15 Provocative “What Ifs” to Challenge Our Thinking About Teaching & Learning

If you want to capture my attention for hours/days/weeks on end, just share a question with me that starts with “What if…?” or “Would it be possible to…?” These questions almost always draw me in because, at then end of the day, I see myself as a designer. As much as I immerse myself in data and research, my greatest passions in education reside with creative and imaginative pursuits. So, when I first read Thinkertoys: A Handbook for Creative Thinking Techniques, I felt as if I’d been introduced to a new universe! I found myself using the techniques and exercises all the time. I would wake up in the middle of the night with an insatiable craving to apply one of the techniques to a question, challenge or possibility in my work or life. One of the simple techniques that I continue to use is SCAMPER, an acronym for substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, and reverse. You can learn more about how this tool works at any number of helpful web sites.

Flying home yesterday, I found myself using parts of SCAMPER to develop a list of provocative question about teaching and learning. These questions are brainstorms to help me/us consider alternatives and possibilities to how we are currently doing things. They are not statements are assertions that are intended to drive one toward a specific action. Instead, I use them to shift paradigms in my thinking, look at education from a different angle with the hope of discovering something new and potentially helpful, and to challenge my existing assumptions and practices (which I try to do often). I try to bracket my biases and assumptions to some extent, allowing myself to engage in thought experiments and imaginative exercises that might help me refine, improve, adjust, abandon, or affirm what I am already believe or my current practice.

Remember that the questioned brainstormed in this exercise are not necessarily intended to be taken literally or as a suggested practice. This is about looking at teaching and learning with fresh eyes, leveraging a creative exercise to help us see promising possibilities that were otherwise invisible to us.

With this long introduction, here are the 15 provocative “what ifs.”

1. What if schools celebrated failed efforts instead of successful ones?

2. What if the best and most senior teachers opted to use their seniority or privileged position to teach the most challenging and struggling students…and to work in the introductory courses?

3. What if students graded teachers more than teachers graded students?

4. What if the measure of a great school was when students were teaching most of the time and teachers were learning most of the time?

5. What if students wrote national standards for government and different workplace environments instead of the other way around?

6. What if new units were started by students testing the teacher’s background knowledge and skill in the subject?

7. What if students and parents led search committees for new teachers and school leaders?

8. What if students were the primary voters for school board members?

9. What if struggling students were put in “honors classes”?

10. What if students were responsible for assessing their own learning and aligning it to some set of standards?

11. What if school policy mandated that teacher speaking never exceeded 20% of the overall conversation in a classroom?

12. What if teachers needed student permission to speak in class?

13. What if each teacher had a board of directors (consisting entirely of students) to whom they reported and gained input for their work as an educator?

14. What if students had the chance to give teachers and administrators relevant “homework” and assignments in a similar measure to the homework they received from teachers?

15. What if students and teachers co-wrote the textbooks instead of buying and reading textbooks written by others?








Posted in blog, education, education reform

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.