What? Why? And How?

Throughout my career as an educational technologist, I frequently used a “What? Why? And How?” structure to organize my presentations to students and to faculty. The earliest evidence I can find in my teaching of this organization is in 2000 when teaching the information technology course in the school librarian sequence at our state university. In my syllabus, I had future librarians create one-page “TechBriefs” on technology that is or would be useful in school libraries. The intent was they could be able to use the TechBrief as a refresher so they could competently integrate hardware or software into their work. As they frequently shared these, students left the course many of these resources.

By organizing them with the three questions, I my goal was they would know the technology from three perspectives:

What? Looks at the technology from the outside. After reading the “What?” folks should be aware of the task one is trying to accomplish with the technology. Notice this requires little other than knowing about the tool and the task; it is interesting (perhaps), but not very useful.

How? Looks at the technology from the inside. In additional to knowing the task, one knows the processes of using the technology to accomplish the task. In many cases, the How? Describes operations of interfaces and devices, but it also requires critical assessment of the outcomes. Users understand the task and can judge if it has been completed as they need it to be. Those with deep knowledge of How? are excellent troubleshooters.

Why? Looks at the connections between the technology and other technologies and tasks. Those who understand the Why? perceive technologies as parts of systems and they identify innovations that may solve pragmatic, critical, or creative problems.

This model has served me well as I help folks understand technology in classrooms and schools, but it has also served me well as a lens for understanding curriculum and instruction. Too often (in my experience), curriculum, textbooks, and other materials stop after teaching the “What?” about a topic. While it can be reasoned that one must know what they are doing before they do it, can be critical of it or its effectiveness, or understand how it can be improved, stopping there cannot be sufficient for students.

Anyone who knows what is inside a cell (to use biology as an example), but cannot use that knowledge to make decisions about their own health or the behavior of other living things cannot really be described as “knowing” biology in any meaningful way.