Starting with Why

“Do we need to know this for the test?”

Maybe you’ve asked it. Maybe you’ve just heard it a thousand times. But this question misses what it means to be ready to use knowledge in practice.

Instead of starting with “What do I need to know?” at times it’s more constructive to start with “Why do I need to know this?” Knowing why something is important helps you synthesize knowledge, build effective mental models, and apply those models across different categories of learning.

For example: If I memorize how to calculate a standard deviation, but don’t know why it’s important for me to memorize it or how it can be applied, then that knowledge is likely to be lost when I need it most.

If, on the other hand, my teacher tells me that I need to know how to calculate a standard deviation in order to determine whether or not my findings are statistically significant, then I am much more likely to remember that formula and apply it appropriately.

That’s why starting with the right question is so important. When we know ahead of time why something is important to know, we are more likely to retain that information over the long term and be able to successfully apply it outside of the classroom. This is the essence of transferability of knowledge — the concept that links all the pieces of what is done in the classroom with what you will experience in actual practice.
This concept is very old –with its roots in Ancient Greek philosophy (Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book A) — but has recently been given new life by speaker and author, Simon Sinek. His TEDx Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” is targeted at the business world, but the message applies to the classroom, as well.

In the course of the video, Sinek makes the claim that, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” A similar claim can be made of learning:

You probably won’t remember what your professor said; but you will remember why it is important.

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