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Five Alternatives to Asking "Why?"

Updated: Feb 4

Why can be so loaded.


Our tone, relationship, the context the question is being asked in can make such a difference in how people receive it. It can land as curiosity, but often also as judgement, doubt in someone's decision-making, or passive disapproval.



Take these next questions as an example:


Why did you change the last question in the assignment?


Why didn't you redirect the students who were off task?


Why did you spend so much time on that?


If you were to read them in the voice of different people, chances are they might feel really different in their intent. Try it! How would this feel if it were a student teacher that was learning from you? Your boss? Your mom? A colleague you love? A colleague you have a difficult time with? Someone who doesn't know your content area? Someone with way more experience than you? Someone with way less experience than you? You get the picture.


(And if you're like, "No, Deborah -- they all land the same because I do not absorb bad energy" – Teach me your ways!)


For most instructional coaches, the variability in response that this one little word can cause is NOT worth the potential cracks in trust.


And YET...

Understanding the why of a teacher's instructional decisions, and not just assuming we understand why a teacher does or doesn't do things the way we think they ought to or could do them, can help us better meet people where they are as we support them to develop impactful next steps. So what to do?


The next time you find yourself wanting to ask Why?, try this instead:


1. What was coming up for you when [thing happened]?

So instead of: Why didn't you stop when students were talking over you?

It could sound like: What was coming up for you when students were talking over you?


2. Tell me more about how you decide [decision point].

So instead of: Why did you modify the lesson from the curriculum?

It could sound like: Tell me more about how you decide where to modify the lesson from the curriculum.


3. It sounds like you were prioritizing [value] and [value]. What else did you want to ensure in [decision point]?

So instead of: Why did you design the group work in that way?

It could sound like: It sounds like you were prioritizing practicality and ensuring that all kids felt challenged. What else did you want to ensure in designing this group work?


4. What were the intended outcomes for [decision point]?

So instead of: Why did you give them this independent work task?

It could sound like: What were the intended outcomes for this independent work task?


5. Who did you have in mind when you [action/decision point]?

So instead of: Why did you call on volunteers instead of cold calling?

It could sound like: Who did you have in mind when you decided to call on volunteers?


In each of these questions, there is an inherent assumption that the teacher has a reason and a purpose for the things they do and the decisions they make. They bring awareness to the impact of decisions. They clarify where there is or isn't intentionality in the teacher's practice. And as the teacher responds, they may arrive at important realizations on their own.


You're still getting to the why, but without the potential pitfalls that go along with that one loaded little word. 

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