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The Five Whys – Encouraging Inquiry in the Classroom

One of the most useful questions in any language is ‘Why?’ It’s one of the fundamental metaphysical questions that we spend most of our lives wrestling with and one of the first question words we produce as our first language emerges as young children.

Question imageWhy? is also at the root of our ability to think critically, but all too often we settle for the first and most obvious answer, when instead, like young children we should continue to question and dig deeper into the underlying causes and motivations behind actions.

In a recent webinar on Emotional Intelligence and Coaching, I included a technique that I borrowed from product development and showed how this technique could be used in the teaching and teacher training classroom. The ‘5 whys’ technique originally came from Sakichi Toyoda the founder of the Toyota manufacturing company and was a method used to analyse production failures and find the root causes, but we can just as usefully implement it in our teaching and training to encourage our students and trainee teachers to think more carefully about what happens in the classroom and the world around them.

The technique is simple. Just like my small daughter, you ask ‘Why?’ and after each explanation you continue to ask ‘Why?’ and this takes you into deeper levels of causation.

An example from the training classroom may be that you observe a class in which some of the students fail to understand the instructions of a task and so they do the wrong task, or do it in the wrong way. So let’s ask 5 times why that happened.

Q: Why were the students doing the wrong activity?
A: Because they misunderstood the instructions.
Q: Why did they misunderstand the instructions?
A: Because they were too long and complex.
Q: Why were they too long and complex?
A: Because I used complex vocabulary and long sentences.
Q: Why did you use complex vocabulary and long sentences?
A: Because I hadn’t thought the instructions out before the class.
Q: Why hadn’t you thought out the instructions before the class?
A: Because ….

As you can see from this dialogue, by continuing to dig you can extract much more actionable information about real causes.

So how can you apply this with students?

You can encourage students to look more closely at the motivation of characters in stories or people in the news. For example we can ask questions about Goldilocks:

Q: Why were the three bears angry with Goldilocks?
A: Because she ate their porridge and broke their furniture?
Q: Why did she break their furniture?
A: Because she was too big?
Q: Why was she too big?
A: Because the furniture was made for a small bear.
Q: Why was the furniture made for a small bear?
A: Because it was in the bears’ house?
Q: Why was Goldilocks in the house?
A: Because …

You can encourage students to do this form of questioning in pairs. Either one student can ask the questions and the other answer, or they can take turns to answer then ask.

Another way of using this technique is to look for alternative answers and then build the possibilities out like a mind map with the initial question at the centre, then students or trainee teachers can decide which alternative is most likely.

This example is based around a teacher training scenario in which the teacher feels the students are bored. In the example you can see that I have put the main problem at the centre and the initial possible causes around it. I’ve started mapping out the possible reasons behind why this happened.

5 Whys image

You can use this technique to get trainee teachers or even students looking at classroom related problems.

We can use the technique to get students to think more critically about the news or why someone has published certain news items.

As you can see, the question ‘Why?’ is fundamental to understanding and encouraging curiosity, but all too often we are willing to accept the first answer we are offered without digging deeper to the root causes. Using and teaching this technique can really help us to build a more inquisitive learning experience and deeper view of the world for our students.

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