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The “Why” Phase – A Lesson in Instructional Design AND Parenting

As a parent, I’ve been there: The Why Phase. Most children go through it while their parents suffer through it. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.

Father and his young son stare at a gorilla sitting under a tree.
Kid: “Dad, why is the gorilla just sitting there?”
Dad: “I don’t know. Maybe he’s tired.”
Kid: “Why is he tired?”
Dad: “I don’t know. Maybe he had a big lunch.”
Kid: “Why?”
Dad: “Because he was hungry.”
Kid: “Why?”
Dad: “Because maybe he went for a jog this morning.”
Kid: “Why?”
Dad: “Because he wants to stay fit. I don’t know.”
Kid: “Why?”
Dad: “Why what?”
Kid: “Why don’t you know?”

You can probably imagine where the conversation goes from there. My children are older now so I no longer have to deal with the Why Phase, but the other day I did witness a case while visiting my brother Joe. He has a 4-year-old son, Teddy, who is currently in a Why Phase of his own. My brother is an engineer so his answers to the Why question come with a real logical approach.


Teddy: “Daddy, will you come outside and kick the ball with me?”
Joe: “Sure. Go put some shoes on first.”
Teddy: “Why?”
Joe: “Because I told you to.”
Teddy: “Why?”
Joe: “Because it’ll hurt your foot when you kick the ball, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Teddy: “Why?”
Joe: “Because I care about you and if you get hurt we’ll have to stop and you won’t be able to kick the ball anymore.”
Teddy: “Okay.”

I felt like my brother handled it quite well. So well that he was able to satisfy Teddy and end the “Why?” streak with an “Okay” and Teddy doing what he was told. How did that happen? As I replayed the conversation in my head it made me realize what an important question “Why?” really is, especially when asked more than once. For a learner, who in this case is Teddy, a response of “Because I told you to” simply wasn’t good enough for him to do it. With the second “Why?” he was able to draw out the consequences: you’ll get hurt. With the third “Why?” he was able to understand his motivations: we’ll have to stop kicking the ball.

In instructional design we all know how important the question “Why?” is when talking to our SMEs. But don’t just stop at the first “Why?” Ask it two or three or four times. Be curious. Dig deep. Often times SMEs are too close to their expert process that they need a little distance to help them think about it from a learner perspective. Take your questions to the next level to fully grasp the characteristics of your audience so that you can understand their needs, the consequences to their actions, and their motivations. This way of questioning will help you with training design and development. So do it. Okay?

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