W3C Style Guide

Educational style

"Why?" Buttons

Jewel Cobb (scientist, campaigner for minority rights in education) asked me what I would recommend to someone making hypertext for K-12 education. The most important thing I thought of on the spur of the moment was "why" links. If there ever was a Frequently Asked Question for kids, it was "why?". Imagine a web in which, assiduously over the years, patient teachers had filled in the "why" buttons with pointers to explanations?

It is important to encourage children to ask "why?": not only to encourage scientific curiosity. They must learn they have a right to ask "why?" of rules, of statements with which they are bombarded, of advertising, of anything which doesn't seem right. (why?)

Adults too have to remember to ask "why?". We can encourage this inquiry by making hypertext which rewards it with quality answers.

Leaving a trail of rationale

If we can try to answer the "why?" question for things which we observe, how much more can we answer it for things we decide. As we build things, design things, we can annotate the products of this process with a trail pointers to our reasons for doing at the time.

Fred Brooks, in The Mythical Man Month, describes the "second system effect", in which the designers of the new system carefully avoid all the problems of the first system, but fall into all the traps the designers of the first system had in their turn been careful to avoid. When specifications and plans have a "why" tree behind them, they are more likely to be changed with careful thought, rather than abandoned in a rush of feeling that we can do better.

How and Why trees

When we are building some system, human, electronic or otherwise, to achieve some goal, the reverse question to "why am I doing this?" is "how will we do that?".
We are hiring a person in order for them to write a program
This gives us the answer to two questions: "Why are we hiring the person?" and "how will we get the program written?". The "why" relationship is the inverse of the "how" relationship. Tracing the "why" links back as far as possible should give a complete rationale for an action. Tracing the "how" tree the other way should give a recipe for how it will be accomplished. Building the "how" and "why" links allow one to create a plan with a built-in justification.
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© 1995 TimBL

Thanks to my brother Michael for descibing "how and why" trees he uses in his team-building training.