The Importance of Why

The Importance of Why

by Laurel Schwartz

Since I was first able to talk, I’ve always asked why. Why is the sky blue? Why does 1+1=2? My educated, middle class parents patiently answered my questions, and sometimes my teachers did, too. Now that the Common Core State Standards require students to make claims and support them with evidence, my students have to learn how to ask and answer more complex questions. This is challenging for both students and teachers.

We’re not the only nation working to think more critically. I just returned from Burma (Myanmar), a nation west of Thailand that, after years of being almost as isolated as North Korea, has started to open up to the world. As I got off a rickety boat that took me across the muddy, majestic Irrawaddy River to Mingun, near Mandalay, a man came up to me, begging to show me his school. He and his teachers taught students computer and English skills in a series of small buildings constructed using foreign funds.

My Burmese friend completed some time in college. In a country where only about 8 percent of the population has been to high school and 4 percent has been to college, he was elite.

To support his students, my friend said his school bought a handful of students’ uniforms each year (about $7 each), enabling them to attend to the local government-run school. You don’t have to pay to attend school, he told me, but teachers stand outside and make sure you’re in uniform. If you’re unable to afford the uniform, they turn you away.

When I asked him why the government didn’t just change the policy to allow students to attend school if they weren’t able to afford a uniform, he told me he didn’t understand. I asked him again, unsure if he followed my English. “I don’t understand,” he said again. “That is the Myanmar government’s policy.” Then I realized: he didn’t understand the concept of the word “why.”

In America we pride ourselves on our stable democratic values. We like to think of school as a way to create and maintain an educated populous that will ask our leaders why they implement policies — and will push to change those policies if they don’t make sense. Topically, we’ve built critical thinking values into our culture. This makes our economy strong and our workers known around the world for being creative and not afraid to speak up in the face of disagreements.

As we transition to teaching our students according to the Common Core State Standards, we too are being challenged by leading our teachers and students to teach and understand the “why” behind content and skills. I was never a stellar math student, in part because my math teachers rarely had the patience — or knowledge — to explain why I need to use formulas to solve problems. In social studies classes I was taught to ask questions, but we usually used a single textbook and rarely analyzed the biases of its authors.

So why are we having so much difficulty transitioning to the Common Core? And, if we are already producing graduates who are known around the world as workers who will question the status quo, then why are we having so much difficult teaching critical thinking skills? My Burmese friend didn’t understand the concept of why because for so many years his people didn’t have the freedom to question. In the United States, we don’t have that obstacle.

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