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Classroom Management: Have an Answer for “Why?”

Jordan Catapano


A few weeks ago a student of mind asked, “Why do we need to do a research paper anyway?”

I thought this was a good question, and I gave him an honest, detailed answer – a good classroom management practice. Apparently, the fact that I had an answer surprised him because he said, “Wow – that’s good to know. Most teachers just say that they don’t know why we do stuff.”

I appreciated his candor, but was a little concerned that other teachers allegedly brushed off his “Why” question – a poor example of classroom management. I remember when I was a child I used to play the “Why?” game with my parents, harassingly asking “Why?” to every statement they made to me. As a child, I did it to be annoying; but when a student asks “Why?” I know I have to be ready with an answer.

Our ability to answer a student’s “Why?” question signifies our understanding of how the skills or information we provide have any sort of real value. If students are expending their time and energy to do what I require of them, what will they get out of it? Do they know? Do we know? Education can often be equated to eating broccoli – it’s good for us, but there is no immediately perceptible benefit. Even though it makes us healthy, we don’t see the result right away. When it comes to education, students might not immediately understand what the value of our lesson is, so we need to be able to tell them.

The best way to answer a student’s “Why?” question is to make sure that we’re the first ones to ask that question ourselves. If we can meticulously think through our content, lessons, and methodology, then we ensure that we are not merely going through the motions and “playing school.” Instead, we’ll be crafting a highly valuable and strategic curriculum.

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Consider some of these areas as you probe your curriculum with your own “Why?” questions:

  • Why teach this particular text?
  • Why cover these specific chapters/segments of this text?
  • Why do these lessons in this order?
  • Why not cover other things?
  • Why require this assignment from students?
  • Why ask that on a test?
  • Why teach it with that lesson or activity?
  • Why have students work alone, in pairs, or in groups?
  • Why present information this way instead of that way?
  • Why grade according to that standard or scale?
  • Why differentiate with this?
  • Why offer student choice with this aspect, but not with that aspect?
  • Why do students have to learn this?

This short series of questions covers a variety of areas that we need to take into consideration in our teaching. If you find that you can’t necessarily answer the “Why?” question for any particular aspect of your teaching, then think hard about what exactly that aspect is designed to accomplish. Also, prepare yourself to change your instructional approach if in fact you cannot satisfactorily respond to your own question.

By walking yourself through these questions, you will be better equipped to answer the “why?” questions that students ask. Even when students don’t ask, you can still share the “Why” with them and instill a grander purpose to the day-to-day activities you’re engaged in.

Ultimately, you want to know exactly what the core goals and values of your course are. If you understand your fundamentals, then you understand how everything you do branches out from there. And the best way to assess your content and practices as an educator is to continually ask yourself “Why?” Then you’ll truly be prepared to face the toughest, most earnest inquiries from your students as well.

What “Why?” questions do your students ask you? How do you respond to them? Tell us about your perspectives in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website


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