Critical Thinking Exercise - "What If..."

What is a "What If..." scenario?

"What would happen if?" are scenarios that require students to consider a specific set of circumstances outside of what exists in reality.  It forces the students to consider the power of "cause-and-effect" and to allow themselves to step away from traditional responses.


While there is no "correct" answer to "What if" scenarios, students must prove they used a logical approach in their response. 

What do "What If..." exercises look like in the classroom?

Of course, there will be very few times when you want your students to consider the questions "What if all people were at least 10 feet tall?" . Instead, you`ll want to cater these problems to the subject matter at hand.  We`ve already written a wide-selection of "What If..." exercises organized by topic, and they`ll be easy to create on your own once you grasp the concept. 

For example, if you are teaching about geography, you may use this "What If..." exercise"What if the continents moved back together into a modern-day Pangaea?"

Your students can consider a number of factors.  For example:

  • "Many of the geographical boundaries of nations would have to be reconsidered."
  • "Far away nations that had few dealings with one another would now be forced to interact much more."
  • "International trade would be much faster and less expensive."

Do "What If..." exercises work for all subject areas and grade levels?

Yes.  Without a doubt... yes!  The "What If..." exercises can not only be used in multiple subject areas, but also for the many topics within a given subject area.  We have already provided a wide range of "What If..." exercises in the core subjects, and these can easily be used as a model for teachers who want to write their own to fit their classroom.

The same flexibility applies to using "What If..." exercises across grade levels.  What is especially interesting in this case is that the same "What If..." exercise could easily be used for a kindergartner or a senior in high school... and each student would benefit greatly from the exercise. 

Let`s use this one for an example:  "What if you were a plant?  What plant would you be and where would you want to live?"  A teacher might ask this to a group of kindergartners, and they will probably have to remind students that they need to consider the habitats that are best for plants (as opposed to places they`d want to visit).  At the other end of the spectrum, a high-school teacher will expect students to demonstrate a full understanding of plant types and needs.  They might respond,   "I`d want to be a Redwood tree in a State Park in Northern California... that way I will live for a long time, I will be protected from human development, and I would be in a climate where Redwood trees can thrive."

What`s the one thing to remember about "What If..." exercises?

It`s all about the process.  Students are very good at memorizing facts, figures, names, and dates.  "What If..." exercises force students to consider scenarios that don`t actually exist, forcing them to apply their knowledge in a different situation.  This will develop a deeper understanding of the content.