Finding the human why

Why educators should discover the purpose for students' learning

6 min read

Voice of the Educator


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I felt sorry for the second-grade teacher who was desperately trying to get two of her students to return to their seats. These two boys were totally oblivious to her directions, warnings and ultimatums. What made their uncooperative behavior more exasperating was the sheer fun they seemed to have running around the room and doing whatever they wanted. As she was about to push the call button to the main office to summon the principal for help, I decided to step out of my coaching role and ask if I could escort the boys to a small room down the hall. With a great look of relief in her eyes, she whispered “thanks” and told them that they could go with me. They were about to ignore that direction when I got the idea to show them my iPad and quickly said, “C’mon guys, I want to show you what I have on this.” That was enough to get them out the room, but I had no idea of what I was actually going to do once we got to the room.

As I walked down the hall with these boys, I realized how the fear of students being out of control is so prominent in minds of teachers. When students don’t do what we want them to do, all learning for everyone can quickly grind to a halt. These situations are unpredictable for both teachers and students; one wrong word or action can quickly exacerbate a minor problem into a chaotic or even volatile situation. Even though most students cooperate the great majority of the time, the looming threat of things spiraling out of control in a classroom has generated an industry of programs, systems and professional development all designed to keep order and predictability in the classroom. I, however, did not have these at my disposal at that time, so I had to improvise to get these students under control before they could return to the classroom.

My many years of experience gave me one key insight: I needed to communicate to them that I wasn’t going to try to get them to do what I wanted them to do. I had to change the game that they expected me to play, so as we walked into the room, I said, “Guys could you help me with something?” They looked a little surprised and hesitantly said, “With what?” I replied that I had a movie clip about a boy on a school bus that was having some problems and I wondered if they could think of some advice to give him or the other kids. They agreed like they were doing me a favor, and I quickly replied. “Wow, great. Thanks so much!”

I showed them a two-minute video clip of Forest Gump, as an elementary-school student, walking down the aisle of the bus being subtly but clearly rejected by everyone except a girl, Jenny, who later turned out to be his best friend. Within the short clip they saw a student quickly experiencing both rejection and acceptance within seconds. They asked to watch it two more times and I agreed. When it was over I asked them what they thought and they both stated that they would have been like Jenny and not like the other kids. I told them that I was not surprised, and that I was sure they had a lot of good ideas for how to be a good friend on the school bus. They spontaneously began telling me all the things a good friend could do to help others. I listened and listened and their ideas kept coming, while they sat calmly and looked at me. It was if someone had snuck into the room, while I wasn’t looking, and had replaced these two boys with their identical twins who had learned to behave perfectly.

To ensure that their calm demeanor lasted, I asked if they would put these ideas on a sheet of chart paper and they eagerly agreed. They spent the next 15 minutes diligently making a poster to hang in the hallway that would help the students in the school be a good friend on the bus.

When I reflected on this experience and unpacked the lesson these boys taught me, here is what I found:

From my previous experiences with them, I observed that they struggled with academic tasks and were anxious when they encountered the slightest difficulty. For them, school was a place where students were supposed to do what they were told, get the right answers and please the teachers. These students had learned that they were failures at playing that game of school. Trying to look at school through their eyes, I began to see and understand these seemingly defiant and inappropriate behaviors in a different and more positive light. These students had spirit and refused to submit passively to a system that negatively defined them. They were determined to succeed in any way possible and discovered their skills in being able to outmaneuver their teacher and had fun doing so. If the game of school was ultimately about power and control, they were determined to win it and have fun doing so.

They were, however, telling me that something about school needed to change; they were disrupting the status quo to send that message loud and clear. They were searching for something different even if they didn’t know what it was. In that room that day, however, we accidentally discovered it: a human connection for learning. We had found the human WHY of learning and then everything else dramatically changed.

Lesson learned: Rather than trying all different ways to get students to do what we want them to do, let’s first work with them, not over them, to discover the human meaning and purpose for their learning and then watch what happens and allow ourselves to be surprised.

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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