I am reading Simon Stipek’s Start With Why (Penguin Group 2009). As often happens, at least to me, the book I am reading is in dialogue not only with my mind, but also with those who have been on my mind. After many years at the same school, my “why’s” are suddenly no longer in alignment with the school’s “why’s,” so it was time to go. As seems to happen during transitions like this one, I challenged my “whys,” stepping back to re-assess. My soul-searching  yielded this: Children and parents were happy, and children emerged from the class with remarkable personal resources and awake minds.  In its own serendipity, Stipek’s image of a “golden circle,” in which why informs what and what informs how made sense.

Though Stipek is talking about business, his notion is no less applicable to education. Are the decisions we make in our schools based on why we do what we do? Or are we more concerned with what we do (teach reading or Chemistry or Math) and how we do it? If “why” is not the basis for every decision we make, I worry that those decisions are untethered. No wonder fads come and go. No wonder nothing sticks. No wonder nothing seems to make teaching and learning better for long. Adding sign language to the curriculum? Or values education? Or coding? Do we know why? What beliefs about children, learning, and society’s future are deep beneath our decisions?

The why of teaching children can be the inspiration that keeps it alive for us. The deeper the why, the better it can inform the decisions we make…the big ones and the hundreds of tiny ones we make in the classroom every day. What is school for? Why would a child want to come to school? What kind of citizens, friends, scholars would we like children to be? What does a child have the right to expect from her education? What significance to our culture(s) as a whole does that education bear? Only with such questions answered can we make decisions about what we teach and how. And with a clear understanding of our why, won’t the discrepancies between the why and the what/how become more evident? And help us know if our efforts are not authentic to our Why?

It may not be enough to have a conversation about our “Why” and move on, however. In my experience, the “easy why,” often manifest in the shorthand lexicon of the time (twenty-first century skills, life-long learning, experiential education, etc.), offers educators a platform on which to land, in agreement with each other, on which they may hide from a deeper why. This shared safe space does not lead to the disequilibrium, problematizing and uncertainty that can lead to the difficult conversations and learning that happen when we are in search of our Why.

What is your Why?