Start with “Why?”

When I first saw Simon Sinek’s “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” TED Talk a few years ago, I immediately thought about how I should be starting with “Why” more in my social studies classes.

When I discovered the 5-Whys framework, I got even more curious about it.

Teaching students how to “think (and read) like historians” (google it) is incredibly useful, but what if they don’t see the relevance of History or Geography or Civics (aka “social studies”) to begin with?

This “Why” focus could provide that missing link to relevance for students!

Have we forgotten how useful curiosity is at school? Or were our parents so annoyed by all our “Whys?” growing up that we forgot how to do it?

As this patient mom reminds us, asking “why” is how we learn.

I learned that I couldn’t just passionately tell students why the Social Studies are useful, I had to show them…

Start by getting students Curious:

Confusion is what happens right before you learn something: Embrace it so you can work through it. And don’t forget that learning usually happens outside your comfort zone!

See this blog post about how I started U.S. History class with a primary source about 9/11 and the “why” questions I asked:

I want students to see that asking Why? can help guide our answer-finding throughout the course.

For instance, if you use the 5-Whys method, it might go something like this after a 9th grader asks “Why does the Middle East seem so chaotic right now?”…

  1. Why does the Middle East seem so chaotic? 
    There are lots of groups competing for power.
  2. Why are there lots of groups competing for power? 
    The “Middle East” went through major transformations the past century.
  3. Why do they go through major transformations?
    The region has been controlled from the exterior: First by British and French imperialists in the early 1900s (World Wars). Then, the removal of the Soviet Union (Cold War) removed general order, allowing individuals like Saddam Hussein in Iraq to act independently. Then, the United States begins to play a much more direct role there (Gulf War).
  4. Why has it been controlled from the exterior? 
    Resources.
  5. Why are resources so important?
    All of human history is about the struggle to find balance between liberty and order when you need resources to survive and thrive.

#SOCIALstudies

You’ve probably heard a quote that goes something like “You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to a six-year-old…” Learning through the 5-Whys might be able to help you get there faster.

Full disclosure: I tried 5-Whys randomly in class one day without much preparation and it was a bloodbath — We hadn’t done enough research and learning beforehand.

All-Star Teacher tip: Either narrow the beginning question and move through the answer steps on your own first or give everyone enough time to research and move through the 5-Whys together.

Start by Having Students ask Why:

Give each student a post-it note and have them write down a “Why…” question about your subject-area.

(You might even want to do this twice — Once with why questions about you or your classroom first to have some fun getting them into inquiry-mode.)

This will not only help you get to know students, but also help you personalize your future plans…

i.e. If a 9th grade Civics student writes down “Why does Black Lives Matter seem like they hate America?” you know you’ll probably need to spend a little more time learning via a syllabus or with mini-lessons like this this year. And/or hope Michael Bennett’s Things That Make White People Uncomfortable comes out sooner than April.

Try to start every day or week or month thereafter with one essential question that starts with “Why…?” and help ensure everyone can answer it when assessing — A 5-Why’s activity might make for a fitting formative or summative one!

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