The Why


It is such a simple three-letter word with a powerful meaning.

After watching this TED Talk by Simon Sinek where he argues that why is more important than what or how, I decided to ask “why” in regards to a few things about teaching.

  1. Why do I teach?
  2. Why do I teach history and political science?
  3. Why am I shifting away from traditional education and towards personalized learning?

1. Why do I teach?

I teach because I love learning, and I want to share my passion for learning like a contagious wildfire, leading students to get so curious and inquisitive about life that they can’t help but want to discover more about it. I teach because “The unexamined life is not worth living”, yet too many young adults in America plod through life never living intentionally, abundantly, or curiously. This surface-level existence leads to depression, bitterness, hatred, confusion, ignorance, dissatisfaction, and unfulfillment. I do not want this type of existence for anyone.

I teach to uncover learning instead of covering topics. I teach because I love to build relationships based on trust, intellectual freedom, and respect. I teach in order to help students see the untapped potential within themselves and to help them build on the skills they already possess. I teach in order to help students build character, resilience, confidence, grit, determination, and diligence. I teach because I want students to meet with failure, grow familiar with it, debunk unreasonable fears about it, overcome it, adapt, and learn through mistakes.

2. Why do I teach history and political science?

I teach history in order to help students understand the past. I do not teach a set narrative because that is not what history is. History is a collection of divergent accounts of events and people where sometimes there is a consensus, sometimes a fierce disagreement among historians, and sometimes an acknowledgment that we do not know for sure what actually DID happen. This should not be unnerving, but instead liberating. Husbands and wives disagree on what happened last year, siblings disagree on what happened a few years ago, the police and accused persons disagree on what happened an hour ago, so why would it be any different when hundreds or thousands of years are added to the confusion. I do not teach that there is no truth, but I also don’t teach my students what to think. It is instead my goal to teach students how to think critically and creatively and have fun doing it. There is more information inundating us every day now more than ever before, so it is of the utmost importance that our young adults are taught how to curate these sources, filter for bias, weigh opposing arguments, and make an informed working opinion.

I teach history because we can learn invaluable lessons from the past that help us avoid future mistakes and dangerous ways of thinking. Learning history serves as a lens through which we can see our present issues and concerns. It is a paramount goal of mine to help students see the good, the bad, and the ugly in ancient history/American history. It infuriates me when some ax grinders omit the positives and others omit the negatives. Why can’t we view history as a collection of both because that is the reality?

I teach history because it is fun, interesting, dramatic, depressing, hilarious, confusing, engaging, dynamic, controversial, maddening, heartwarming, and inspiring. If you give history a chance, something will pique your interest.

I teach political science because all Americans need to know the strengths, weaknesses, functions, and structure of our system of government. Students need to understand their rights and responsibilities as an American citizen. Young adults need to learn why and about what Americans disagree politically. It is important to know what government was like before the American system and how the government has evolved since 1776 and 1787. Ignorance and a lack of education do not serve a constitutional democratic republic (our system of government) well.

3. Why am I switching from a more traditional teaching approach to personalized learning?

A one-size-fits-all approach to anything is a recipe for an anemic experience. This holds true for learning as well. With personalized learning, students get more choice in how they learn, where they learn, when they learn, and how they are assessed. Of course, this is not a free for all. As the teacher, I will be building in structure and limits, but students in the classes I teach this coming school year will have more input and choice than in any class I have ever taught. They will be learning at their own pace, in their own way, and using sources that fit them the best.

“In a traditional academic model, the time allotted to learn something is fixed while the comprehension of the concept is variable. Washburne was advocating the opposite. What should be fixed is a high level of comprehension and what should be variable is the amount of time students have to understand a concept.” 
― Salman KhanThe One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined

I am switching to personalized learning because it is time for a change. If you took someone from the late 19th century and placed them in our world today, they would be completely shocked by the innovations and revolutions in transportation, communication, gender roles, views about race, international relations, warfare, science, medicine, economics, and even shopping. They would not, however, see much difference in the way people teach today from how people taught back in their time (I know that this is not the case across the board, but it is mostly true in my experience). The world has changed, and it is time for education to catch up with the progress.

As a student, you are no longer chained to an as a class pace, modality of learning, or source of learning. If you are already a lover of learning, take off! When you complete the foundational portion of the course, you now have a large amount of time to dedicate to learning specific content that interests you more deeply. Then you get to share your learning with the class. If you hate learning, or learning has been a struggle for you, you no longer need to feel tethered to “the middle”, being dragged behind a speedboat and trying to keep your head above water. You can now take your time, learning deeply and authentically. If you like to hide amongst the more outspoken students, getting their answers and repeating what they say, it will be uncomfortable at first. But then you will be forced to actually learn on your own, and that is one of the most rewarding experiences a human can realize. If you hate textbooks, don’t read them. You can find engaging history through podcasts, in more specific works of history, in primary sources, in online articles, in documentaries, etc. The essential questions and learning objectives can be applied to any number of credible sources. Are you afraid that personalized learning is going to consist of a bunch of clones sitting in front of laptops detached from human interaction? Work with your peers and your teacher to organize discussions (in person and online), present your passionate learning to the class, and participate in daily warm-up activities designed to challenge you, move you, engage you, and fuel your curiosity. Technology is simply a tool that enables us to learn more personally and more deeply. It is not the end goal.

As a teacher, personalized learning allows me to front-load resources and a learning journey for students, and then spend the rest of the school year helping students grow, learn, and sharpen their skills. I spend less time creating a step by step lesson plan for every day and more time meeting students where they are, helping them learn how to learn, and providing them with timely feedback on their strengths, weaknesses, and progress. I am blessed to work at a school that not only allows me to experiment with new educational strategies but also encourages me and rewards me for the risk-taking.

So there you have it. It is not an exhaustive answer to the three why questions, but it is the best I can do with the time I have allotted. I encourage you to ask the why question about important decisions and changes in your own life. It serves as great reflection and soul-searching.

For more information about personalized learning, teaching history, and my own personalized learning experiment from March to May of this year, feel free to check out the links below. Thanks for reading!


My Personalized Learning Experience Plus More General Info From Mark Engstrom (Many Links Are Contained Within This Link) 

Potential Dangers of Personalized Learning

Teaching For Mastery

Why Study History?

High School History Doesn’t Have To Be Boring

Eric Foner’s Thoughts on Teaching History

The Problem With History Classes




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