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Asking “Why Not?” & “What If?” As Well As “Why?”


This morning I read two useful articles — from unlikely places — that hit similar themes and are pushing me to think a little bit more about my teaching.

The first is from The Wall Street Journal, and has the very weird headline, The Montessori Mafia. It explores recent research, lists well-known graduates of Montessori schools, and wonders if their creativity is a direct result of that system of instruction. Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that Montessori alumni lead two of the world’s most innovative companies. Or perhaps the Montessori Mafia of can provide lessons for us all even though it’s too late for most of us to attend Montessori.

We can change the way we’ve been trained to think. That begins in small, achievable ways, with increased experimentation and inquisitiveness. Those who work with Mr. Bezos, for example, find his ability to ask “why not?” or “what if?” as much as “why?” to be one of his most advantageous qualities. Questions are the new answers.

An article in Newsweek raises a similar question.  Niall Ferguson, who I typically find fairly irritating, has written an article titled How to Get Smart Again: The way we teach our children history has undermined our chances for success. Here’s an excerpt:

Here are three positive suggestions to make high-school history more engaging and thereby more memorable. First, replace those phone-book-size tomes with Web-enabled content. Second, make the new stuff more interactive. (There’s solid evidence that well-designed games and simulations hugely improve learning.) And third, ask more exciting questions.

What if Washington had shared Napoleon’s appetite for imperial power? What if the British had supported the Confederacy with cash and cannons? What if Franklin Roosevelt had not been president in World War II?

In his masterly answer to that last “counterfactual” question, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth rightly suggests that it’s the sense of inevitability—whatever happened had to happen—that makes school history so dull: “What we schoolchildren studied as ‘History’ [was] harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.” But when historic events are actually happening—as now in Japan and the Arab world—“the unfolding of the unforeseen [is] everything … The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides.”

I think I tend to do a decent job asking “Why?” in the classroom and am getting better at asking “Why not?”  But I seldom ask “What If?” and I’m even a big fan of reading alternate history novels!

How about you — have you had much much experience asking “What If?” questions of your students?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Thanks for a great reminder to keep challenging our students…and to keep thinking of new ways to do so. Very thought provoking and helpful.

  2. I used “What if Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated?” as an essay prompt for our study of Reconstruction in my HS American History. One student followed it all the way to the present arguing how it would have impacted the US involvement in WWI and WWII and thus re-written 20th Century history as well. The best part is that this student normally writes a bare-minimum style essay.

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