Deepen Thinking And Writing With The Three WHYs Technique


Problem: students struggle to write fully developed papers or paragraphs. They float on the surface of ideas and are afraid to dive deep, to explore the unexplored parts of an idea, to tease out the gray, complicated bits of the nature of humanity.

Solution: The Three Why[s] Technique. By asking WHY three times we get to something deeper.

As I stood in front of the class wearing my Doc Martin dress shoes, my slacks, my long sleeve button up shirt, I asked students the following question.

“What is the rhetorical stance of what I wear on a typical school day? WHY [1] do I wear what I wear?” I ask this question because EVERYTHING is an argument, even what we choose to wear. 

Now I have a handout where I demonstrate a simple approach to answering this question with the three WHYs technique: here is my initial answer.

  1. Why is Mr. Theriault wearing an ironed dress shirt today?

Mr. Theriault is wearing an ironed shirt today because he wants to look good. (barely above summary)

  1. Why does he want to look good?

He wants to look better than usual today, because he is being observed by his boss the principal. (shows a basic understanding of audience and purpose)

  1. Why should the principal or his students care that he wants to look good during his presentation. What is Mr. Theriault really trying to achieve?

Perhaps Mr. Theriault wants to show his principal that he not only cares about teaching, but that he understands the importance of the observation, by dressing nicer than usual. Or, perhaps he would like to infuse the environment of his classroom, including the lesson, with an air of importance or professionalism. A crass observer might surmise that Mr. Theriault is merely using a thin veneer of good-looking teacher clothing to deflect attention from his pathetic excuse for a lesson, and they just might have a point. [it’s a bit cheeky, but I always want my students to see me poking fun at myself, but not every student takes the bait to make fun of me.]

Here is what one of them (a smart young 10th grader) wrote using the Three Why[s] technique.

The way a person dresses is a statement, a way to show the world who he or she is and what their existence stands for. Mr. Theriault’s taste in dress is an embodiment of social progress. His Doc Martins are a symbol of his past as a rebellious punk rocker. Coupled with his quirky, yet sophisticated glasses and button-up collared shirts that just barely reveal his tattoos, he is a symbol of how reform minded youth, even if once labelled rebellious, can mature to bring about change in society and promote progressive morals.

Then she asks herself the following question: “If the way Mr. Theriault dresses represent change and reform, then WHY hide it with sophistication at all?”

Mr. Theriault’s clothing choices do not just represent change, but also harmoney. Both the anti- establishment, rebellious punk rockers and the sophisticated intellectuals can live together in harmony rather than oppose one another, thus through intermingling of ideas, progress is made.

Then she asks herself the following question: “If Mr. Theriault hopes to project a message of progress to his students, what kind of change does he want them to make in the world?” [She didn’t use the word why, but I’m going to forgive her]

The essence of Mr. Theriault’s ideals is that unique thoughts, ideas, plans, and actions are what keep the world from plummeting to disaster. Everyone is different. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, quirks and eccentricities, so why not utilize them to make the world a better place?

As you can see the WHYs or questions serve as a type of “counterclaim” they also bring any concerns by the audience into the writing. Both counterclaims, and audience awareness are important for Advanced Placement writing, college-level writing, and Common Core writing and thinking. I’ve also seen this done with “jerk talk.” Jerk talking is when your student makes a point and then they, or another student says “Oh yeah, but what about…” It’s highly effective.
Now the response above was done in class, with just a few minutes to think of each question and response. They wrote these using pens, pencil, and paper and then we discussed their answers.

But what if you combined the Three WHYs Technique with the SCOUT method of style analysis and then used fun images in a Google presentation to present a DEEP DIVE into ONE specific element or quote from The Count Of Monte Cristo?

Here is my example that I made for my students: (use your mouse to control the slideshow if you want to pause, click on a new slide, or open in a new window.)


A former 10th grade student blew me away with her response to my challenge.


So the next time you are frustrated by your students unwillingness to dig deep in ANY subject, just practice than regularly implement the Three WHYs Technique.

PS: I don’t think I invented this technique, but I’ve been doing it for twenty years so I’ve forgotten where I first heard it. It might have been in an old NCTE “Ideas” booklet or maybe I adapted it from somewhere.

PPS: If you want an awesome way to create a character map for a big book like The Count Of Monte Cristo, check out the middle of this blog post on creating effective student engagement.



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