What’s your why?


We have the structure – so the outcome will follow. Right?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote this post on teaching rituals. My point was that there is often a good idea introduced in teaching but that this good idea gets swallowed up in poorly understood structures. People follow the structures and then ignore the idea. This, I suggested, was a problem. After posting it a number of people pointed me in the direction of this brilliant post by David Didau: Cargo Cult Teaching.

I had come across the idea of Cargo Cults many years ago when studying sociology and the rationale for it in the chapters on Sympathetic Magic in James Frazer’s book The Golden Bough. The Cargo Cults were a phenomenon noticed in the South Pacific Islands where people performed certain rituals in the belief it would bring them the wealth, the cargo, of the Europeans they had observed. San Jose University website says the following on the Cargo Cults:

After World War II anthropologists discovered that an unusual religion had developed among the islanders of the South Pacific. It was oriented around the concept of cargo which the islanders perceived as the source of the wealth and power of the Europeans and Americans. This religion, known as the Cargo Cult, held that if the proper ceremonies were performed shipments of riches would be sent from some heavenly place. It was all very logical to the islanders. The islanders saw that they worked hard but were poor whereas the Europeans and Americans did not work but instead wrote things down on paper and in due time a shipment of wonderful things would arrive.

The Cargo Cult members built replicas of airports and airplanes out of twigs and branches and made the sounds associated with airplanes to try to activate the shipment of cargo.


This isn’t something I had considered in terms of teaching but the parallels seem very clear. The followers of the Cargo Cult were fixated on the what (The planes and runways) not the why. They hoped that by mimicking successful structures the desired outcomes would naturally follow.

I saw this phenomenon happening in a school who had recently had a visit from the great Dylan Wiliam. The focus of the work had been on effective feedback and a great number of useful ideas on making feedback more effective had been introduced but along with this had come the clutching of lollipop sticks talismans.

The Lollipop Why

Teachers ask a lot of questions in class. Some pupils love to answer these questions and so their hands shoot up. If you don’t want to be disturbed from your daydream you can just keep your hand down. If the teacher wants to establish if the class have understood something and they ask a question to establish this, the people who put their hands up, and who you therefore hear from, are the ones who are most likely to have understood. What would be better would be to pick a pupil at random to ask. We might think we could just select a pupil at random but we have many subconscious biases (yes, even you) that mean we are more likely to select or ignore certain pupils or groups. Therefore we write a number next to their names on the planner and the numbers on a bunch of lollipop sticks and when we want to ask a question to a random pupil we use the lollipop sticks to select someone.

The Lollipop What

Pupils shouldn’t put their hands up. Whenever you ask a question, use the lollipop sticks to select a pupil at random to answer it.

In this school some teachers very quickly understood the why of the lollipop strategy and adapted it to serve its function. Other teachers however were still clinging to their lollipop sticks years later, not daring to ask a question without consulting the magic sticks. A useful idea had become a cargo cult ritual.

The importance of the why over the what

I have been thinking back over the various bits and pieces of training I have received over the years; much of it concerned the what of teaching. This creates many problems. An example that James Mannion gave in his talk at ResearchEd London was that of the EEF findings on feedback. They suggested that intervention on feedback gave very positive returns on pupil progress. This led to lots of “What” – strategies to increase the amount of feedback given to pupils. The “Why” however is much more complicated. 40% of the interventions on feedback that the EEF studied led to pupils making less progress than if there had been no intervention on feedback (bad news of those who take the “everything works to some extent” dictum too far) and Hattie and Timperley’s analysis of feedback points to the fact that very specific considerations needs to be given to what feedback is given when.

In the rush to improve we focus on the what (those bamboo planes and landing strips) and not the all important why. What is it about feedback that makes a difference? Why is it effective when it is effective and why is it not effective when it is not effective? These are far harder questions to answer and might explain why we cling to our whats so aggressively.

The expert – a modern mystic

After listening to Peps Mccrea’s talk at ResearchEd London and reading some of the work  of David Berliner I have been increasingly interested in the idea of the “expert teacher”. I think the expert teacher maybe one who truly grasps the why of teaching.

One thing I have noticed with trainee teachers is their focus on the what of their lessons. They think about teaching in terms of tasks and strategies. They include things they have been told to include in university sessions or by their mentors in schools. They mimic those things that they have seen other teachers do or that they remember from their own school days.

I think this holds true for many teachers, I am sure I was one of them for a long time, and it isn’t always a terrible thing. I am convinced that if you leave teachers alone they will work out what works and what doesn’t through a process of trial and error. I think this is why most teachers end up teaching in broadly similar ways (introduce new idea, model new idea, they practice new idea, see if they have grasped new idea). It is worth pointing out though that David Didau’s seminal work What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong highlights the issue with being too confident that we can just work out what works.

The greater problems arise when people (consultants, SLT, that idea you saw on Twitter) come along with their new what and you try to introduce it into your lessons. An example of this is the Revision Clock. I don’t know where I first came across it but the example below comes from https://livegeog.wordpress.com/2016/05/25/yr11-revision-clocks/


The revision clock – how long until the clock becomes a redundant quirk?

The “why” of the revision clock is great. Pupils need to spend time thinking hard about the content of a topic. By breaking it down around a clock face pupils know they have 5 minutes to spend creating each section. If they run out of ideas too quickly for each section they need to think hard about what else there is to say, if they feel they will run over they need to think hard about what is critical and what can be left out. Hence the clock in the middle.

However… I have seen many examples where pupils have used them to create a mind-map – spending as long as they chose on each section. The clock in the middle becomes an odd quirk, the reasons for which will become lost in the midst of time. The bamboo plane on a tiny atoll.

I think the expert teacher is one who knows the why behind the what. They are our modern day mystics who see the inner working of the education universe. They become an expert but spending time reflecting on their practice and the research that underpins it. We need to be more engaged with research to fully appreciate the why.

We shouldn’t need to tell highly trained professionals how to do their jobs. We should be able to explain the why of something (dual coding, cognitive load, principles of effective instruction) and let them work out how, or if, to apply it. Give us examples, give us case studies, give us the time to think and reflect, but most importantly give us the why. If you don’t you run the risk that we will spend our time building planes out of bamboo and hoping that the desired outcomes will follow.

4 thoughts on “What’s your why?

  1. Pingback: GUEST POST – Juanita Shepherd – Who Are You? Musing from the 2018 GA Conference – Team Geography

  2. Pingback: (kind of) A Review of Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure? – Pondering Pedagogy

  3. I think you are right on the money re: ‘why’ being missing, so the ‘whats’ are often applied incorrectly. For example, learning walls are based on research about criterion-referenced feedback and students evaluating their own work against self-set standards. Yet, neither body of research explores the use of learning walls.

    Re John Hattie’ and Helen Timperley’s work on feedback, I have written a free practical guide available to all. Helen Timperley’s comment on the guidebook

    “An amazing resource for teachers. It unpacks the complexities of feedback in ways that offer superb guidance for teachers at any age and stage in our education system. ”
    Helen Timperley

    Available at:

    Click to access How-To-Give-Feedback-To-Students-The-Advanced-Guide-2nd-Edition-Web.pdf

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Nothing works everywhere (Wiliam) | Ben Newmark

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