iLEAD Learners Lead with ‘The Why’


In the ever-changing worlds of education, business, politics and culture, a few themes resonate about what makes things work, what motivates us toward solutions and ultimately how we become successful. One of the dominant ideas in education over the last few years has been knowing one’s why.

This theme has been popularized by many. For example, author Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, speaks to this core idea. Sinek suggests that very few people can clearly articulate their why their purpose, cause or belief. In addition, the idea of “The Why” has been communicated well to millions by comedian/speaker Michael Jr. in his YouTube video Know Your Why.  He suggests that when one knows their why, one will get different and better results. 

iLEAD’s inquiry-focused approach to project-based and deeper learning focuses on the why. For example, at any time we could ask the following questions regarding a project or subject: 

  • Why does it matter? 
  • Why should I take interest in it?
  • Why will the world care?

Before iLEAD learners dive into a project, their facilitators have spent a great deal of time getting to know them, discovering their interests and working to design learning experiences that will connect to their why. 

Every project begins with a solid why, according to iLEAD’s Director of Humanities and Innovation Angie Nastovska. 

“At iLEAD, if a learner cannot articulate and buy into a strong why for a project, then the project is not authentic,” said Nastovska. “The project is not worth doing if we cannot address their why from the onset.”

The iLEAD facilitators know that, beyond the project, their role is to connect the learning to the learners. “We focus on their interests, what sparks their curiosity and how we can ultimately unleash their potential,” she said.

Challenging Problem or Question

At iLEAD, each why for a project is built around an authentic problem, challenge or need. This ultimately produces a solid Driving Question for the project. 

“The Driving Question serves as the true north for the learners throughout the entire project,” said Nastovska.

But an authentic project-based-learning inquiry can’t begin with any old question. Ideally it needs to address real-world problems, challenges or issues. Learners may not necessarily solve these large problems, but they will work to improve the situation.

Ideally, solid driving questions should be engaging, aligned with learning goals and open-ended, which demands inquiry and diverse approaches to solutions. Some recent examples of driving questions addressed by iLEAD learners include the following:

  • “How can we as zoologists create and maintain sustainable habitats?” (iLEAD Agua Dulce, 2nd grade)
  • “How can we persuade others to be prepared for earthquakes?” (iLEAD Lancaster, 4th grade)
  • “How can we use sustainable practices to positively impact the community in the Antelope Valley?” (iLEAD Lancaster, 6th grade)

Focusing on the Process

Although we’re excited about the various public products learners will create to demonstrate and articulate their responses to the driving question, iLEAD is well aware that the process is integral to authentic learning in any project.

“Sometimes we may witness a project culminating without or beyond an actual classroom product or physical evidence,” said Nastovska. “We guide our learners to understand the value of passion work.”

When passion is involved in tackling authentic challenges, Nastovska said the learners experience real-world processes and results. For example, she cites recent examples where learners at iLEAD Agua Dulce embarked on a process to get speed bumps in front of their school and were ultimately successful. Other examples include learners getting an entire school schedule changed in order to create opportunities for internships and one learner getting a bus stop added near the school when previously the closest one was 17 miles away. 

Why, Why, Why

In project-based learning, inquiry is iterative; when confronted with a challenging problem or question, learners ask questions, find resources to help answer them, then ask deeper questions – and the process repeats until a satisfactory solution or answer is developed, which means a project lasts more than a few days. This is the deeper-learning process that all facilitators are working to create for all learners. 

Having our learners tackle challenging problems and issues serves as a means of navigating the real and collaborative work that has to be done to move ideas forward. When our learners, or even our facilitators, get stuck in a project (which happens every day in real-world problem-solving), the Driving Question serves as a foundation and reminder of the purpose (the why) of the journey we chose to embark upon in the beginning. 

Our Driving Questions should speak to the public. When we announce, post, share or communicate our learners’ Driving Questions, our communities will know not only what our learners are doing but why they are doing it. 

The process demands that we know our why, understand our why and repeatedly revisit our why. iLEAD is proud to be challenging all learners to pursue diverse and substantive problems facing our world. Not only are these issues worthy of continual work, but our learners will be the ones to move humanity forward to address them. 

Learners’ academic success should benefit not only them but our entire global community. None of us have all the answers, but if we generate the right questions, we can change the world. 

Posted on March 11, 2020 in iLEAD Digest

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Michael Niehoff

About the Author

Michael Niehoff is a teacher, leader, blogger, learner advocate, and the Education Content Coordinator at iLEAD Schools.
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Privacy Policy

Effective date: May 28, 2019

iLEAD Schools Development (“us”, “we”, or “our”) operates the website and all affiliated websites as listed under “Our Locations” and linked to the website (the “Service”).

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There is ongoing litigation between the California Department of Education and the Concerned Parent Association. A notice issued by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson states, “The lawsuit accuses CDE of widespread, systemic non-compliance by local educational agencies with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504. The CDE denies these allegations and is actively defending the litigation.”

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