Teacher Clarity: Finding the ‘Why’

To reach the deepest level of learning, teachers and students need a clear, shared understanding of the ultimate learning goal behind each lesson.

GUEST COLUMN | by Phil Stubbs

As Professor John Hattie said at the Visible Learning conference last year, teachers and students have clarity if they are able to answer the following three questions:

1. What am I learning?

2. Why am I learning it?

3. How will I know when I have learned it? 

Traditionally, the first question is addressed by the posting of learning objectives on whiteboards at the start of the lesson.

Despite these being of varying quality and depth, as teachers we are consistently good at the act of posting the objective. Working in schools across the U.S. and in different parts of the world in my role as a Chief Academic Officer at an edtech company, I make a point of asking teachers what motivates them to do this. Typical responses include: “because the district requires us to” or, “to let the students know what we are doing today.”

‘It is only when teachers know and can articulate why students are learning what they are learning that they are in a position to design learning experiences that are authentic, relevant, and capable of cultivating the curiosity of the learners.’

Far too frequently, this has become an act of compliance, with a focus on outcome rather than process and learning. Learning objectives are often posted alongside lists of “things we are going to do” rather than success criteria that articulate “what and how we are going to learn.” Success criteria are the rungs on the ladder that support students in meeting the requirement of the learning objective.

They provide a common language for self-reflection and to measure progress in terms of where students are and where they need to go next. They present learning as a journey, as opposed to the binary “I can” or I can’t” post-lesson review offered by the exclusive use of a learning objective. Learning objectives without success criteria lack value.

A Curious Proposal

It is critical to the process of learning that students have the same understanding as the teacher in terms of what is going on in any lesson and what they should be learning as a result of doing. With this in mind, I propose an end to learning objectives that require students to operate exclusively at depth of knowledge (DOK) level 1. Breaking down complex learning indicators into two or three separate learning objectives often results in a focus on testable knowledge rather than deep understanding. Three lessons pitched at DOK 1 will not deliver DOK 3 outcomes. You can see an enlightening visual representation of these levels of knowledge here.

I’m currently working with a cohort of middle school social studies teachers in South Carolina, who all now routinely pitch their learning intentions with a cognitive requirement of DOK 3, and use success criteria to develop learning progressions that are clearly articulated using verbs appropriate to the cognitive requirement of each stage of the learning journey. Consequently, when required to function at the all-important DOK level 1—answering “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where”—students understand the importance of the process in developing the deeper understanding of “why.”

Every student in every lesson has the right to ask why they are required to complete any activity and why the learning objective is important. Every teacher should go into every lesson prepared to answer that question.

The Second Question

Which brings me to the second question: “Why am I learning it?” I would argue that, in terms of learning design, this is the most critical of the three—yet in my experience, often the least developed. In a world where teachers increasingly receive learning plans and packets from their district, the requirement that teachers unpack the “why” has been removed from the learning equation. It is only when teachers know and can articulate why students are learning what they are learning that they are in a position to design learning experiences that are authentic, relevant, and capable of cultivating the curiosity of the learners.

Without revealing the “why,” student ownership remains elusive, academic engagement falls victim to compliance, and the capacity for students to make connections between ideas and concepts (or to develop their own lines of inquiry) is greatly reduced.

The “why” is the picture on the lid of the jigsaw puzzle box. If each lesson offers one piece of the puzzle while denying students access to the big picture, it becomes difficult for the learners to make the right connections. It is impossible for them to make decisions about which pieces of information are most important to their understanding of the big ideas. The “why” gives learning context.

We need to give teachers time to take a step back from their planning documentation in order to collaboratively unpack the “why.” It has become clear from my work with schools that the unpacking and outcomes have to be owned by the teachers rather than the district. Otherwise we risk falling back into the cycle of compliance.

The Starting Point

The starting point is to zoom out and consider the learning for each grade level in each subject as a course. When we select courses for our own professional development, we do so with a published outcome in mind. We have an understanding of the modules and how they are related to one another, and we have visibility on the assessment criteria.

Offering students the same level of access to the curriculum and an understanding of the “why” allows learners to connect the dots between standards. It supports them in forging connections between concepts and connecting learning to their own reality. With this overarching “why” in place, every lesson is reinvigorated with a new sense of purpose. The six deep learning dispositions—critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication, character ,and citizenship—can now be fueled by the illusive seventh “C”: curiosity.

For example, I asked a group of middle school social studies teachers in Horry County, SC, to develop an overarching statement to support students in discovering the “why” for their grade level. The statements had to draw together the conceptual threads that ran through all of the standards for their grade level and be applicable only to their grade and no other. After approximately one and a half hours of deep discussion about what matters, they arrived at the following examples:

  • 8th Grade: “I can provide evidence to prove that every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle.”


