Letting People In on the Why

By Janet Baird, a Bright Morning Senior Associate and Contributing Blogger 

My least favorite word in the English language is ICEBREAKER. I have sat through countless meetings and professional development sessions that have started with an icebreaker. Now get up, and without talking, lineup by birthday. Great. Thanks. Now head back to your seats and let’s look at this month’s suspension data.

Wait, what? 

Why did I just line up by birthday? What does my birthday have to do with this data on suspension rates? What connection am I supposed to be making between that experience and the data we are now looking at? All these numbers feel so overwhelming. Why are we looking at this data? Ugh. I hate these meetings.

As we design experiences for those in our organizations, we need to plan with intentionality and consider the key principles of adult learning theory. If this concept is new to you, check out the key principles here. First and foremost, we need to establish a culture of learning in our organizations. Take this Indicators of a Learning Organization survey to see how your organization is doing in this area. When we set the standard that everyone in the organization is expected to be a learner, we are one step closer to creating dynamic learning experiences that foster resilient communities where our staff and students can thrive. 

Now let’s look more closely at one of the key principles of adult learning theory: Adults need to know why we have to learn something. This is essential to remember as we plan our meetings and professional development sessions. Adults will commit to learning when they believe that the objectives are realistic and important for their personal and professional needs. To engage adults in the learning, it is best to intentionally plan and explicitly share the why. We need to be able to make connections and knowing the why helps us do that.

Think back to the beginning of this blog. Knowing what you now know about adult learning theory and the need to know why we are learning something, imagine starting a meeting on suspension data in this way: 

We need to humanize these numbers that we are going to be looking at today in our suspension data. So we are going to start our meeting with some storytelling. This will serve two purposes. First, research has shown that storytelling boosts our oxytocin levels so we will feel more connected to each other and the students we serve. Yep, Paul Zak’s research shows how the power of storytelling will help connect us to this work at hand. And second, through expanding the stories we tell about our students, we begin to shift our implicit biases. Both of these things are essential as we work with our suspension data. Now that you know the why, take a few minutes to share a moment of joy you have had with a student that you have been struggling to connect with. Each person will have 3 minutes to share their story. 

For me, the difference between the way these two meetings start lies in the intentionality of the activities. The birthday icebreaker feels more like a checkmark in the box that says “icebreaker needed.” It feels isolated from the content and no purpose is given. There is a disconnect happening for the participants. The storytelling opener, on the other hand, is intentionally connected to the focus of the meeting. The activity will help set the tone for the meeting and connect participants to each other and to the work at hand. I can imagine a much more effective meeting when participants are let in on the why and are grounded in the work. 

When facilitating adult learning, it’s important to be intentional with the design of activities and most importantly, know your why. Consider the following questions as you plan:

          Why are we starting the meeting in this way? 

          What are we hoping our participants will get out of this experience? 

          How is the activity connected to the rest of our learning today? 

          Why this specific activity? Why now? 

          How do I help participants get grounded and present for the session’s learning?

This approach will engage participants in the work at hand in a way that a random icebreaker can’t. And don’t forget to be transparent in sharing the why. For optimal engagement, always let participants in on the why.

Here are a couple more practical strategies to try at your next meeting or professional learning session:

  • Include a section on your agenda that articulate the reason for each activity. As I design meetings and learning sessions, I start with the what of our learning and then I add in the why. If I am struggling to come up with the why, then I need to rethink the what. Is this essential to our learning today? Am I including this because of past history with including this item? Can I connect this activity/learning to the school’s goals, mission, and vision?
  • At the start of meetings or PD sessions, ask participants to identify a challenge they’re facing that the day’s meeting or PD might address. If you have attended one of my trainings, you know that I encourage participants to create a personal inquiry question that will guide their learning for the day. This helps participants make their own meaning of the learning. It also helps them find themselves in the why. And don’t forget to come full circle and ask them to reflect on their connections at the end of the session.

Try these out and make sure you let participants in on the why so that they can engage more fully in the work and make connections. As facilitators, we need to make our thinking visible. This will enhance the learning experience for all. 

Ready for more on adult learning and knowing our why? Check out these additional resources:


The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.