Starting with Why

I saw this Ted talk yesterday and I think it has illuminating resonance for me as a teacher.

In the talk, Simon Sinek identifies 3 stages of all communication: what, how and why. 

For example, as a teacher who wants my students to do the best they possibly can, what I want to happen is excellent behaviour, concentration and hard work in class and the completion of 100% of homework to the best of their ability. Typically I will start with this what

If not all students get on board with this, and I always find at least one of them in each class, then I move to the how. I will talk about how they should SLANT when I am talking, how they should do their homework as soon as it is set, how the harder they work the more they’ll learn, how much easier it is to concentrate on their work in a silent classroom.

What I rarely articulate is why I want students to do this. And why do I? Well, it could be that my job is on the line and I need them to ‘make 4 levels of progress in a year’. It could be that I construct all children as needing to do their best. It could be that it’s convenient for me to have obedient, hard-working students. I’ve been thinking about the why.

The reason I want students to work hard and have good behaviour is because I care about them doing their best. I’ve thought about it, read about it and argued about it and I’ve come to the conclusion that students will have the best chance of learning in a calm, focused environment where academic excellence and hard work are prized virtues.

That is my why. Sinek observes that the most successful, effective communicators start with the why. If I were to start with the why then my communication with my classes would run something like this:

  • I want you to do your best. More than that, I want all of you to achieve excellence in maths. At the end of the year I want you to be thinking you’ve never worked so hard in your life, that you know more about maths than you ever thought possible. You will be confident going into that end of year exam. You will have developed an excellent work ethic that will stay with you and make it easier for you to work hard in the future. You will know so much more than you do now, and that will make it easier for you to learn more in the future, as the more you know, the easier it is to know more.
  • This is not going to be easy. It is going to be worth it but it will not be easy, it will require hard work and discipline from you. We are going to minimise wasted time as much as possible. And when we’ve minimised it, we are going to get a stopwatch out and try to minimise it even more. You’re going to SLANT every time I ask for it, at the first time of asking. When I ask for silent working you are going to work in complete silence so that everyone in the class and can think clearly without distractions. You are going to do every piece of homework I set on the day I set it, to the best of your ability.
  • What people are going to see when they look in on this class is every single student doing their absolute best.

Of the many great ideas that I have read about from Joe Kirby, the boot camp has always struck me as being one of the most interesting. I think that is him starting with the why, and I think it might well be a good idea for every school and teacher to try this approach at the beginning of the year.


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