But Why?

Jason Mitchell
Computer Information Technology

When my daughters were three years old, no matter what I said it was always followed with a question of Why?  As a parent, I would do my due diligence and answer the best I could.  This was followed up with additional “but whys”.  I would explain further until I reached the exhaustive point of “because I said so” or “because that’s the way it is”.   I teach in a very specialized field and as a teacher, I expect the Why’s, and even the “but whys”.  Heck, in my line of work it is expected and respected.

A bit of background on myself, by trade I am a cybersecurity expert. I prefer penetration testing which includes hacking into networks by exploiting vulnerabilities. One of the best attributes a penetration tester is asking questions; Why does the computer respond in the way that it does?  What if I do something not expected? In the classroom, I help those discover the questions and seek out answers.  Most of my students are curious types. In Spring 2019, I met my match. We will call him Nick. Nick lived and breathed Cybersecurity. He probably knew enough to teach the class; he just lacked the nuances needed to pass the industry certification. Nick’s curiosity got the best of him and he had a habit of always talking over the lecture, asking Whys and But Whys and dissecting every little bit of information.  Twenty-minute lectures would go on for an hour.  My normal answering tactics I learned as a parent does not transfer well to students.  Saying “because that’s that way it is” doesn’t work.

I took a weekend and wrote down strategies to “take back” the classroom to satiate Nick and keep us on schedule. I first started with my lesson plan and crafted more thought out lectures and labs.  I spent hours thinking about what questions he might ask and writing the answers.  I also built discussion forums that had open-source education resources and the ability to post questions. Lectures still took longer, but it cut down on the number of side questions. If in-class questions required more discussion, I moved it to the online forum.  Mid-term assessments showed an improvement over previous semesters. Nick “forced” me to be a better teacher and improve upon my approaches to learning.  I will always think of him when I hear “why”?