"Why Are We Doing This?"
If you're reading this, you've clearly decided to give this blog a chance. Thank you. I cannot express how much it means to me. Okay, now to the post…
No, this post is not an existential exploration about the seemingly futile actions of what basically amounts to billions of micro blips in the infinitely vast and expanding universe. I’ll save that post for the long slog of February when I’m losing my will to live. This post is all about identifying and clarifying the validity and purpose of what we do in our classrooms and our schools.
I have this rule in my class: If I can’t explain why we are doing something, students don’t have to do it. So if a student asks me, “why are we doing this” and the best answer I can muster is, “because that’s what’s in the textbook” or “because you're going to be tested on this” or “because if we don’t, then the terrorists win,” there is a high likelihood that the lesson I’ve created is an invalid use of our time—antithetical to the true essence of learning. So the kids don’t have to do it. Now, sometimes the district does require that I give students a specific assessment. It happens very infrequently, but it does happen from time to time. For those instances, my rule has a subsection that states: Unless the district makes me do it, in which case, you have to do it, too…but not for a grade (I’ll give you extra credit if you do well on this forced task).
FULL DISCLOSURE: I have oddly strong sense of logic, so if something doesn’t make sense to me, I feel frustrated until I can connect the dots. It doesn’t bother me the way people saying “I could care less” bothers me (GREAT! THEN CARE LESS! Oh, you must mean you couldn’t care less! ARRGHH! SO FRUSTRATING!!), but it does bother me quite a bit. So I was always the bratty student (shocking, I know) who asked why we were doing something in class. Frankly, I was hardly ever given a satisfying answer. I was given many variations of the same line: “Because you’re supposed to know this to be a successful adult!” But I was never actually told WHY.
We constantly tell our students about the real world, yet many teachers don’t model this world in their classrooms. Truly, when was the last time you did something you were told you had to do without ever really understanding why you had done it? Taxes and 401Ks don’t count. Nobody understands those.
Let me ask you one more thing: Have you ever been to a school-wide teacher meeting when a new initiative was introduced? How long did it take for at least one teacher to raise their hand and ask, “Why are we doing this?” Approximately .000000783 seconds, or am I rounding up too much? Now imagine a principal replying, “because that’s what the district says,” or “because you’re supposed to do this if you want to be a successful teacher!”
Of course, sometimes, administrators do give those answers, and that can be really frustrating. I remember one time (years ago) at a district-wide professional development session, I made the “mistake” of asking that very question. We were told that, as a district, we were actively switching from graphic organizers to thinking maps and, not really understanding the point, I approached a district employee during a break and privately asked, “why are we doing this?” A few days later, I was doing the Cersei Lannister walk of shame from my classroom to the principal’s office. Shame! SHAME! Apparently, that district employee felt it was inappropriate and offensive to privately question authority like that. I left school that day feeling just awful. I wasn’t trying to question authority. I was trying to understand.
It’s an unfortunate reality in education that many do not practice what they preach. When my students ask, “why are we doing this” (and believe me, they ask a LOT because they are desperately hoping I won’t have a good answer for them—kids love not doing work, even if they love learning), I don’t take it as a challenge of my authority. I take it as an opportunity to help my students understand the validity and purpose of the task. Fun fact: my students consistently make me look good whenever a visitor (principal, district employee, etc.) comes to my class and asks the kids, “What are you doing and why do you think you’re doing it?” BONUS POINTS FOR MR. WEST, Y’ALL!!
It is my hope that (perhaps through this blog post, even) we can begin to have an honest conversation that examines and reflects on our teaching practices. I want to challenge every person (educator or not) reading this to be able to identify and communicate the validity behind all of the education we are delivering to our children. So take a look at each and every one of your lessons, starting with what you are giving your students when you get back from the Thanksgiving holiday break. Then, try to answer this simple question:
Why are you doing this?