The Five Whys
Committee of Seventy Logo
English Arabic Chinese (Simplified) French Spanish Vietnamese

The Five Whys

To give students a helpful tool to identify the root problem beneath some frustration, dysfunction or obstacle that is bothering them, whether at an individual, family, social, community or societal level. And to share this wisdom: If you're working with a faulty grasp of the real problem, you're likely going to come up with faulty solutions.

Time to complete:

20 minutes 

What principles, ground rules, or concepts are at work here?

  1. Ask clarifying questions
  2. Listen, then pause before speaking
  3. The importance of naming and framing problems well

How to do the exercise

Give students this background: Albert Einstein, the famous physicist, supposedly once said: "If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes solving it."

Ask: What do you think he meant by that?

Through discussion, help the students grasp Einstein's meaning: If you don't identify the real problem, instead of just one of its symptoms, you won't be able to address it effectively. If you do spot the real problem, that opens the door to multiple solutions.

Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Motor Corp., devised a method for his team to find the root cause of problems on the factory floor.  Called "The Five Whys," it is now a widely used tool in business.

The idea is to ask someone for a first take on what the problem might be. Then keep asking why, peeling away layers until the questioning uncovers a root cause for the problem.  Toyoda claimed that usually five "why?" questions would be enough to discover a root cause.

Give students an example:

Problem:  I'm about to lose credit for my first-period course because of too many tardy notices.

Question 1:  Why do you have so many tardy notices?

Answer 1:  Because I'm often late for school.


Question 2:  Why are you often late for school?

Answer 2:  Because I don't wake up on time.


Question 3:  Why don't you wake up on time?

Answer 3:  Because I sleep through my smartphone alarm.


Question 4:  Why do you sleep through your alarm?

Answer 4:  Because I'm a deep sleeper, and my mom has to leave for work before my alarm goes off, so she isn't there to wake me if the alarm doesn't work.


Question 5:  Why don't you set your alarm for a time while your mom is still there?

Answer 5:  Because I usually am up until 2 a.m. playing video games, and she leaves so early I wouldn't get enough sleep.

Aha!  We have found the root of the problem.

Then ask a student to volunteer a problem. It could be something with how the school works, or a known problem in the community, or even a national issue.

Ask students to propose a why question based on that first statement of the problem.

Give an answer as to why, then ask the class to propose a second Why? question.  And so on until the class feels they have arrived at the root of the problem.

If you have time and there's energy in the class, do this a second time.

Follow-up exercise

Ask students to try the Five Whys with a parent, guardian, sibling or friend.   Each person should play each role i.e. person with the problem, person asking why. 

PA State Standards

  • 5.2.12.B. - Examine the causes of conflicts in society and evaluate techniques to address those conflicts
  • CC.1.2.9–10.G -Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account. (L.N.2.2.3)
  • CC.1.2.11–12.G - Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • CC.1.5.11–12.C - Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitative, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data.