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Embellish Your Answer(s) to "What If?"

Embellish Your Answer(s) to "What If?"


Open-ended questions are effective doorways into the creative act of synthesis. Giving students a general set of conceptual boundaries within which to play can help them make new connections among ideas and concepts.

The activity

The point of the what if exercise is to use open-ended questions to push students past what is current--or even currently reasonable--into a creative mind-frame to envision possible future realities. You can tie open-ended questions into course material by asking students to identify and describe current trends in the course material, and then ask them to create a detailed answer to the question "what if this trend went to a currently unforeseeable extreme?"


  • "Communication technology has trended toward increasing immediacy. Originally, we had to go to a telegraph office, then we had telephones in the house, and now we have Bluetooth phones we clip to our ear. What will the world look like if this trend continues to an extreme?"
  • "States are trending toward decreasing budgetary support for their colleges and universities. What will higher education in the United States look like if this trend continues to an extreme?"
  • "Caucasian Americans are trending toward becoming a racial minority in the United States. What will the political landscape of the United States look like if this trend continues to an extreme?"


In class, it can be helpful to have students brainstorm on this individually at first, and only then come together and discuss as a group. This way, every student brings at least one idea to the group, and gets the brainstorming process moving faster. After brainstorming as a group, having students then continue brainstorming individually can generate even more ideas and details.

From: UT Professor of Communication Brad Love, adapted from Von Oech, R. (1990). A whack on the side of the head: How you can become more creative. New York, NY: Warner Books.

Framing this activity for success

We all want students to carry our teachings into their lives. Often, however, we must make our intentions very plain for students to understand that an assignment will equip them with skills and empower them, and is not an arbitrary hoop through which they must jump.

For this reason, frame each activity using these four steps:

  1. Introduce the activity by making clear the specific critical thinking skill the assignment will give them practice using. They may not understand the precise definition of the term, so provide it in writing on the board or overhead. (As a reminder, definitions are here.)
  2. Share examples of how this skill can serve them in their daily lives (e.g., guiding them to buy better products, improving their performance in other classes, advancing their career, communicating better with people they care about, better understanding their own experiences, etc.).
  3. Conduct the activity as described above, making it as active and interactive as possible. When students can talk about their thinking, that thinking moves forward. Teaching for critical thinking is teaching for active learning.
  4. Conclude the activity by reflecting back to students examples that you saw of them using the critical thinking skill effectively, and reminding them to consider the relevance of that skill in other aspects of their. Repeating the examples given in Step 2 may be appropriate, as students will have a different understanding of the skill once they have experienced the assignment.