The five whys tool was developed within the Toyota Motor Corporation as a means to identify the underlying causes of problems. When root causes are identified and addressed, the problem can be fixed and stay fixed.
Five whys can also be used to explore personal motivations.
The process is very simple: the issue under investigation is identified and noted. Examples: “Why are students disengaged from their learning”, “Why are we proposing to hold the meeting?”, “Why are enrolments dropping?”, “Why do we come to school?”, “Why are teachers not listening?”.
“Why?” is then asked five times (the number of repetitions is not immutable, but in most cases five repetitions have been found to be sufficient).
In this example (Figure 1), year 8 students consider why they study mathematics.
Some years ago a teacher from a secondary school in Victoria told us the following story.
A class was constantly disrupted by the inappropriate behaviour of a student. Instead of responding in the usual manner by removing the child from the classroom, the teacher took the student to one side and applied the five whys tool to investigate the cause of the behaviour.
The student revealed that he found it difficult to make friends with others in the classroom, and that the behaviour was a means of getting attention and connecting with others.
The teacher worked to help the student learn strategies to develop relationships with others. This was a far more productive and longlasting solution than would have been achieved by reacting to the symptom and removing the student from the classroom.
Watch a video clip of a year 2 student explore why they come to school.
Watch a video clip of a year 4 student exploring the reasons her class comes to school.
Watch a case study video from a year 8 english class that includes the use of Five Whys to explore ‘Why do we study English’?
Purchase Tool Time for Education, which provides details of many improvement tools for schools and classrooms.
Read more about the quality improvement approach in our book IMPROVING LEARNING: A how-to guide for school improvement.