Welcoming the whys

Simran Luthra

In the introduction to her wonderful book The Why-Why Girl, Mahasweta Devi remarks, “All over India, there are children, tribal and non-tribal, who always ask the question ‘Why?’”. The protagonist of the book, Moyna, is a young tribal girl who is given the nickname of ‘Why-Why Girl’ by the villagers because of her persistence in asking the reason behind everything she is asked to do. And while the answers to her ‘whys’ are not explicitly shared, the implication is that asking ‘why’ is almost a dangerous thing since it can upset the status quo.

Asking ‘why’ is one of the most potent actions a human being can take. However, most adults dread being asked ‘why’ by a child. More often than not it is because it’s likely to be a series of ‘whys’ and most adults lack the patience or don’t consider it worth their while to explain the ‘whys’ to children. Or perhaps, more likely, they don’t know the answer to the why themselves!

Children, however, by the age of seven are developmentally ready to ask and hear the whys. This in fact tells us something about the nature of human beings: rationality is innate to us and we tend towards reason.

Related to this I raise some key concerns around our praxis as educators and teachers:
• Do we routinely explain the ‘why’ behind assignments or homework assigned to children?
• Are we always clear about ‘why’ we choose certain tasks for learners?
• What happens when we don’t clarify the relevance or reason behind assigning tasks to students?

Having raised these questions, this article explores why explicit sharing of the relevance behind assignments and tasks and being transparent about the ‘why’ is philosophically, sociologically and developmentally appropriate and desirable.

Illustrations: Shilpy Lather

Reason and rationality in children and the impact of our dismissal of it
As mentioned, the age of seven has been hailed by psychologists as ‘the age of reason’ which is a milestone developmental stage. “The age of reason refers to the developmental cognitive, emotional and moral stage in which children become more capable of rational thought,” explains psychotherapist Dana Dorfman. In fact, in medieval times, court apprenticeships began at age seven and under English Common Law, once children reached the age of seven, they were considered responsible for their crimes.

The point of emphasizing the age of reason being seven, plus or minus one, is that in case as educators we are labouring under the misconception that sharing the rationale behind things we ask children to do is too much information for them, it isn’t.

In his seminal work, How Children Fail, John Holt undertakes a close analysis of what happens inside the classroom, trying to understand the motivators and demotivators of learning for children. Describing a student engaging with a physics question in the form of a task, Holt tries to peer into her mind and says: “The thought in her mind must have been something like this: “These teachers want me to do something. I haven’t got the faintest idea what it is, or why in the world they want me to do it. But I’ll do something, and then maybe they’ll let me alone.”

We may never hear students say this aloud, but if we are honest about many of the classroom routines we engage in and when we get unsatisfactory responses, such a response of a student isn’t hard to imagine or relate to. Without sharing the rationale of why we assign certain tasks or assignments, they are received as chores and things that students have to do in school. What happens then is that the psychological motivation for learning and engagement that comes from knowing the why becomes absent.

And in fact, I argue that this lack of explicit sharing of why learning something is meaningful/important/relevant/useful is something that perhaps doesn’t allow for intrinsic motivation for learning to develop. Intrinsic motivation occurs when students are engaged because of internal rewards, like a love of learning or interest in a subject. But how can we expect learners to develop interest or love for a subject if we are unable to establish that it is meaningful and relevant for learners to know about? When we fail to share the rationale behind tasks and go about them in a mechanical manner, checking them off our lists, we run the risk of disconnecting learners from the source of intrinsic motivation in learning. This could well be the key reason for the ‘lack of engagement’ that as teachers we so often lament.

What more harm does not sharing the ‘why’ do?
The impact of this lack of engagement is not limited to the dulling of the love for learning alone; it actually has deep philosophical and sociological ramifications as well. Consider the word ‘schooling’. It doesn’t only refer to the act of attending school to acquire knowledge and skills that are explicitly taught. There is a host of other attitudes, dispositions, beliefs and habits that children acquire through the ‘hidden curriculum’ at work in schools.

So while the ‘formal curriculum’ consists of the actual syllabus, classes, activities that students partake in and that teachers intentionally teach, the hidden curriculum consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.

When the reasons behind assignments and tasks aren’t shared and students aren’t expected to ask them either, children are being trained to follow instructions without questioning. Most Indian schools and traditional Indian classrooms have been authoritarian in nature where the teacher and the textbook are the unquestioned sources of knowledge and power. This of course is also largely reflective of the nature of Indian society which is also authoritarian. However, our education system is not only reflective of this attribute, it also is responsible for creating and reinforcing it. The school is after all a political space and shares a symbiotic relationship with society.

As Mukherjee (2019) points out, “Since the 19th century, nations have relied on schooling to organize and train their work forces and prepare students to conform to the requirements of the government. Western schooling… focus[es] on educating workers for a global economy and instills values to ensure a stable government.” She draws from the work of Joel Spring, who in his book, Wheels in the Head, illustrates how schools mould students to readily treat the government as the higher power and not question it.

When we fail to provide a rationale and have a culture in which asking why is not encouraged, we are in fact indoctrinating children into a culture of subservience, obedience and placing a higher value on these attributes rather than on critical thinking, questioning, inquiry or even curiosity.

