5 Whys

Given that all of the standards we use in our teaching require that students ask questions, it behooves us to think about some of the processes we have to help them do just that. In previous blog posts (actually almost all of them!) I refer readers to the Right Question Institute where they can find a process, the pedagogy, support, and a whole community of teachers and librarians digging into a (very cool) process for asking questions. It was Warren Berger, in his book A More Beautiful Question, who introduced me to the Right Question Institute…but on page 93, he also described a process developed in Japan in the early 1930s called “The 5 Whys”  that intrigued me. I didn’t think much about the process until I was working with a health class on the topic of digital citizenship.

I gave a one-shot introductory lesson on “The 5 Whys” with a very cool PowerPoint, loads of advice, handouts, and…you guessed it, completely bored students. Luckily it was first period and I had time to re-think things during tutorial time. Second period was different. When the students came in, I had them sit in groups, and I explained the process we were going to use to find answers to an important question. I explained that the 5 Whys as a way of getting to the core of an idea. Experience in countries like Japan, where the strategy began, shows that it takes 5 questions to auger down into the big or core idea of a problem. Let me demonstrate. On my kitchen counter was an incredible looking lemon cake. It was fluffy, bright, and…well, delicious looking. It begged me to cut into it and enjoy a delightful afternoon of bright fluffy loveliness. I cut my piece, placed it on the plate, walked outside to the patio table, sat down, and dug right in. Anticipating the tangy lemon cake intertwined with cream cheese frosting when…Ack! Yuck! Blech…terrible! No swallowing this stuff. Too much salt. Obviously something was very wrong. After gaining my senses back, I knew I needed to figure out what went wrong.

Using the 5 whys, I began to look at what was going on:

1. Why did I hate this cake? Because it tasted too salty.
2. Why was it so salty? Because the chef put in too much salt.
3. Why did the chef put in too much salt? Because she didn’t measure correctly.
4. Why didn’t the chef measure correctly? Because I was watching television and texting with my friends while I was measuring. (Notice the pronoun change here?)
5. Why did watching television and texting mean that the chef put in too much salt? Because I paid attention to something other than my measuring and put in too much salt.

“What conclusions–and suggest some solutions–can I come to after asking this last question?” I asked. Students concluded that I–yes, I owned up to that dastardly mistake–must pay attention when measuring while baking, and that one solution to a very salty cake is to measure everything–not just salt–correctly. I could have answered the questions differently and come up with a different solution; perhaps I had mistaken the salt bowl for the sugar bowl. Each time I asked the 5 Why questions, I could choose a different answer, but I might still come to the same conclusion, getting there from a different set of logical questions and answers. Either way, we had a solution that I could try next time.

Because this was a health class that was beginning to study cybersafety, online etiquette, how to identify authority in information sources, and other digital citizenship topics, my introduction was intended to tell them why studying these topics is important. This time I let them decide if this was true on their own. Tweaking the 5 Why process a bit by placing students in small groups rather than seeking one answer to our question, we would be able to see if there were many answers to why these things might be important in our 21st-century lives. I started with the first why and each group would continue the process to the end – given between 5-7 minutes to complete it. Too much time = too much overthinking.

Re-grouping, each group read their last answer out loud while I wrote it on the board.

Question: Why do we need to talk about digital citizenship?
Answers included: Digital citizenship keeps people safe online.
Different people have different experiences.
Because we don’t want them to take their own lives.
Because we leave footprints behind.
Because we won’t bully others.

As we looked over the many reasons why we need to learn about digital citizenship, I grouped them and we re-worded them a bit into sentences that identified the possible topics we could then cover: digital footprints, cybersafety, cyber-bullying, cyber etiquette, and how online words are interpreted by others differently than face-to-face interactions (different people have different experiences). These were all topics the teacher and I planned to cover over the following weeks. Their buy-in in subsequent lessons was much better than when I lectured them with all the adult-ness I brought to the classroom as their teacher librarian.

Dividing the participants into groups to do this tweaks the process by landing on multiple perspectives rather than a single solution. In the many times I’ve done this with students, faculty, and workshop participants, it has always worked out that each group brings a unique component that can add to the depth of the topic. If I were wanting to find one solution to a question that could be tried, analyzed, and evaluated, then having the whole class answer together could bring us that solution. Often, we want to solve a larger problem that includes many pieces.

This is what a faculty was looking for as they tried to create a school-wide curriculum for dealing with 1:1 tablets. Working in groups, the entire faculty participated in the 5 Why process by starting out with: “Why do we want to teach our students digital citizenship and responsibility?” Using Padlet, each group added their own answers. After some discussion that grouped those answers into similar themes or ideas, the faculty discovered that the process laid out ways they wanted to go, though topics hadn’t been solidified yet. Groups tended to focus on those things that they were interested in, such as those who thought that hardware care and respect was most important, while others thought that students needed to understand how to behave well online. Taking all their ideas, prioritizing them, and tweaking the wording a bit this chart was created.

In returning to the faculty the following week, they could see that all of their ideas were important and necessary in order to provide comprehensive instruction. With the chart they built, they had a framework that could be used to develop school-wide activities as well as class lessons that support a school culture that values online awareness, kindness, and respect.

Teachers and librarians can use the 5 Whys in any learning situation where there is a process and/or big idea with many trajectories to them. Leaders in leadership classes can explore the different activities that might (or might not) encourage positive school climate: “Why do we have school dances?” (creating a list of possible other activities that could be used to create school spirit, or enhancing the dances in different ways); “Why do we have classroom rules?” (ending with a class list of rules we all agree to follow). History or other curricular questions might end up moving into solution-oriented inquiry: “Why do we have immigration issues?”; “Why does race seem to matter so much?”; “Why do scientists care about childhood vaccinations?” The results can be identified, grouped by similarity, and prioritized. Then the class can look at the 3-5 major answers and check to see if all angles of the problem have been identified. They can then move on to solving the problem (or big idea question) by each taking one segment of the large idea and coming up with solutions to that part, which is then added to the whole.

Maker, inquiry, hands-on experimentation, information-seeking, and analyzing…these are the activities that innovators use to build, create, write, draw, or develop.

And imagine this: it all starts with one simple question.


Resources and Links:

Mind Tools: https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTMC_5W.htm

Berger, Warren. A More Beautiful Question. Bloomsbury, 2014

CA CTE Model Standards: https://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/ct/sf/documents/agnatural.pdf:

National Coalition for Core Arts Standards: http://www.nationalartsstandards.org/content/conceptual-framework

Right Question Institute: https://rightquestion.org/blog/ah-ha-moments-with-the-qft/

KQ blog post on questions: https://knowledgequest.aasl.org/students-asked-questions/

C3 Social Studies Framework: https://www.socialstudies.org/sites/default/files/c3/C3-Framework-for-Social-Studies.pdf

Next Gen Science Standards: https://www.nextgenscience.org/

Author: Connie Williams

NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

1 reply

  1. I’d like to talk with you more about this idea! Would you please send me an email? Thank you!

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