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Start with the WHY December 8, 2013

Posted by IaninSheffield in Teaching Idea.
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In this Ted Talk, Simon Sinek uses what he calls the ‘Golden Circle’ to illustrate how companies often market their products, the majority choosing to describe WHAT it is, HOW it works and WHY you should choose to buy it. The really successful ones however pitch in the opposite direction, explaining WHY first; this encourages you to buy into their core purpose. He argues that this is why Apple for example has become so successful and why their devotees queue up for hours to be the first to own new products. Even those who worship slightly less fervently, having bought one Apple device will go on to buy a second or third. It’s all about creating a cause or set of values around which people can rally; a set of beliefs with which they want to be associated. They don’t just want to use their iPad, they want to be seen to be using it because it says something about who they are and what their beliefs are.

Although it’s a fine line between pursuing an idea with almost religious fervour and becoming a zealot, I wonder if we as teachers can learn from Simon’s contention? As a physicist, it made sense to me to explain WHAT we were going to be doing, HOW we would do that and perhaps almost as an afterthought WHY we were doing that. Isn’t it simply good practice to make lesson objectives visible to our classes at the start of a lesson? David Didau and Phil Beadle argue the cases for and against respectively. I guess I’d aim for the middle ground in that helping students become aware of what they should be aiming for makes sense, but sometimes it’s important to encourage them to explore, to discover, for them to enjoy the ‘Reveal,’ with the objectives perhaps being made concrete at the close.

Learning ‘Objectives are statements that describe what a learner will be able to do as a result of learning.1

An objective statement itself should answer what students will be able to do by the end of the lesson.2

As you begin the lesson, outline the objectives with the students so they clearly know what it is that they are supposed to be able to do as a result of having gone through the lesson.3

And what is common to all these descriptions of lesson objectives. No that’s not a question, but a statement. ‘WHAT’ is common to all of them.

If we take an example – learning about renewable energies. Here’s a typical set of resources. Once upon a time I might have used them as a reference source or for ideas. They identify lesson objectives:
“After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Describe sources and uses of energy.
  • Define renewable and non-renewable energy.
  • …”


Suggested activities include:

  • “Students … build a model anemometer to better understand and measure wind speed.”

The HOW.

But the WHY is noticeably absent; perhaps I too would have been guilty of its omission?

If we follow Simon’s lead the lesson might have started with “Why are they building wind turbines on the nearby farmland and why should we care?” Or maybe there’s an even bigger picture; one where we begin the year/course by explaining the WHY. If we can’t passionately describe WHY our subject is so important and why students should care, how likely are they to buy into the learning which follows? If on the other hand, convinced by our message they become ‘followers,’ their learning is far more likely to be enthusiastically pursued and the learning objectives which follow achieved.

Start with the WHY.