What if questions are the way to the solution

Children have amazing imaginations and love to ask questions. Small children are well known for asking “Why?”. Children of all ages, in any form of transport, ask “Are we there yet?” with a regularity bound to send any driver around the twist. Somewhere along the way, they discover “What if...?” questions and the adults around them experience a new version of creative torture made only worse when the question is transformed into “But, what if...?”. No level of logic or science can defeat a small child who imagines they are on a winning streak with a set of increasingly impossible to answer “What if...?” questions.

Adults love to ask “What if...?” questions too. It is a model that can be a catalyst for change when used in the right way and when combined with some other questions.

When you begin to ask “What if...?” questions you open the door to a fresh perspective. It is a particular framing of a question that invites creativity and hints at a shift in the status quo. It can be readily applied to questions in education. Indeed the power of it as a question is why participants in Project Zero’s Creating Cultures of Thinking begin their course by sharing their “What ifs?”. As a coach in this online course, I get to contemplate some inspiring questions. Matthew of Manhasset Secondary School asked, “What if students were provided with an environment where they could find true purpose in tasks and become more informed thinkers and citizens?”. Rebecca also of Manhasset proffers “What if we provided opportunities to be “smarter together,” rather than competing separately?” Silvana of Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board wonders, “What if schools where a place of global learning, where teachers could take a genuine interest in their students and how their students make sense of their learning?”

Each “What if” question reveals a deep puzzle that the individual is struggling with. At their best, they emerge from a realisation that something could be made better. They are a response to noticing that the way we do things now is less than ideal and they direct our thinking to what we might change. They fit well within the design thinking process, and for that reason, I have previously discussed the benefits of asking “What if...?” in the context of student inquiries. In January 2017, I wrote:

Another take is borrowed from the writing of Warren Berger and ‘A More Beautiful Question’. The idea here is that students generate big ‘Why...’ questions which identify a problem they have encountered. From here they move to ‘What if...?’ questions thinking individually or in collaboration and pose possible solutions. With a list of interesting’ what ifs’ they move to ‘how might’ questions where they focus their thinking on a gradual move towards implementing a possible solution. A nice way to introduce this is with examples from the world of start-up companies which have exploded on to the market thanks to thinking differently about common problems. Starting with a ‘Why’ question like ‘why can I not get a cab when I need one’ led to the founders of Uber asking ‘What if I could pay for one of the many empty seats in the cars driving past me’ and then on to the ‘How might we turn empty seats in cars we don’t own into a global business’. Similar examples can be found in the story of Air BnB among others and a list of such ‘Beautiful Questions’ can be found on Warren’s site: A More Beautiful Question

As educators we can engage with the same process as we move from noticing something that is not serving our purposes, to a “What if . . ?” that hints at a way forward and then on to a possible strategy. Unfortunately, the cycle too often pauses at the “What if...?” assuming it even makes it that far. When we pause at the why, we are merely complaining. Why is our curriculum so crowded? Why do we have to grade every piece of student work? Why can’t we focus on deep thinking? Each “why” identifies a problem, but if we don’t plan to transform our noticing of a tension into an action, we are just having a whinge. If we go no further than asking “What if...?” we are merely dreaming.


The next step towards a solution requires that we ask “How might...?”. The language is very deliberate. It is an open invitation to ponder possible actions. Matthew could consider “How might we begin to build an environment where the true purpose is thinking and active citizenry?”. Rebecca could propose “How might we value our collective smarts?” and Silvana could wonder “How might we understand how our learners make sense of their world?”. Each “How might...?” question moves us from noticing a challenge towards implementing a solution.

But questions only get us so far. Once we get to the point of a well constructed “What if...?” and a well-matched “How might...?”, we need to clarify what our first step will be and then we need to take it. All this thinking in questions must, at some point, transform into action. All significant transformations begin with step one and are followed by step two and three etc. As Millard Fuller says, it is easier to get people to act their way into a new way of thinking than to get people to think their way into a new way of acting. Hopefully, then we set out to find the tensions that stand in the way of the impact we wish to have as educators. Having found them, we ask questions that move us towards a solution. And then we identify our first step towards the change we have imagined, and we confidently take it.

By Nigel Coutts