  • 7th Grade: “I can connect common themes across cultures to prove that we are all descended from immigrants and revolutionaries.”


  • 6th Grade: “I can develop a historical argument to explain what is meant by the quotation ‘History never really says goodbye… History says see you later.’ (Eduardo Galeano)”


Each grade turned their statement into a poster and placed it front and center in each classroom. The same process was then repeated, but this time zooming in to create one for each standard. Once complete, these, too, were posted on the classroom wall, offering students insight into the whole journey. The “why” statement for each standard invited students to compare, connect, and contrast learning. Each standard was placed in the context of the big idea and in relation to the standards that went before. Each learning intention became as an essential part of the bigger puzzle. Learning became about seeking out relationships between ideas rather than ideas themselves.

With this in mind, teachers identified a key point in their plans for each standard where they believed students would have sufficient surface knowledge and understanding to engage in a deep conversation that would deliver evidence on the extent to which each student could demonstrate understanding of the “why” for each standard. In my work, this has been dubbed “The Verso moment,” the point at which students are sufficiently equipped to demonstrate deep understanding of big concepts. Teachers can then use pedagogical tools to understand individual student learning and their depth of knowledge.

Teachers told students that their end of the year project would require them to demonstrate understanding of the overarching “why” statement by creating a product that threaded together concepts drawn from each of the periods studied.

With the ‘Why’ Firmly Established

With the “why firmly established, teachers zoomed in once more and reexamined the learning intentions and the first question of “What am I learning?” They quickly came to realize that these intentions needed to change if they were to deliver the deeper level of understanding required by their new lens on the learning. The cognitive requirement was too low. With the “why” in place, teachers gained the confidence to prune the content back. They were now in a position to make a judgement about what was essential to the learning.

The visible pathway they had created and shared in their classrooms meant that the students were now in a position to do the same. Note-taking became collaborative as students examined which elements from each lesson were critical in terms of their understanding of the learning objective; which ideas underpinned the “why” statement associated with the standard, and how all of their learning related to the overarching why statement that the standards were building up to.

Without understanding the ‘why”, purposeful note taking is impossible. Students were thinking big-picture. They had the lid of the jigsaw and were using this to make informed decisions about where each of the pieces should go.

The “why” was now more accurately informed by the “what” and the “how,” leading to the intentional design of cognitively appropriate, process-driven success criteria that underpinned the learners’ capacity to respond to the third question: “How will I know when I have learned it?”

Delivering Deep Understanding

In South Carolina, social studies teachers are breaking down the learning objective into a series of cognitive steps using the verb list within our platform. This list is a mash-up of verbiage from a range of familiar taxonomies, including Bloom’s, SOLO, and Webb’s DOK, arranged to support the stages of the lesson. Teachers in this cohort are taught to see these as rungs on the ladder that will deliver the deep understanding required by the learning intention.

Each teacher uses their whiteboard to share both the learning objective and the success criteria alongside the activities students are required to complete. In doing so they are building a shared understanding of the language required to discuss their learning, along with a clearly defined map that charts the cognitive requirements of the learning journey.

For example:

Learning Objective: We are learning to critically examine South Carolina’s role in the formation of compromises vital to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Success Criteria:

Using this method, the learning goals are clearly articulated, referred to frequently, and used by students to monitor and advance their own learning. Our platform’s ‘exit slip’ functionality supports students in sharing their progress against these cognitive milestones with their teacher, along with requests for clarification and feedback on the learning design elements that best supported their progress.

Students understand from the outset what they need to do to demonstrate success in each lesson, for each standard, and across the year. They now know where their learning is heading—and why it matters.

Phil Stubbs is Chief Academic Officer for Verso Learning, a teaching and learning platform that enables teachers to engage students in deeper level learning by supporting them with evidence-based teaching strategies, data on student learning progress and feedback, and lesson planning driven by learning intentions. Write to: phil@versolearning.com or follow @flipyrthinking or @versoapp

  • Nithya


    The involvement of the teachers will increase the curiosity of the students. As said it is the responsibility of the teacher to bring the student into the class with full concentration. Only when the teachers make the students to understand the objective rest of the things will be fine. Good start makes a good end.

  • Julie Yand


    Very good article. It’s very important to know why you are teaching a certain skill or content. Otherwise, your lesson plans lack real meaning and depth.

  • Ashley Brady


    Great article. It’s helpful as a teacher to think about WHAT students are learning, WHY they are learning it, and HOW they will know they’ve “got it”. This is also helpful for students in understanding their learning and what’s expected of them.

  • Ashley Brady


    Great article. It’s helpful as a teacher to think about WHAT students are learning, WHY they are learning it, and HOW they will know they’ve “got it”. This is also helpful for students in understanding their learning and what’s expected of them.

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