Why should you learn the WHY before the WHAT?


November 9, 2020

Reading Time: 4 minutes


One of the strongest indicators of a healthy dose of curiosity in a child is the frequency with which the child asks why.

Why is the sky blue?

Why do things fall down and not up?

Why do the angles of a triangle sum to 180?

Why does the Pythagoras Theorem work?

For a parent, it is important to understand how powerful this why-framework of thinking is for a child’s overall mental development and long-term success.

Unfortunately, our education system emphasizes the “what”, but not upon the “why”. We will take a simple example from mathematics teaching to illustrate this.

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Why should you learn the WHY before the WHAT?


Importance of asking WHY before the WHAT

Consider a triangle with base b and height h:

Triangle with base 'b' and height 'h'

Do you remember what the formula for the area of this triangle is? Some of you may remember that the formula involves the base and the height of the triangle. Well, the exact formula is  \(A = {1\over 2}*b*h\). And this is what is taught to children as well. Nothing wrong with this – except the fact that why this formula works is never discussed!

The teacher will say – kids, this is the formula for the area of the triangle; now memorize it so that we can do a few problems. Covering the “what” and ignoring the “why” is what generally happens in math classes, and is most probably happening with your own child as well.

What do you think are the consequences of such an approach?

Child not liking mathematics

  • The child will get disengaged. Having offered no “why” behind the “what”, the child will start to lean towards a rote-learning rather than a conceptual-learning approach.
  • The child will begin facing more difficulty in learning – because memorising seemingly disconnected facts and formulas is not easy without any underlying coherent framework. If the child is not good at rote-learning or memorisation, the child’s performance in tests will start to suffer.
  • Most importantly, the child’s natural curiosity will start to go down. By repeatedly being exposed to situations where only the “what” matters and the “why” is totally ignored, the child’s curiosity will be killed in a systematic manner. This will have an impact not just on the child’s academic performance, but will severely affect the child’s overall mental ability.
Important notes to remember
The tragic reality is that the impact of such a learning experience in childhood manifests many years later – when the child will face situations where the “what” is secondary and the “why” is all important – and the child will struggle.

This is coupled with something even more dangerous – in schools, children are taught the “what” and are also tested on only the “what” – thus, many children keep scoring well on school exams without building any fundamental understanding, and everything seems hunky-dory. Everyone is happy, because “at least the child is scoring well on school tests”.

Real-life Example

Here’s a real story from our experience.

Aditi (Name changed) scored an A+ on her class 10th board exams, including a 100% score on her math final exam. However, and shockingly, her fundamentals were entirely missing.

She could tell you the statement (the “what”) of each and every theorem from her grade-10 textbook, but she would struggle to justify even one of those theorems (the “why”). Not surprisingly, her parents, her teachers and Aditi herself had no clue about this gap.

When she moved to grade-11, Aditi suddenly found that rote-learning was no longer effective, because the complexity of the subjects she was studying had gone up significantly.

As time passed on, she started lagging in her studies, further demotivating her (because she had always performed so well on school exams). No amount of tuition classes or coaching helped her, because she had no conceptual foundation at all.

By the end of grade-12, she was on the verge of clinical depression. Although she managed to obtain a decent score on her grade-12 board exams, she had been scarred for life, and had lost all self-confidence.

Child not able to cope with Academic stress

This is a very common story. We inflict upon our children, years of a deeply flawed system of learning, and then put them in hyper-competitive environments, expecting them to excel. When they don’t – we blame them. We say – probably the child was not good enough.

Important notes to remember
Let us be clear – in such tragic scenarios, the child is the only one who cannot be blamed. The real culprit is the system – the combination of the school, the teachers, the tuition and the parents.

With the system’s almost blinding focus on the “what” and “good marks”, the truly important aspect of learning gets completely ignored. In Aditi’s case, the situation would have been dramatically different if only the system had motivated Aditi to ask why before asking the what.

Parents have the best of intentions for their children. But, it’s also their obligation to be aware of how their children are really learning – are they only being made to do the “what”, or are they being exposed to the “why” behind the “what”. This simple difference can totally transform a child’s life. Trust us – we have seen it firsthand!

By the way, remember the area of the triangle question we asked above. Let’s see why the formula works. Complete the rectangle on the triangle’s base, with the same height as the triangle, as shown below:

Area of triangle from the area of rectangle proof


From the above image we can say that the total area of the triangle is half the total area of the parallelogram. But – what’s the total area of the parallelogram? b x h of course – that’s something we learn very early on. The triangle’s area is therefore \({1\over 2}*b*h\).

Amazing, isn’t it? Do you think a child will ever forget a beautiful piece of mathematical reasoning like this? We don’t think so! Because this is the “why”, from which the “what” follows automatically.

Important notes to remember
Find your why and you'll find your way
- John C. Maxwell

Remember this why-vs-what approach the next time to sit down with your child to discuss anything!

Also read,


I believe it’s asking people the right questions, instead of telling them what to do, that creates success, that pushes people to be successful. Questions push people to figure out the answers on their own. 

Unfortunately, with age and responsibilities, the questioning stops and we settle for the few options that we have learned. The minute those options don’t work, we get stuck. 

Whenever we experience an obstacle, our brain goes to the fastest pattern it can find from our experiences similar to the current situation. This is why we sometimes have illogical reactions: We do not give time for the brain to find a better solution. 

Child loving and solving Mathematics

Asking “Why?” is a great starting point but it only takes us as far as understanding. We as students and educators need to also derive a path to the solution else we lose the large picture. The power of “Why” deserves greater respect if we are to reap its benefits.

At Cuemath, we don't just teach students to ask the right questions but also guide them to find their own answers in the best possible way. We don't believe in teaching students but helping students learn. 

Math isn't just a subject, but a concept and one of the most important life skill for the future.

Still don't believe us? Then listen to the famous author and motivational speaker, Simon Sinek explain the same in this Tedx Talk.

About Cuemath

Cuemath, a student-friendly mathematics and coding platform, conducts regular Online Live Classes for academics and skill-development and their Mental Math App, on both iOS and Android, is a one-stop solution for kids to develop multiple skills. You can book a Free Class here and know more about the pricing and fees from Cuemath fee for all grades.

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