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Do School Leaders Really Start With ‘Why’?

Do School Leaders Really Start With ‘Why’?

Simon Sinek is an unshakable optimist. He believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. Described as “a visionary thinker with a rare intellect,” Sinek teaches leaders and organizations how to inspire people. With a bold goal to help build a world in which the vast majority of people go home everyday feeling fulfilled by their work, Sinek is leading a movement to inspire people to do the things that inspire them. As part of Education Week, Peter DeWitt examines whether educators and school leaders are starting with why…

I wonder if we really take the time to discuss the “why” before we start paying for, and forcing through, initiatives. For those of you who have read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action you understand why the question of why should be on our minds. We are surrounded by the question of why but we sometimes ignore it.

Do we know why we do what we do? Is it because a lesson plan or textbook tells us to do it? Is it because our colleagues in the same grade level are doing it? If we don’t know why we are doing something, does the resource we are using tell us the answer? As leaders, are we doing things because we’re told to do them or because we really believe in why changes are necessary? Do we really understand why we are asking teachers to make changes in their classrooms? Do we know why this resource is better than that one? Do we use it by design or by default?

Let’s face it, the words “research-based” do not mean what they used to.

Initiatives comes and go, and it seems like some school leaders are so rushed to make changes for whatever reason that they grab a bunch of options, throw them against the wall, and wait to see what sticks. How can we slow that approach down a bit?
Other times leaders make great choices but never have the dialogue with stakeholders around why the changes are necessary. The problem is that leaders choose the initiatives…and teachers are in charge of making them work, which gets really complicated because if the changes don’t work, leaders may think it’s due to the teachers and not to the initiative.

I guess that’s why Michael Fullan writes a lot about Symplexity. According to Fullan simplexity is where leaders,

“Take a difficult problem and identify a small number of key factors- this is the simple part. And then make these factors gel under the reality of action with its pressures, politics, and personalities in the situation-this is the complex part.”
Without a real understanding of “why,” simplexity will get the best of us. Without a real understanding of why there is research to suggest that teachers will feel as though they make have little impact on student learning.

Students Need to Know Why
“Why are we doing this?” is a common question in classrooms around the world. Many teachers might be quick to answer that students need to know it because they will need it for the future, but that’s not really a good answer of why.
Just like adults, students need an understanding of why they are doing what they are doing. If we can’t answer the question of “Why do we need to know this?” or our answer is that “it will be on the test,” we need to step back and figure out a better answer.
Do we pick what our students learn by design…or by default?
In his best-selling book, Sinek writes about the auto-industry. He described the American auto-industry that employed line workers to use a rubber mallet to make sure the hinges on doors fit the car before it went off the assembly line. And then he wrote about the Japanese car makers who lacked such a person on their assembly line. When asked why they didn’t have a line worker tapping on the hinges, he wrote that the Japanese auto executive said, “We make sure it fits when we design it.”
Do we, as leaders and teachers, make sure what students are learning fits before we teach it, or do we try to force our students to fit into what they are learning? Sinek writes,

“Every instruction we give, every course of action we set, every result we desire, starts with the same thing: a decision. There are those who decide to manipulate the door to fit to achieve the desired result and there are those who start from somewhere very different. Though both courses of action may yield similar short-term results, it is what we can’t see that makes long-term success more predictable for only one. The one that understood why the doors need to fit by design and not by default.”

Lost Their “Why”

There are times when I feel like people have lost their why. Perhaps they have the wrong people around them who tell them what they want to hear, which is why well-balanced stakeholder groups are vitally important. Losing our why is a little like losing a piece of ourselves. Without the why we lose a sense of purpose. Without an understanding of why, can teachers really engage students to their fullest potential? If teachers lost their why is it possible that they don’t feel they can make an impact on student learning, which is where self-efficacy comes in to play?  Ashton et al found,

“Teachers with low teaching efficacy don’t feel that teachers, in general, can make much of a difference in the lives of students, while teachers with low personal teaching efficacy don’t feel that they, personally, affect the lives of the students” (Ashton & Webb, 1986).
Our why is important.
Instead of moving forward so hastily school leaders should take time to step back with their stakeholder groups to have dialogue around their why, and whether they are still on track with it. If social media is any indication, it seems like there are districts that have lost their why, or haven’t done a good job communicating what their why is. Perhaps it’s time to refocus our why?

Peter DeWitt |