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Why, what, and how are not the same

As we strategize and plan to turn strategies into actions, we risk conflating why with what and how. And if we fail to make those distinctions as we look to the post-Covid future, we will do a disservice to the customers, clients, or community members we aim to serve.


Conflating why, what, and how is like slouching. You have a spinal cord and vertebrae and muscles for a reason. But, if they're not carefully aligned--through habitual practice--slouching feels good. Similarly, by not grounding our organizations in a distinct why, what, and how, we're slipping into a comfortable but ultimately damaging slouch.


The principle applies to any organization. I'll use K-12 education as an example.


Illinois' state constitution has a clear why for education: "A fundamental goal of the People of [Illinois] is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities." The Illinois constitution then describes what: "The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services." Even though Illinois' constitution mentions institutions and services, it leaves the how largely to the legislature and the state board of education.


Last week, attorneys, professors, and education leaders attending the Education Law Association conference discussed many issues, including the fact that educational inequity is still as bad if not worse than it was nearly 30 years ago when Jonathan Kozol wrote the book, Savage Inequalities. Covid-inspired school closings have exposed this tragic disparity.


I believe one reason we haven't made more progress is because policy-making, educational design, and research is often done in a slouch. We often revert to this equation when trying to solve current problems and design the future of education for our young people:


education = school = children in school buildings


As I described in an earlier post, education is not the same as "school," and school can happen in a variety of settings and modalities. It's understandable that our imagination is sometimes constrained by the what and how we're used to. But, when public school buildings closed this spring--and many still remain closed--"school" and "education" stopped for some students and became mediocre for many others.


One thing we can thank Covid for is providing an opportunity to reorient our discussions in education--and in any other business--around the why of our endeavor.


In education, I love Dave Stuart's definition that education's why is "the long-term flourishing of young people." I also like the notion that education is the difference between a relatively happy, healthy life, and a life of constant struggle.


Once we've clarified the why, we should ask the communities we serve what they want for their young people. And thanks to all the experimentation that Covid has inspired, many different hows have become possible.


One of our children, for example, has thrived doing academic work remotely. But this same child is anxious to participate in choir and other extracurricular activities to be with friends. Will the school district offer that combination next year? My brother teaches high school and his students have loved the extra sleep they're getting with the later virtual start. They also like the 30 minute breaks between classes. Will the high school revert back to the early morning start and non-stop pace of the school day next year? What about all the families that chose home schooling or created pods this year. Will that be an option?


We should stop playing defense, reacting to Covid, and trying to stick to the what and how we're used to. Instead of deciding what our communities want and how they want it, we can reorient ourselves to the why. Then we are free to design what and how in response to our communities. In the education example, we can provide a menu of options and educate families so they can decide which how is best for their children.

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