Answering The Unasked Question: Why?

Girl asks "why?"
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why 300x235 Answering The Unasked Question: Why?The keys to sparking student interest and increasing student participation may be sitting right under our noses, if we would only pause and pay attention.


The question is always there, we just choose to ignore it. And we pay the price. We ignore the question because we think it will go away. Every teacher sees the question in the eyes of his or her students, but since students rarely vocalize, the challenge is left unanswered and the lesson continues. The question, of course, is: “Why?”


“Students,” declares the teacher, “open your history (you can insert math, literature, or almost any subject here) books to page 127. We are going to start a new chapter on the Victorian Era.” Of course, the students quickly turn the pages of their books and dutifully begin studying the chapter. But many would love to retort: “Dear teacher, let’s not and just say we did!”


In an Education Week article, Sara Sparks reports the findings of a recent study on student engagement and writes:


What works to improve students’ behavior only sometimes engages them emotionally and cognitively, the researchers found. Students who reported that their teachers set clear expectations and responded to them consistently were more likely to participate in class and feel connected with school. But a teacher’s emotional support didn’t directly affect students’ cognitive engagement with their coursework; rather, students were more likely to voice interest and take greater ownership of their learning when they considered what they were studying to be personally interesting and relevant.

Similarly, giving students more choices and control over their schoolwork did not improve their motivation or make them feel more academically competent unless the choices were aligned with the students’ personal interests. “Opportunities for decision-making or freedom of action are less important than the extent to which the decision-making and action opportunities available reflect personal goals, interests, or values,” the authors write. For example, the authors recommend that teachers might “explicitly illustrate and explain the relevance of tasks to the personal goals and interests of students when providing them with choices.”


In short, the best learning happens when students appreciate the purpose of such learning. Motivational techniques will address behavioral engagement and possibly even improve emotional engagement, however the question, “Why do I need to know this stuff?” must be addressed if we are to truly engage the mind of the learner.


This may challenge teachers who struggle to clearly articulate the relevance of their subject. Let’s face it: How many teachers know why their subject carries significant real-world value? How many can explain why the knowledge they are imparting will make a student a better citizen or a more productive adult? (Is it possible that some might even be afraid to know, lest they realize the relevance is minimal at best?) How many teachers can, as the study suggests, “explicitly illustrate and explain the relevance of tasks to the personal goals and interests of their students”?


Put simply, student motivation and interest will largely be determined by a teacher’s ability to answer the question: “Why know?” Educators who are able to adequately address this most fundamental conundrum will reap the rich rewards with students who are engaged and ready and willing to apply the power of their amazing intellect to the subject at hand.


5 Responses to Answering The Unasked Question: Why?

  1. Nina Smith says:

    Best motivation is intrinsic, but often students are taught to use their extrinsic motivation (i.e. to pass the test, get a better grade, get a sticker etc.) for schoolwork. I am deliberately not using the word “learning” for that, because too often their schoolwork has little to do with learning. It is not meaningful for students. They are not engaged in their own learning process. Using student-centered practices improves motivation and helps students learn more deeply.

    Teachers must be empowered to have choices, too, in order to make teaching and learning more meaningful and more effective.

  2. Don Berg says:

    The concluding paragraph of this piece states, in part that “…student motivation and interest will largely be determined by a teacher….”

    I would suggest that this is a misinterpretation of the research. The stated view implies that if teachers will say just the right things, then the students will become motivated and interested. In particular the article places responsibility on teachers to explain why particular subjects are relevant or interesting. That’s like saying that comedians should be responsible for explaining why their jokes are funny. It is a strategy that is doomed from the start.

    Like good comedy, the essential factors for success in teaching are context and timing. Comedians need to be extremely sensitive to the context in which they choose to tell jokes or otherwise make fun. Off color jokes just don’t play well in family friendly contexts. Toilet humor plays well with 3rd graders but doesn’t fly with most adults. Good comedians don’t just tell any joke that they can remember, they tell jokes that fit the circumstances. And then within their understanding of the context they have to also be attuned to the appropriate timing in which they take action. Even when a comedian has the right joke for the situation, then their timing for telling it can make all the difference between laughter and crickets chirping. And no matter how good or bad a comedian they are, they will never succeed in being funny if they have to explain the joke.

    Teachers also need to be extremely sensitive to the context in which they choose to teach. And then within their understanding of the context they have to also be attuned to the appropriate timing in which they take action. If they are in a context in which it is necessary to explain the relevance, then they would do better to change their timing or change their context.

    If you are interested in schools that have succeeded in creating radically different kinds of contexts for teaching from the mainstream I suggest you look into Democratic Education ( I recently completed my thesis on the patterns of motivation in two alternative schools that operate from democratic principles and after interviewing teachers I can tell you that they never explain the relevance of their subject. Also, my results suggested that those students in the alternative schools maintained their levels of intrinsic motivation, which is not the case in all the studies of mainstream schools over the last 30 years.


    Don Berg

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    • Karmi Gross says:

      Thank you for your thought provoking comments. However, I would argue that a joke works because the audience easily relates to the point being presented. The closer one ‘hits home’ with a joke the more it is appreciated by the listeners. One could tell the funniest joke but if it did not relate to the lives and realities of the audience it would fall flat. In short, good comedians choose jokes that do not need to be explained. This is not true with curriculum which can frequently confound students (and teachers) as to its relevance. That said, your point regarding context and timing is extremely important as well and must be an integral component of teacher planning.

  3. Brittany Hansberry says:

    I like the idea of having the students know why they are learning materials. I am a preservice teacher and in class we are constantly coming up with a rational for our lessons but we do not often share that information with the students. However, one of my cooperating teachers did but essential questions and what the students would get out of the lesson on the board. I noticed that with those posted students were not asking why. They knew that this lesson was going to help them in some way and how it was going to impact them. Students are curious and we need to give them answers to some questions so they can focus on the more important things such as learning and discovering new questions!

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