school environment was and may still be as follows: Teachers are stressed to abide by the state standards in order to improve their schools’ test scores to then ensure that money flows into the schools so that then some of that money is allocated back into the classrooms, which inevitably recycles back onto the teachers’ shoulders to again feed facts and hammer test performance into their students’ brains. Take the previous sentence and just put it on constant repeat. Our classrooms behave like machines and our students are merely parts to this manufactured assembly of American education. If a part (student) malfunctions, we merely lubed it up with more facts and test prep or worst-case scenario just throw that part out. If a teacher falters in his/her ability to manage this mechanization, the end result is a loss of the job. Just like the Industrial Era deskilled man with its reliance on heavy machinery, our students and teachers are also being deskilled. Under this system, the most important dynamic duo, the teacher and the student, is being silenced by the roaring clamor of traditional standardization of education.
There is no room to ask the whys in this structure. It was built on input and output with no regard for reinvention and purpose. Therefore, the student questions “Why do we need to learn this?” or “What is the point of this?” have become the dominant topic of conversation in schools all across our nation. I remember feeling this exact way as a high school student sitting in all my AP classes. I wasn’t taking these courses because I was eager to develop my knowledge and challenge my academic skills; I took those classes because I needed to get into college. High schools became the arena for competitive warriors to outdo one another in order to win college acceptances. Those who didn’t care for those competitions were invested in athletics or became the “high school is not for me” type. This illustration of high school is not uncommon, and it dangerously misconstrues what learning means. In my own experience of high school, learning felt forced, more like a survival of the fittest mentality or like a rite of passage before “real learning,” or learning based on or curiosities and passions, can happen.
In this type of high school, there is no need for teachers to pass along creativity and ingenuity; the classroom has lost its purpose of what “Real Learning” is about. Let’s remember that high schools are established to help prepare our students for the real world. However, at the rate we are going, we are modeling to our students that the real world does not need them to be critical, innovative thinkers but more like deskilled workers who accept what they are told to do. Contrary to this, the real world offers vast opportunities where we learn to create, learn to invent, learn to probe, and learn to ask why.
As a student who grew up in the traditional standardized structure and who is now a teacher in a progressive project based charter school, High Tech High International, I have been lucky enough to experience the dichotomy of these two approaches to learning. From these experiences, I’ve come to realize that teachers are the best weapons to repurpose our failing education system. Teaching is an amazing profession that needs teacher autonomy in order to design learning opportunities to fuel all that “real learning” provides and the core of these moments begin with “Why.”
Although standardization hinders our natural curiosity and passions, it is also deeply ingrained in our educational system and won’t be going away anytime soon. As such, the structures within any academic environment (whether it be state standards, project based learning, college prep, International Baccalaureate, AP curriculum, etc…) are ones that teachers have no control over. The pressure to teach according to these standards is present and unavoidable. Restrictions will always exist in any school setting: this is a fact. So as teachers, we need to adapt to what we have and manage our education design principles around them. Even within these restrictions however, a simple Why allows a teacher to take control of his/her domain and remodel the required standards around it.
The “Why” finds reason, places relevance, resolves dilemmas, and answers purpose. It challenges the teachers and students to participate in reinvigorating what the high school classroom is all about. A why-based classroom becomes an environment where both the teacher and the student are excited to collaborate and work together to achieve something above standards. It removes the mundane rigidity within the idea of high schools for both the teacher and the student. It gives life back to the high school classroom.
When I chose to ask myself Why after six years of teaching History, I was forced to really analyze the reasons why I teach US History. In my first few years, I assumed the norm was this: “I am a History teacher; therefore, I must teach History. Simple. I must get the students to understand and remember all the events that led up to the American Revolution and up to the complexities of the Vietnam War.” That was my objective. These were my self-inflicted academic restraints. My students enjoyed my class because I was a great orator of history, and the class activities were engaging and fun. But I felt like something was missing. As the years passed, I began to feel the drudgery of academic mechanization, even within the project based setting. Year after year, class after class, the history content and then even the projects began to feel like objectives/standards that I checked off every year.
The reason? In all this time, I had forgotten to ask myself Why. Why am I doing this? For the love of history? No, because I could have just become a Professor of History or better yet, found a job that pays well and just satisfy my inner history nerd by reading historical novels on the weekends. No, I needed to understand what I was attempting to do in my class. I wondered about why I was in the classroom and why I had chosen US History as the subject matter and even why I had chosen 11th grade. All these Whys encouraged me to contemplate the exact objectives I intended in designing my class.
So why teach and have my students learn US History? Oddly enough, getting to the answer was not as easy as I thought it was going to be. After I pondered this simple question, my thought processes were the following:
Initially, my response was that I want my students to understand the past and particularly connect that how we remember history really determines its meaning and impact. From there, I wanted them to grapple with the complexities of human nature and provide some context for modern day incidents of racism, discrimination, corruption, inequality, etc… But then I realized that up to this point of my Why exploration, it was still limited by just the “learning of history.” Instead, I wanted my students to take charge of what they learned by doing something with or sharing all that they learned. In the end, my Why is this:
I want my students to be interactive and empowered young historians who can create change in this world.
I came to realize that the purpose for my classroom was ultimately to instill within my students the identity of Progressive Changers. My Why re-energized the basic foundations of my class and most importantly my teaching practices and philosophies. The next semester, I was eager to share my Why journey with my new students and invite them to become engaged young historians who can create change and feel empowered to do so; I was so anxious in fact, that I pitched this idea to them before even going over the class syllabus. From all of the content we studied to every assignment/project we tasked ourselves, the Why mission was always the center of our objective. By acknowledging my Why, all the lesson plans, activities, projects, seemed to naturally fall into place and acted as supportive elements to build up my students’ abilities to be Changers who are not afraid to ask Why. The why-based pedagogy became the driving force within my students and me and united us in our goal to share and do more.
