THE BLOG

The Power of What If

05/26/2015 01:31 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

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I have a challenge for you. Go dig around in your kid's school backpack (you might want to wear gloves for your own protection if your child forgets half-eaten sandwiches like mine does). Pull out a few tests and assignments, and see how many questions are similar to the following:

  • List three ways that ...
  • Name four of the ...
  • Define the following ...
  • Calculate the ...
  • Determine the ...
  • Circle the answer which best ...
  • Which of the following do not ...
  • Write in the answer that ...

Questions which evaluate memorization still make up the bulk of test questions that our children answer on a daily basis, despite most of these same students owning a device that can search for just about anything and return information in a matter of seconds. For some reason, we still believe it necessary to determine if a student can recall the exact date the Louisiana Purchase was signed, although the chances of needing that specific tidbit of information are quite low.

What if ...


Please know I am not devaluing foundational knowledge or the need to teach our children rudimentary functions of grammar, math, science or other academic studies. But what I am saying is that we are completely missing the boat when it comes to encouraging students to take risks, make mistakes or explore the unknown where they can discover, invent or create.

A lot has been written about concerns over the decreasing number of young entrepreneurs, but what did we expect would result from spending twelve of a child's most formative teaching them how to conform in their thinking? As we continue to pile on more testing mandates, no matter how well-intentioned, the result will continue to be an environment that greatly discourages exploration of ideas beyond the page -- a foundational characteristic of entrepreneurship.

Asking a question that begins with "what if" helps us discover for ourselves what is and isn't possible or what happens when we try something new. For myself, some of the most impactful experiences of my childhood began with some version of asking what if. I am grateful to have grown up in an era when children were allowed the opportunity to make mistakes, because we discovered that mistakes were just part of the learning process and nothing to be afraid of.

When I was about eight years old, my family lived in a neighborhood that bordered an empty field. My brother and I spent hours at a time exploring that field -- chasing lizards, catching horned toads, digging in the dirt. We often asked what if and then spent days experimenting, building and testing our answers. On this particular day, my brother and I had asked each other what might happen if we used balanced our toy magnifying glass over the head of our sister's Barbie. In our defense, we didn't do this to be mean; we'd simply run out of our Barbie supply, having already gone through all of mine on previous experiments. Besides, we didn't use any of her special dolls; we found the one with the ratty hair and the teeth marks all over, thanks to a previous encounter with our dog. We buried the doll about waist deep in the sand and began our quest to discover the answer to our what if question. We were not disappointed. We learned that the sun, when filtered through a seemingly harmless toy magnifying glass, could melt plastic. While my brother and I were ecstatic with our discovery, alas, our sister was not, even after we pointed out our obvious consideration in choosing her chewed up doll. I'm not sure she ever quite saw it our way -- that she got a new doll out of it -- but for me, it was well worth losing my allowance for several weeks to replace her doll.

Sure, text books had the same information, and we could have spent that summer afternoon reading about it. But I certainly wouldn't remember it this many years later had I learned it in a book. I can still recall quite vividly that moment when the soft plastic of my sister's doll started to sizzle and melt right before my eyes. My excitement at what I was witnessing was only slightly diminished by the realization we were going to be in trouble for destroying our sister's toy in the process. There is something quite empowering about using actions to explore the wonder of our own mind that can never be replicated by knowledge gleaned from a text-book.

It is probably safe to say that almost everything new that exists today was a result of that single question. What if we can build a machine to fly? What if there is a cure for measles? What if ... None of the innovations we enjoy today could have happened without individuals who were willing to go beyond the available knowledge to explore the What If inside of their own mind. If we want to foster a nation of entrepreneurs and inventors, then we need to encourage more what if questions -- although I might recommend keeping those little plastic magnifying glasses out of reach. They're a lot more powerful than the average eight year old might think.