Our attitude towards the ‘why’ says a lot about our notion of the child/student
Ironically, ‘critical thinking’ is a buzzword very much in vogue in policy documents and popular educational discourse (borrowed largely from the West). However, can we really foster critical thinking or problem-solving attitudes in children if we routinely deprive them of the reasons why they are expected to forego their leisure and playtime and devote themselves to tasks that they don’t even know why they are working on? The point I am trying to get at is that the choice of not sharing the reason or rationale for tasks goes beyond just a simple technical decision. It actually can go to determine what we are teaching children about being human, about their rights, their limits and their value.

Choosing to share the why or not also reflects what as teachers or adults our notion of the ‘student’ or ‘child’ is. Are we looking at children as ‘empty pails’, ‘blank slates’, or as in Paolo Freire, the Brazilian educator’s term, are we following the ‘banking model’ of education in which a teacher “deposits” facts into the minds of the students, who have to memorize and recall them? In all of these approaches, we are reducing the personhood of the student and treating the child as lower or lesser.

Both Freire, in his recommendation of a ‘problem-posing education’ model, as well as John Dewey, in his emphasis on democratic education, try to establish a more equal relationship between the teacher and the student. Dewey, in fact, viewed the classroom as a space in which people discovered and constructed knowledge together as relative equals (the teacher having a particular responsibility due to her/his role). Education, for Dewey, is a shared enterprise and this is what made him seem dangerous and radical to those educationists and politicians who had a traditional view of the curriculum and the child’s place within it.

A child in the classroom learns not just the content knowledge that they are expected to reproduce in exams, but more importantly they learn habits, attitudes and dispositions from the way they are taught and the role they have to play in the process of teaching-learning. Simply put, are children playing an active role in this process or a passive one? And if it is a passive one, what is this doing to them? What kind of people is it moulding them into? Is it training them to think or not think? What habits of the mind are being developed or not being developed?

“Why do we even have to learn this?”
Now we come to the part that is the hardest to acknowledge, perhaps because as teachers we’re rarely in control of what the syllabus consists of. And if we look at the syllabus coverage of the different subjects, it tends to be a really broad sweep. While literacy and numeracy are and should be the key focus in the lower grades, if we take an honest and critical look at the syllabus, what is our honest opinion on the host of other concepts and subjects that are taught in school?

School knowledge in primary and even secondary segments is supposed to create generalists. However, as teachers we know that very often the topics covered enter into specialist territory as well. It is when this happens that children may ask, “But why do I need to learn this? How will it help me?” As adults too, ever so often we look back at school knowledge and wonder why we were expected to study things that we have had no use for. We see memes trending these days which ask why we were taught trigonometry but not about personal finances or how to file our taxes. The belief has come to be that all that is covered in school knowledge is the minimum subject-matter knowledge that children must have. And of course, in mainstream schooling, there is rarely any space for children’s individual areas of interest.

We all know someone or have been that cheeky child who has openly asked, “When will I ever use this?”, “Why do I need to learn this?” and sadly the honest answer very often could be: “Because you have to pass the exam.”

Is one reason as teachers we may steer clear of the whys be that we ourselves may want to avoid confronting the fact that at times the content knowledge or tasks we are expecting children to engage with enthusiasm is of little pertinence and relevance to them? If that is the case, does this warrant a larger conversation and perhaps large-scale reform of what school knowledge covers?

To conclude…
Historically we are at a point in time when traditional schooling is being questioned thanks to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns which put an unprecedented break on the wheels of schooling that have been in motion for the last century or more. While there seems to be no practical alternative to schooling for the masses, there is increasingly the feeling that something needs to change. But who’s better equipped to understand and spearhead some change with immediate effect than teachers and school leaders?

A great starting point would be to inculcate critical thinking and habits of the mind that foster inquiry, satisfy curiosity and keep learners engaged because as little humans, they are as deserving of knowing why they are asked to learn or do something. In fact, only when as little people do they get into the habit of asking why and are given the rationale for tasks they are asked to do, can we expect them to engage meaningfully with the world, applying their minds instead of unquestioningly following instructions.

Another step in this direction would be to first ask ourselves: “Why do I want my students to do this task/assignment? What value does it add? Is it in alignment with my philosophy of education/teaching/learning?” Once you have satisfactory answers to these questions, ensure you also share with learners what you hope engaging with the task or assignment will do for them. Fire that intrinsic motivation a little!

And lastly, be welcoming and encouraging of ‘whys’. In an authoritarian culture, a ‘why’ asked by a student can seem threatening, intimidating and even offensive. However, in a collaborative culture that believes in the co-creation of knowledge as a joint enterprise of teacher and student, a ‘why’ would be seen as engaged, curious and supportive. Let’s keep an eye on how we respond to the ‘whys’ students ask us and be clear of the ‘whys’ for things we ask of them ourselves to engage in humanistic education – one that doesn’t only pay lip service to the ideals of critical thinking and democratic education, but truly fosters it in meaningful ways.

• Mukherjee, Ishika. (2019). The Indian Education System and the Authoritarian State.
• Hopkins, Neil. (2018). Dewey, Democracy and Education, and the school curriculum. Education 3-13. 46. 1-8. 10.1080/03004279.2018.1445477.

The author is based in Pune and is currently pursuing her PhD. in Education from TISS, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in English from Jadavpur University and Masters in Education (Elementary) from TISS, Mumbai and taught Hindi at Stanford University, California while on a Fulbright fellowship. She is passionate about language, social studies education, human rights, gender, life skills and teacher education in particular. She can be reached at simranluthra@gmail.com.

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