For example, before my Why transformation, I taught a unit that covered the ethical issue of American Expansion. This thematic unit explored the many controversies of Manifest Destiny and the development of race relations within the Native American removal, the African slave trade, the Mexican territory, and the Chinese Exclusion. Previously, my students appreciated reading and looking into the reality of Christopher Columbus, analyzing the validity of the Willie Lynch letter, reading a first hand account of the Indian Removal Act, comparing side by side a 1911 and a 2010 textbook version of the Mexican War, and more. The historical reality intrigued my students but for all the interesting facts gained within this unit, I felt like the greater significance and application of the content was left uninspiring and impersonal. Keeping the Why at the center of my curriculum design, I had to ask myself: Why am I teaching this? What do I want my students to gain in order for them to believe they are interactive historians who can incite change?
So with the important theme of race relations in mind, I looked at my students’ faces and I asked myself: If I were them, WHY would I want to know this information? Realizing my students come from all different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, I wanted them to not only understand history’s impact on modern day, but also make history themselves by advocating for awareness. Race relations in American History has been the breeding ground for Discrimination, Hate, and Intolerance and its social behaviors get passed down from generation to generation. My students’ personal lives are the very outcomes of history. This inspired me to take this unit into their personal lives and allow them to co-create their experience and share with their classmates the reality of their own race struggles within their communities.
Inspired to connect my students’ lives to history’s past, I needed an activity that opened that conversation to them. The outcome was an engaging, thought-provoking and powerful lesson around racial stereotypes. As my students wrote out all the stereotypes surrounding Blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and Whites, the class discussion naturally led into the destructive verbiage of the stereotypes and the historical backlash produced by the words. For my students, Stereotype Threat (the notion of a racial group being at risk of self characterizing and confirming a negative stereotype) was their largest Wow/Aha moment that affirmed the importance of understanding and personalizing history. From that point, it was as if all class projects and activities just naturally fell into place and my students were fully willing to participate and even lead.
This activity then easily transitioned into the Race Card activity, where my students bravely wrote out their own personal accounts of racial and discriminatory experiences. Before each class would start, I would read out loud 3-4 anonymous student stories and during these moments you could hear a pin drop in my classroom. These stories helped to not only put history into perspective but more importantly it also created a classroom culture of students who empathized and respected each other. These two class activities culminated into our semester long project called #Breakfree. This project was about using the advantages of the viral community like YouTube and Instagram to engage and encourage our viewers to “BreakFree” from the stereotypes that negatively affect them. My students took the lead in opening these conversations by posting photos of BreakFree moments on Instagram and also creating social experiment Youtube videos that capture institutionalized practices of racism and discrimination. The student led promotion of #BreakFree enabled my students to become young historian activists that enacted Change.
As with every new teaching method, I wanted to know if this redesigning of my classroom around my Why had any effect on my students. So I asked my students to anonymously provide their honest reflections about the class structure. The following quotes were some of my students’ responses:
“All the reflective activities we do allow me to dig deep in the feelings I didn’t know I had and I’m really excited for the #BreakFree project because I think it’s a great way to show/share problems or issues going on and do something to try and fix them.”
“All these race cards we listen to resonate with me. Even though I have not experienced the things they have doesn’t mean it can’t shock me. It means a lot to me that [my classmates]are willing to share the stories with the class.”
“I feel that I can take what I’ve learned and apply it to real life circumstances.”
“Lessons bring the small things into focus. It made me realize something that I haven’t thought of before. It made me think about what I’m used to and whether or not it should be considered okay.”
Additionally, since sharing my Why, my students will voluntarily email me with a YouTube video I should watch, cut out a political cartoon to give me, tell me the historical topics being discussed at the dinner table, voluntarily post above the required number of #BreakFree Instagram posts, and more. Significantly, what all these gestures have in common is that the student is leading the action and they are all occurring outside of classroom hours. For me, these student led moments definitely qualify as proud teacher moments. My students have implemented the key objectives of my Why that I shared with them on the first day of class. By opening the Why up to my class, the students were immediately bought into what this class offered them and were happy to become more than just high school students in a history class but young members of society who have learned, engaged, reflected, and applied.
Asking Why has pushed me to rethink and redesign many lessons to support my core objective and has acted as my overarching essential question. So simple is the question but the process of self reflection has incredible depth. It has encouraged me to understand and identify the very essence of why my content needs to be taught. The Why-based pedagogy promotes a form of education rooted in our basic need to understand and prompts a classroom of students who will be the next generation of change-makers, citizens who not only know how to ask Why, but also act upon its answers.
So I want to encourage all of you teachers to begin with a simple Why? Not why you are a teacher (that is a personal reflection that I am sure you have already processed) but why you are a teacher of your subject matter? Avoid the standard response of “Because I love the subject.” The goal is to design a classroom that promotes a larger purpose far beyond the facts of your subject matter and classroom activities/projects. Because when we start our class design with our why-based pedagogy, the students will naturally gravitate to learn in that same way. This approach invites the students to interact with the teacher’s Whys and encourages them not only to participate but also to develop their own. It generates a vibe where students are learning about themselves and how that learning affects them. By sharing your Why, you are inviting your students into a world of purposeful learning. So ask yourself Why and see where it takes you and your students. Let’s create a new generation of teachers and students who believe in remaking our classrooms into places where larger objectives are discovered and applied.