Thursday, September 15, 2016

Starting with the WHY in Teaching and Learning

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Have you seen Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action? If you haven’t seen it yet, stop reading this blog right now and watch the first 10 minutes! Go on!

Okay, you’re back. So, Sinek talked a lot about business. English teachers aren’t business people, so you might be wondering why you just spent precious minutes of your busy life watching a guy blather on about Apple and the Wright brothers. What does “the golden circle” have to do with learning about verb tenses or reading for the main idea or developing critical thinking skills? Maybe you thought, “Just a minute here. I am just trying to teach students to add the final “s” to third person singular verbs, not sell computers or lead a social justice movement or be the first to fly.”

Or maybe you heard the part about how “all the great and inspiring leaders and organizations in the world, whether it’s Apple or Martin Luther King or the Wright Brothers, they all think, act and communicate the exact same way, and it’s the complete opposite to everyone else” and you thought, “Hey now. Teachers are leaders, and some teachers are great and inspiring leaders. I want to be that kind of teacher.”

The Golden Circle in the Classroom

Here is Sinek’s “Golden Circle”:


Basically, he says that we all know WHAT we do. I know WHAT I do. I teach English. And I know HOW I do it. I know that I use a variety of methodologies and approaches in my classes, from the communicative approach to the lexical approach to total physical response. But, Sinek argues that only a very few leaders know WHY they do WHAT they do. And, here’s the kicker: according to Sinek, the leaders that start with WHY are the most successful.

So, WHY do we teach English? Why teaching, instead of banking or fighting fires or healing sick people? Why English, instead of German or French or Spanish? We’ve all got different answers for that (and I’d love to hear yours), but mine are pretty simple: I teach English because I like helping people achieve the goals they have that require some degree of English proficiency. In my former teaching context this was an obvious goal with immediate pay–off in that I was helping middle school students access the content in their mainstream classes. It was easy every day to see students improving and to see how I was making a difference. Now, I teach a spelling class. I know that by learning to spell, students are improving their reading and writing. Also, we do a lot of listening discrimination, so I am helping them improve their bottom up listening skills.

The WHY in a Lesson Plan

When I clearly know the WHY, I can be more successful in the classroom because it means that the WHY is powering all of the curriculum and teaching decisions I make. I think sometimes it can be easy to forget this, especially when I am working on lesson planning. Sometimes, my plan for the class reads more like list of activities rather than a journey from the WHY.  For example, we always start with a warm up activity, so I plan a flyswatter game because we did a card match activity just last week and then move on to the next activity. But, maybe I should stop and ask myself WHY I want to have a warm up activity. What purpose will it serve? Maybe I want to have students review the word stress of numbers that we studied in the previous class. If that’s the case, do I want them to produce the target language or just hear it? If I want them to produce it, then I shouldn’t plan a flyswatter game because that won’t make them produce it.

This is just one example of how the WHY can really impact the activities we choose for our class. We shouldn’t plan a conversation activity just because it’s time for the students to talk. We should plan activities that genuinely move students towards their goals. And, we should make the purpose of the activities explicit. It might seem obvious to me that we are doing a gap fill in the book because it will help the students to produce the past tense more automatically which will make their speaking more fluent and their reading faster, but it’s not always so obvious to them. Saying so can provide students with a boost of motivation and a sense of purpose.

Our Students’ WHY

In order to start from the WHY, we need to know our students’ WHYs. Why are students taking my class? Why have they given up their time and money to spend time with me? Maybe for some students in some contexts, it’s because they have no choice. That’s a tough one. But, my students DO have a choice. So, on the first day of class, I introduce them to our Learning Management System by having them do a recording for me answering the question, WHY they are in my spelling class? By learning why accurate spelling is important for them, I can tailor my lessons to suit them and I can make explicitly clear how learning how to add –tion, -sion and –ssion to base words can make a difference in their lives.

Sinek reminds us that “people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it, so it follows that if you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone else?” I find my students to be pretty trusting and willing to go along with whatever it is I am asking them to do in my class, but I guess to really get them to buy into the lesson, I need to make the WHY clear.


Comment from Elena Mutonono
September 19, 2016 at 7:21 pm

Hi! Thank you for this post! I just recently watched that video and loved it, too. Thank you for elaborating on your WHY. I would like to add that a large number of teachers, especially online teachers, are turning into teacherpreneurs, so they do learn a whole set of other soft skills that help them grow their own online platforms (businesses), especially after they get exhausted by teaching long hours via skype and wonder if they can somehow leverage their time. So that would be one thing that I would add – there’re lots of teachers who are now also business people, teacherpreneurs, and for them even more so it is vital to know their big WHY. Thank you again!

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 20, 2016 at 8:05 am

I love the term “teacherpreneurs.” I’ve never heard it before, but often, when we are drumming up our own business, that’s exactly what we are. I imagine for these teachers, the WHY is exceptionally important!

Pingback from Teacher Talk » A Woman with a Plan
June 15, 2017 at 4:44 pm

[…] about Simon Sinek’s TED Talk and his insistence that by focusing on the WHY in my blog, Starting with the WHY in Teaching and Learning, we can ensure our students buy into our lessons and really commit to […]

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