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Answering the Why? How? What? of lesson planning

At the beginning of the pandemic, if you are a little bit like me, you may have felt there's no point in teaching in such an unpredictable context. Finding purpose when school moved completely online was an ongoing process of defining the what, how and why of teaching. For me, it always started with the why:

Why should school continue if we are so unsure about our future?

Why should we waste time on things we are not sure we'll ever need?

Why should I even teach now? 

The answers came from my students, who were adamant in showing that they needed me and our school, in any shape or form, to live as normally as possible in that situation. I realized that teachers are more than professionals who present content, provide information, and evaluate students.

Teachers have become moral supporters and the thread that connects all members of society. And then, all the whys became why nots:

Why not teach?

Why not find a solution to connect with students?

Why not learn how to reach them?

Why not find out what their needs are content-wise or simply human-wise? 

The What’s In It for Me factor

Slowly, but surely, we found our way in online teaching, juggling the whats of the curriculum to choose the ones that made sense for our new reality. It was also about finding the hows within the digital context, but always with a strong purpose, the why, behind every lesson.

This new routine of starting with the why moving through whats and hows was the strategy I've found successful ever since, based on Benjamin Franklin’s words:

 "Tell me and I forget, teach me and I learn, involve me and I remember." 

Students have always needed a justification for what they learned, but they received it as an endpoint in the learning process. Now, let’s consider students' constant quest for the WIIFM (What's In It For Me) factor for each lesson. We realize they need to know why they must study a certain topic or understand a specific process beforehand.

Such an approach leads to enhanced engagement and increased motivation to learn and discover new things because the clear objectives are there. This also translates into the confidence that each lesson is valuable for their future.

Read more: How to motivate students for lifelong learning

The Why? How? What? of lesson planning

The guideline of a lesson that is designed with the WIIFM factor in mind comprises the three elements of Simon Sinek's Golden Circle: the what, the how and the why. To make an analogy fit for teaching, we say that students don't remember what you teach but why you teach it.

For example, in a foreign language vocabulary lesson, the plan will include these three steps:

  • The why: "In a real-life situation, you will need to communicate with others and establish relationships in a foreign language. Your opinion is valuable and you should be able to express it."
  • The how: "You will use specific language following a pattern to improvise a dialogue, role-play the conversation and make suggestions."
  • The what: "The language commonly used when making suggestions is often linked to the one needed for predicting the outcomes and ways of responding positively and negatively. Here is a list of the most known expressions. Listen to a dialogue and discover the language used to make suggestions."

When you start with the what, the lesson takes a new turn: "Here is a list of expressions people commonly use to make suggestions and their predicted effects (what). Solve the following exercises to practice the usage of the expressions (how). You should know these expressions because they can be useful in real-life contexts (why)."

Your students won't necessarily understand why they should study when starting with the how. The how becomes just a mechanical way of using the new language in context. Since the situation might happen in the distant future, they won’t be able to foresee the possibility of a real-life situation when they would need this information. This way, you cannot count on students to be motivated to learn.

Read more: How educators can use edtech to teach students essential real-life skills

Why every lesson should start with the WHY

The lesson structure in today's hybrid learning environment should start with the why because it provides clarity and sets the ground for deep understanding, with the what and the how acting as gap fillers in the learning process.

Starting with why generates the curiosity needed to fuel a learning continuum. It allows students to imagine the possibility of such scenarios. Thus, they become more involved and able to retain and rehearse the language.

Students may have issues envisioning using specific information in real life since it may not happen soon. Your role is to help them broaden their horizons and imagine themselves speaking a foreign language or using other information in the future.

The why of any lesson is the emotional pull that enhances motivation to learn. It is also part of the WIIFM factor that helps students retain information longer. Students don't need elaborate reasons to understand why they have to learn specific things. Simple justifications are easier to grasp, acknowledge and embrace as their own.

When we plan a lesson with the why in mind, the concept of a one-sentence lesson plan emerges. The reason is presented at the beginning of the lesson, and it emphasizes its purpose clearly and concisely.


When designing your lesson, you should provide clear objectives to help students resonate with the information and commit to learning it for a plausible reason that fosters confidence and involvement in the learning process.

Becoming aware of the real-life benefits of each lesson allows students to accept that each lesson is useful, even if they’ll only get to use it in the distant future.

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