The Power of Why…

by Dr. Ernie Mendes

I hope that 2012 was a year of growth, health, and prosperity for you and your families. I thought I’d start the year talking about the power of ‘WHY’ in my newsletter.

When I do coaching training, I often suggest to coaches that when generating questions in reflective conversations it is a good idea to avoid questions that begin with the word WHY.

Why? Why questions tend to put others on the defensive. We can get to the same information by using questions that begin with the words what or how, such as, How did you reach that conclusion? or, What led you to that choice? and What was your thinking behind…? (of course how we ask the question, our intonation, and our expressions highly influence the way the question is perceived).

We also try to avoid WHY questions when addressing students’ behavior, and academic performance:

-Why did you do that?
-Why didn’t you do your work?
-Why did you hit her?

Instead try:

-What were you thinking of when you said (or did) that?
-What were your thoughts?
-How could you have responded differently?

Ask the WHAT and HOW questions in a curious tone, not in a sarcastic or degrading tone. Substituting these what and how questions (instead of the why questions) increases self-awareness, an important first step in self-management.

Now let’s look at some good places to use the word WHY.

Use WHY as a door to higher-order-thinking

When discussing any academic content with students, use WHY as a door to higher-order-thinking:

-Why do you think that character responded in that way?
-Why are we solving for the x variable first?

Use why questions, along with comparing and contrasting, to encourage deeper thinking about both the subject matter and the processes.

Use WHY as a way to assess locus of control.

After grading a major paper, project, or exam and returning it to your students, have them write a paragraph to you on a separate sheet of paper answering the question: why do you think you received that grade?

Their answer to that question will help you assess whether they have an internal or external locus of control (especially if you repeat this exercise several times to determine patterns). Their reasons will usually fall into one of two themes:

I didn’t study hard enough; I procrastinated; I didn’t do my homework; I didn’t get extra help; or I did do these things . . . I studied hard; I got extra help. These kinds of responses indicate an internal locus of control (LOC).

You made the test too hard; You didn’t give us enough time; You didn’t tell us when it was due; My parents didn’t remind me; My sister didn’t let me use her computer. These kinds of responses indicate an external LOC.

This is an ideal time to teach them my S + R = E model. The situaiton plus my response to it creates my experience. How did the student create their own experience of earning an A or a C grade? They need to learn that they can always control their effort and their attitude. (See my Engage 4 Learning book for more details on the S + R = E model.)

Use WHY to boost motivation

For the new year, you might be making a list of goals. Goals are important. Defining what you want is critical. But most important is why do you want to achieve that goal? Why do you do what you do? The what and how come out of understanding why you want the goal.

For example, if you are passionate about helping children/adolescents develop because you know the potential struggles they can encounter and the powerful impact they will have in this world . . . that is the why. How will you influence them? Perhaps you will help them through teaching, coaching, or counseling. That choice will lead you to the what. You might become a teacher, a counselor, a principal, or a coach. Understanding the reason (the why) behind our goals, gives more passion to our actions.

Many of you have heard me begin my keynotes or trainings by defining what a teacher does for a living. When someone asks an educator what they do for a living, many people respond: I teach 6th grade, or I teach high school, or I’m a resource teacher. But what if you had a prepared mission statement to respond to the question of what you do, and it sounded something like this: I help to develop the brains of children and adolescents, cultivate lifelong learners and influence the future of our society. Everyday. What do you do?

Use WHY to boost student goals

When you have students write down personal learning goals for the lesson, or have them create a goals book for motivation, make sure you have them answer the question, Why is that important? (see Engage 4 Learning for ideas on how to do this). When I have students create goals books, I like to give them directions using the following 3-step format:

1-Identify 3 goals in each area of life (home, school, and then a third that could be sports or music or pursuing job interests, etc.).

2-Choose the most important goal from the list.

3-Write a paragraph describing why it is absolutely imperative that they achieve this goal. What would it mean to them, their family, and their friends if they achieve this goal? If they can not think of enough salient reasons to write an entire paragraph, I suggest they choose a different goal. Why? Because we need strong reasons to pursue a goal–reasons to sustain effort through good times and bad. The reasons (the WHY) will perk emotions and fuel passion to take the necessary actions. If the reasons are not substantive, pursuing the goal will stop when things get tough. As you can see, this is an important step!

As you begin another calendar year, and set your own goals or resolutions, make sure you are clear on why you are doing what you do.

For more info about Mr. Mendes, please visit his highly informative website: