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My son recently had his braces removed. As parents know, this is a landmark day for children as it marks the end of pain, a somewhat embarrassing social stigma (although not nearly as bad as when I was his age), and of the household ban on popcorn.

As the assistant explained the procedure to me, I learned that a piece of the “Stage One” appliance would be left intact until we began “Stage Two.” That one seemingly innocuous statement opened the floodgate of questions in my head. What? Stage Two? I thought we were done! I had never even heard of Stage Two. Stage One was expensive enough, not to mention the investment of my time and energy in shuttling him to appointments and nagging him about brushing, flossing and wearing his headgear. And, since when do we need multiple stages for braces?

Ok, Mom. Calm down. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. Just ask the obvious question and probe for further explanations if necessary.

“Why?” I asked.  The answer I received was the most unsatisfying answer any human being can hear: “Because the doctor said so.”

Tamping down my frustration, I posed the same question directly to the orthodontist. “Why?” Instead of answering my question directly, he began with a mini-tirade about how Google was harming his practice. “People come in here and have talked to their friends or read something on the Internet and then they think they know everything.”

My question had put him on the defensive. Since I didn’t elaborate on why I was asking the “Why?” question, he was let to his own devices to try to interpret my motives. I was not only questioning the procedure, I was questioning his expertise.

The question “Why?” can evoke a powerful response in a school. It can make someone defensive; it can stir up suspicion or anger. It can threaten the established hierarchy or disrupt a collaborative partnership.

“Why?” can also make things better. It can help to clarify the process or make someone’s reasoning transparent. It can lead to further discussion and discovery. “Why?” can help someone reaffirm his or her belief system. It can also push someone’s thinking and lead him or her to revise outdated policies or procedures.

My “Why?” question to the orthodontist came from a place of not knowing. I explained to him that I wasn’t questioning his professional judgment; I just wanted to understand what was coming so I could make better-informed decisions for my son. In that moment, his tension eased and the conversation become more productive for us both.

As a teacher, I get “Why?” questions from parents all the time. “Why?” questions are valuable for building trust and communication.  They are the backbone of the parent-teacher collaboration and move the process of education forward. Please keep the “Why?” questions coming, but be sure to include a little of the why in the “Why?”.

13 Comments

Jaraux Washington commented on January 10, 2014 at 1:27pm:

awesome

Great story Julie! love it!

Kris Giere commented on January 11, 2014 at 10:48pm:

We must ask "Why?" indeed.

"Why?" is the central question that I push my students to ask.  To me, asking "Why?" represents a multitude of educational building blocks: curiosity, skepticism (the healthy kind), motivation, investment, and engagement.

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on January 12, 2014 at 12:36pm:

All that and more.

Kris,

I have always been pro-questioning. For me personally I need context and background to build my understanding. I've always felt that it's a skill our students need to be taught to develop in meaningful and respectful ways.

The time when my son was going through his toddler "Why?" phase are some of my happiest memories. My husband and I enjoyed answering those questions. Not only did it provide him with information, but it expanded our knowledge (yes, we had to Google some things) and helped us to reinforce our beliefs. Sometimes we did provide too much information to the point that he'd just walk away from us, but we learned to adjust to his level of interest and understanding. We can, and should, do the same for our students.

Kris Giere commented on January 13, 2014 at 11:20pm:

Yes!

I always take time to nuture the toddler in myself and others.  Having that level of curiosity in the world around us is a vital and necessary skill.  I try to make time in every class period to address the "whys" even when they are a bit tangental.  Tangents often are expressions of a student's thought processes.  In order to help the student commit the information to long-term memory effectively, exploring the "whys" is necessary.  I rarely if ever find answering "why" to be fruitless, and like your example, I learn a ton along the way.  I get to look things up, or I have a student or students look up the answers and discuss what we've learned.  I then do my best to tie it back to the conversation, lesson, or purpose at hand.  By the end of the semester, most all of my students look forward to our tangents.  Come to think of it.  Teaching the "whys" just might be my favorite part of my job.

Diana Rendina commented on January 13, 2014 at 7:17pm:

Applies to students, teachers and admin

This makes me think about two things: one, it's good for us to let the students know the why of things.  Telling students they need to do something because "that's just how it is" or "because I said so" is inneffective.  two, admin needs to let teachers know the why of things.  Why is the schedule being changed?  Why are we adjusting the curriculum?  When teachers know why changes are happening, they're more likely to embrace the change than if it's just forced upon them.

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on January 17, 2014 at 2:37pm:

Works at home, too.

My husband and I agreed early in our parenting that we would avoid the "because I said so" as often as possible. We just didn't feel that it helped our son develop his own behavior or moral compass. If he only did things because his parents said so, what would he do when we weren't around? How would he make those decisions for himself? I've always thought the same thing applied with my students. The reasoning helps them apply rules in other situations and encourages them to buy in.

José Luis Vilson commented on January 13, 2014 at 7:19pm:

Occasionally

Every so often, I don't have the answer to their Whys, and we have to learn how to be OK with that. Sometimes, a kid asks why because they want to see how the teacher reacts, but if the student generally looks interested in the "why," then we ought to expound, never mind the lesson plan. Thanks for bringing this up.

Valeria Brown commented on January 13, 2014 at 7:20pm:

As a teacher, becoming

As a teacher, becoming vulnerable enough to allow your students to ask 'why' takes courage because it may remove a teacher from "sage on the stage" to "we are in this together" or "I don't know all of the answers." Thank you for encouraging your students to ask why...and find a new dentist with the heart of a teacher. :) 

Jessica Keigan commented on January 13, 2014 at 7:21pm:

Important to Remember

I tend towards the defensive side when I'm asked why. It is hard not to be defensive when why is usually followed by suggestions for what to do differently. However, I think it is good to engage with people enough to understand their motives for asking why. In taking that important step, I think we, as a system, would be in a much better place.

Thanks for the reminder! =)

Lori Nazareno commented on January 13, 2014 at 7:22pm:

The valuable 'why'

One of the most valuable things that I got from going through national Baord certification is the constant "why" in my head about my instruction. Why am I doing it this way? Why do I ahve these beliefs about how students learn? Why did this student get it and why did this one not?

I think we need to move towards asking ourselves 'why' more often. 

Why are schools tructured the way they are? Why can't we change that structure? Why are we doint it 'that' way? I believe if more of us start asking these 'why' questions for real, things might begin to shift more quickly. At least I hope so.

Kris Giere commented on January 13, 2014 at 11:22pm:

Whys and reflection

Asking "Why?" can be an amazing reflection tool.  Similar to the "What if...?" questions, whys like the ones you point out can help us explore many growth pathways and lead us to some amazing discoveries and solutions.

Tammy Whitlow commented on September 19, 2014 at 11:57am:

Why? I wish...

I wish some the parents of the students that I work with would ask me why?  I would share with them the mass of knowledge that I have regarding certain suggestions or requests I ask fo them.  On the otherhand, I reverberate the question to them. Do you know why you should do this with your child?

 

Julie Hiltz Julie Hiltz commented on September 23, 2014 at 9:44pm:

Can we engage those parents?

Tammy,

Do you have any suggestions for working with parents and getting them to ask those types of questions? I usually try to front load the "Why" when I talk to parents and provide some context, but in doing so I make some assumptions about what they know and what they want to know.

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