Truly innovative teaching asks, What is your why?

This winter I heard the phrase, “What is your why?” for the first time. Of course, with most meaningful things, after you hear or see it once, it starts appearing everywhere. Most recently for me, it appeared in George Couros’s book The Innovator’s Mindset and Simon Sinek’s TED talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. 

When I look at design thinking, genius hour, problem-based learning, and most other innovative developments in the classroom that are not just digitizing traditional teaching, I see a focus on the why. I see teachers finding their why. I see students finding their why. In a community of learners focused on the why, the act of learning returns to being meaningful.

Why is the why important to me?

It helps students contextualize their learning. If you think about genius hour, students are given the opportunity to choose and explore ideas and content that is meaningful to them. In problem-based learning, students are able to place the content they would learn in a traditional classroom into real life experience. Design thinking allows students to connect to people through empathy. Any one of these lets students make connections, developing a deeper understanding of the material. Even for those people who feel that the content, the what, is critical to education, the why is what makes the what stick. The why is how kids get away from learning something for a test and instead, learn it for the long-term.

It helps teachers, and schools, make decisions. The challenge in education has always felt like the amount of time we have vs. the amount of material you are expected to cover. In social studies, consider the fact that new, important events are constantly happening; how do you add new, important material without taking something else out. If you teach any other subject, it feels like ‘experts’ are continuously telling you that there is a new unit to teach, a new way to teach it, or a new book to use. Most elementary teachers are now teaching concepts that had commonly taught in the grade above. It is impossible to cover it all. The only way to decide ‘what‘ to keep is to know ‘why‘ you want to keep it. If the what doesn’t support the why, let it go.

It allows everyone in learning to find their flow. Flow is a concept introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is often categorized by a few key elements – complete concentration, clarity of goals, the transformation of time, intrinsic rewards, balance of challenge and skills, and a feeling of control over the task. (You can read more here. I think it is worth your time.) I think most of us would agree that it is easier to be persistent with something we care about. If we have a reason to care about our learning, rather than simply being told it is important by an adult, then we should also see more meaningful learning take place. Finding your flow in the classroom, as a student or teacher, is what takes learning and teaching deeper. It gives you the focus needed to build understanding and the energy you need to persist.

In my mind, the most recent innovations (using George Couros’s definition of innovation as new and better) in education can be connected back to the phrase, What is your why? This Innovative Teaching Academy course that got me tweeting and blogging again has reminded me of my why. My recent tweets and blogs (my what) are just the products of being invigorated by the community of teachers that value children and the classroom as a way to change the world (my why).

When I am asked/told to consider something new for my classroom, whether it is from an outside source or my own thinking, I am going to ask the question, “What is the why?” For me, for my students, for my school. If this new idea, book, lesson, unit, strategy, or anything else fits into our why, then it can fit into our classroom.

If I see a colleague who is struggling through the minutiae of the day, I’m going to ask, “What is your why?” When I feel like I’m going through the motions in my teaching or losing my energy, I’m going to ask myself again, “What is my why?”




  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your why in this reflection… it’s an important question to keep in the forefront and one that I’m trying to pay more attention to. Agree that the course and the community within are helping with this. Starting to feel more focused as a result. Wondering if you and other readers are noticing the same?


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