Simon Sinek and the Why of Education

I just finished watching a great TED Talk by Simon Sinek about why the great companies, innovators, and leaders are successful. He encapsulates the reason in an model he calls the "Golden Circle" and it is by his own admission deceptively simple. The idea is that there are three realms of action:

  • What
  • How
  • Why

Sinek maintains that most companies work from outside (What) to inside (Why) whereas the most successful companies work from inside (Why) to outside (What).

Well, for any of us who even dabble in reflection and thinking about education, you will immediately recognize this as philosophy. The "Why" of what we do--philosophy-- is what consumes most of my writing on this blog. The "What" we do and "How" we do it must all stem from "Why" if schools are going to be relevant, directed, and ultimately meaningful.

Unfortunately it is not only possible but in fact the norm in education to work from the "outside in." I would maintain that very few schools ever deal with "Why" in a meaningful, ongoing way. It is possible to teach every day exclusively from the What/How realms and I propose that this is exactly why we struggle so mightily with how to properly shape reform efforts. Does this look familiar to you?

  • What do students need to know?
  • How we will know if they know it?
  • What will we do if they don't know it?
  • What will we do when they know it?

We assume (and therefore ignore) these "inside" starting points to be given:

  • Why are we expecting students to learn this at all?
  • Why are we adopting any particular model or reform effort?
  • Why are we moving in a certain direction? Where is our destination?

"Well" some might say, "isn't it obvious?" No, the Why is never obvious, it is never a given. But it is very difficult to develop a philosophy of education, and that is the main reason we skip it and work from the "outside in." And that, my friends, is why we have so few truly excellent schools in this country. Everyone is working hard, but in the absence of Why.

What subject do you teach? Do you know Why students need to know it, really? Why gives purpose, Why inspires. But Why is also elusive, and it evolves. I've been thinking about it for 20 years and it's still a work in progress for me. But I'd rather be on the journey than teaching on autopilot from the "outside in."

I hope you will take 18 minutes to watch Sinek's video. It's worth your time.

4 responses
I came across your blog using a Sinek-education search. After teaching music for over 20 years, the 'why' has lost it's meaning. After listening to Sinek's book, I have come to realize that it is imperative to revisit "why" more often.
I agree. I don't think the "art for art's sake" mantra is going to work anymore, we need to spend some serious time thinking through why music education is a relevant endeavor for students in the midst of all the other domains of study competing for their attention.
A fascinating talk and a big lightbulb moment. However, as you say, when you enter into finding your own 'Why', you realise just how difficult it is...
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