3 Ways to Focus on the “Why” Instead of the “What” – Building Deeper Meaning in Learning

Tiffany OttBlog, Engage Better, Grade Better, Innovate Better, Lesson Plan Better, Mastery Done Better

In this post:

  • How to move from “What” to “Why”
  • Dive into DoK to deepen the learning
  • Just ask! The power of asking your students “Why”
  • Don’t rob students of the chance to discover and go deeper

Ban “What” From Your Classroom

Education has long been far too focused on the acquisition of information and learning how to follow algorithms and procedures. Here is the truth, though. Our world does not need people who know a lot of stuff and can follow a list of steps. The world has changed and it is time for education to catch up.

Do you believe, as we do, that your students need to understand the concepts and deeper meaning behind what they are learning rather than just memorizing facts? Maybe you are a little stuck on how to actually make that happen in your classroom or school.

Try these 3 strategies to start making that shift right now!

When we expect great things from our students. They do great things. Don't compromise on their awesomeness. Click To Tweet

1. Dive Into DoK

DoK stands for Depth 0f Knowledge and is a way to think about the complexity of content that students grapple with. Developed by Norman Webb, it helps us as educators identify the cognitive demand of what we are asking our students to do in our classrooms. Generally speaking, increasing DoK levels is a good thing in learning as it helps us move beyond facts and low-level task to the kind of thinking the real world needs from our students. Analysis, evaluation, conceptual development are in – names, dates, and tricks are out.

If you want to focus on the “Why,” not the “What,” DoK is a great place to start. Here are some resources you can check out right now to help you:

Free DoK course at Teach Better Academy

What Exactly is DoK? Hint – It’s Not a Wheel (Article by Erik Francis, an awesome DoK expert)

9 Ways to Fix Your Lesson Plans: Scaffold Student Learning Opportunities

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2. Just ask

Sometimes all it takes to make that shift is asking your students “Why.” Imagine these two scenarios:

Version 1

Student: I got the answer to the problem. It’s 3/5. What should I do now?

Teacher: Hand in your paper and get started working on _______.

Version 2

Student: I got the answer to the problem. It’s 3/5. What should I do now?

Teacher: Can you explain to me why the answer is 3/5? Walk me through what you did.

Student: [Proceeds to explain how they used the butterfly method.]

Teacher: Yes, I know what steps you took, but I need you to tell me why those steps work. Go deeper!

When you stubbornly refuse to let students be satisfied with procedural learning, algorithms, and memorization, awesome things happen. They might be frustrated with your constant “Why,” but trust me, it’s worth it!

3. Don’t steal their ice cream

OK, I like ice cream. A lot. Who doesn’t? Imagine this – you are in line at an ice cream shop. You place your order, make your payment, and eagerly anticipate the sweet, creamy deliciousness that you are about to enjoy. As the person behind the counter prepares your dessert, your mouth starts to water. They turn and start walking towards you, reaching their hand out to pass your ice cream to you and then, out of the blue, someone runs up and grabs your ice cream cone! They stand there staring at you as they devour YOUR ice cream.

How much would that suck?

Take a minute and consider the fact that we steal our students’ ice cream all. the. time. 

Teachers try all the time to create inquiry-based, concept focused learning experiences that allow students to discover patterns, generalize ideas, and dive deeply into content. But then, we make a fatal error. When students start getting frustrated, telling us they CAN’T figure it out, we cave. We pull the whole group together and explain the very concept we wanted students to find themselves.

Robbing them of the ability to push through the struggle and get to that lightbulb moment is as bad as stealing their ice cream. At that moment we are not teaching them fraction addition or how photosynthesis works. We aren’t teaching them what a preposition is or how to communicate effectively. What we are teaching them is that they can’t figure it out themselves. They can’t problem solve and push through challenges. We teach them to rely on us rather than their minds. And that is how we steal their ice cream.

Bottom Line

Is changing your instructional practices hard? Yup. Your students aren’t used to having to justify, explain, and prove their thinking by answering the question “Why.” You will meet resistance from them as they attempt to convince you that this new focus in learning is not worth your time and not valuable to them. Here is where your stubborn persistence in your belief that they can do it becomes so important.

When we expect great things from our students. They do great things. Don’t compromise on their awesomeness. Don’t compromise on YOUR awesomeness.


About Tiffany Ott

Tiffany Ott is the Director of Curriculum Development with the Teach Better Team, a high school math teacher in Ohio, the founder of #MasteryChat, and an educational technology fanatic. She just can’t get enough of teaching and learning!

Whether it’s connecting with a teacher struggling to make mastery learning work, writing about education, designing units, or speaking up on a stage to teachers who want to change the world with awesome teaching, she is hooked on all things education.

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