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Thinking about "Why" Questions On a Meta Level


One facet of the close-mindedness in educational circles those days is not being able to answer "why" questions. Children are starting to ask about everyday "taken-for-granted" things in school life, like "Why go to school?" "Why study?" "Why follow school rules?" And when we cannot find answers that are sufficiently persuasive to children, we have the sense that the foundation of our schools and education becomes dubious. When we cannot find answers, confidence in the schools starts to unravel, and we feel that talking about education is difficult.

Certainly it is difficult to find answers to "why" questions about school that will persuade every child. Even when one responds to the question, "Why study?", it is unlikely that answers like "in order to get into a good high school," "it will come in handy someday when you are a grown-up," or, "this is knowledge that everybody needs" will satisfy pupils who live in the "here and now." What use is it to know the date that the Kamakura military government was founded, or quadratic equations? What meaning is there in filling students' heads with things that seem trivial even to adults? Questions about the utility of knowledge that has no use in everyday life are hard to shake, even for adults who had no choice but to memorize it as an unavoidable part of exam preparation. Among teachers, too, there are those who have the same feeling about knowledge outside their own specialty.

However, if we think at the "meta" level, we can think fairly deeply even about the flood of "why" questions. (Note: For more details about the meta level, see Chiteki fukugan shiko ho [The Way to Insightful Thinking] by this author). Meta questions are better for understanding the reasons that children come to ask "why" questions, that adults feel close-minded about education, and furthermore, the reason that "why" questions arise with such frequency and why we feel like we must answer them.

The growth of the idea that the instigation of "why" questions and the proper response to them is the responsibility of the providers of education has a connection to the fact that the idea of freedom of choice has become part of the educational mainstream. This is an educational concept that originates in allowing students personal choices, to elect what they want to do and act in a way that pleases themselves.

Moreover, behind this is an idea from educational psychology: internal motivation (i.e., the idea that students think themselves that they want to do something). Real learning is not possible with external motivation, that applies pressure from the outside, or selfish motives like going to the best high school possible. Internal motivation also involves the idea of students discovering the true meaning of what they study, that makes possible superior education where students want to make an effort.

The popularization of "meaning questions" like "why study?" and "what is the meaning of this stuff?" also is a consequence of education and society which values self-motivation that pushes students to get ahead. Teachers' reluctance to answer "why" questions also originates in the idealization of children who are self-motivated. As a result, when students cannot be persuaded, we feel that the foundations of education are unstable.

However, we need to question the idea of self-motivation itself. What changes in society are behind this idea? The principle of individual responsibility is an idea that comes along with choice based on individual judgement of choice. Where is this pair of ideas leading our education and society? The inability to respond to "why" questions whose answers are not immediately apparent is related to close-mindedness and the loss of confidence. Before we get stuck there, and before we think we must instantaneously answer "Because ..." we should try having some other meta questions to ask.

This article is a translation of
Kariya Takehiko, 1999, Thinking about "Why" Questions On a Meta Level (in Japanese). Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol.244 (published by Benesse Corporation): 6.


Takehiko Kariya
Sociologist of education; Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Books include "Gakko tte Nandaroo" (What is School?) published by Kodansha Publishing Company.
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