Relationships and Compelling Whys - Steve Barkley

Relationships and Compelling Whys

There is lots of talk about the three R’s… Rigor, Relevance and Relationships. In last week’s blog, I examined the need to consciously build “knowing students” into the initial weeks of school.Knowing is an element of relationships that creates the opportunities for relevance.

In Simply the Best…29 Things that Students Say Best Teachers Do Around Relationships, the authors state that student engagement is built when teachers know students and can answer their question,”Why do I need to know this?”. Relevance is the ability to show how the learning fits in “real life”. All too often we assume students can connect the dots and indirectly establish the relevance for what they are learning.

Students say the best teachers:
-Tell us why
-Tell us how we will use what we are learning in the real world
-Help us learn about our future and our role in making it better

In Tapping Student Effort , I identified that unless students see the connection between the effort they needed to invest and the payoff they desire, teachers have little likelihood in getting quality student performance (learning).

Performance Learning System calls this relevance connection providing a “compelling why”. From the PLS September 2008 Newsletter, How To Discover Students’ Compelling Whys…

“A compelling why is an emotionally linked reason or motive that drives us to want to do something. All of our conscious and unconscious reasons for being involved in the learning process—or doing most anything we do in life—can be considered compelling whys.We each bring our own compelling whys to the events in our lives. Since the majority of our compelling whys are unconscious, we may not be aware of what propels us into certain behaviors.

We create our own compelling whys to satisfy certain needs that all humans want to have fulfilled. Our compelling whys for doing certain things, such as coming to school, may differ because each of us is attempting to satisfy different needs at different times.

By discovering your students’ compelling whys, you can tap into what interests them in order to create a more engaging learning community.”

The more teachers “know their students” the more likely the teacher can approach instruction with relevance aligning to the students’ compelling whys(reasons to learn). William Glasser’s Choice Theory provides areas to know… clues to an individual’s motivation:


I observed a great example in an inner city middle school math class. The teacher’s opening request of students was to get out their cell phones and turn them on! After students identified what service they used (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc.) the teacher asked that those with web connections assist the others in bringing up their plans and identifying their monthly rates for flat fee and extra minute charges. Students graphed multiple plans with minutes used (y axis) and total costs (x axis). Overlapping graphs led to students insights. “My plan sucks!” “You’re getting ripped off.” Can’t wait to show my mom that I did find the best deal.” Student engagement was very high. The teacher knew students connections to their phones and their desire to make the best deal provided a compelling why for the math lesson.

Power, Freedom, and Fun were present for many.

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