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Commentary: In education, the ‘why’ matters

Educator Marc Waxman says schools won’t improve in meaningful ways until we dig deep into the purpose of public education.

I wrote my first blog post for EdNews over a year and a half ago. And, almost exactly a year ago, I wrote my last post.

Since then I have had two significant, yet very different, professional experiences.  I started a new public charter school as a “restart turnaround” of an elementary school in Far Northeast Denver and am serving as head of school (hence my absence from the blogosphere – I have been busy).


Concurrently, as I started meeting regularly with a group of like-minded school leaders and education folks, I engaged in a dialogue about education that was different than anything I had been part of before.

Both experiences reconfirmed for me the importance of the core questions posed in my original blog posts – what is the purpose of education in our country (or, WHY are we educating the way we are) and the natural follow-up – what should education look like? It makes sense then that two people that I work with closely and with whom I share a common vision recently shared with me this TED talk by Simon Sinek.

Here’s the essence of Sinek’s  talk – “Everybody knows ‘what’ they do 100 percent. Some know how they do it. But very few people or organizations know WHY they do it.”  An important note is that Sinek differentiates this type of WHY with results.  He says, “And I don’t mean to make a profit, that’s the result. It’s the “why,” why do you do it, why do you get out of bed in the morning, and why should people care.”

Sinek tells the story of the Wright Brothers and Samuel Pierpont Langley as an example of his theory that WHY matters.  Long story short – the Wright Brothers beat Langley to the punch in developing a functional manned flying machine even though Langley was much better funded, much better educated (at least in the traditional sense) and more experienced. Why?  Because they had a WHY – “they were driven by a cause, a purpose, a belief that their work could change the world.”  Langley was results oriented – “he was in pursuit of the result – the riches.”

(An interesting side note – no one on the Wright Brothers team had a college education, not even the brothers, as compared to Langley who was a professor at Harvard.)

Here’s a fun project connected to this concept of WHY – ask your friendly, neighborhood educator these questions…

  • What do you teach?
  • Why do you teach it?
  • How do you teach it?
  • Why do you teach it that way?

Even more interesting would be these questions…

  • What social behavior do you expect from students?
  • Why do you expect that social behavior from students?
  • How do you teach social behavior?
  • Why do you teach that social behavior?

I expect the answers to the “What” questions will be easily available, the “How” answers will come, albeit with a bit more effort. But in many cases the “Why” questions won’t be answered at all, or the answers won’t make much sense.

That’s because we – as educators and as a larger society – have stopped pushing ourselves to answer the “Why” questions.  We have begun to take for granted that the purpose of public education is student achievement as measured by standardized test scores.  I don’t disagree that this can be an element of purpose, but it has become the end of the discussion.

We must engage in meaningful dialogue about purpose, about the “Why,” and be willing to challenge our current conceptions if we wish to make real growth as a society.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.