Moving beyond “Why?” to “What If?”

A few months ago, J and I were reading a book about inventors. It began with the sentence, “Thomas Edison’s favorite word was “why”.”

I almost closed the book and returned it to the library. There’s no way that was Edison’s favorite question. “Why?” implies a concrete, right answer. Why is the sky blue? Why do penguins hold their eggs between their feet? Science can answer those questions.

Edison must have asked much more open-ended questions. He must have explored the “what happens if I…” line of thought in order to create things that had never before been created. This is relevant questioning – questioning that piques ones curiosity.

Consider this example:

What happens if you put silly putty in the microwave? ( you’re intrigued, aren’t you!)

as compared to

Why is it dangerous to put silly putty in the microwave? (curiosity is already dampened, because the thrill of discovery is removed)
How can we point those in our care to open-ended questions that invite further learning?

When I taught high school English, I introduced punctuation review with the following sentence on the board:

A woman without her man is nothing

And then I asked my students to punctuate the sentence. They, of course, were instantly engaged and possibly offended by the message. In the end, we talked about:

What happens if you use an appositive? (A woman, without her man, is nothing.)

What happens if it is a declarative statement?  (A woman without her man is nothing.)

What happens if you use a colon? (A woman: without her, man is nothing.)

And they saw the power of punctuation to dramatically affect meaning. The rules came to life.

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (aff. link**) is a treasure trove of these examples, by the way.
With my little ones, we use this line of questioning for scientific discovery all the time.

– when color mixing for painting

– when cleaning the windows (with water) and trying to evaluate how far away to stand with the spray bottle

– when building ramps and racing cars

– when throwing rocks into the water at the beach

And so much more.

“What happens if” sparks the question and invites discovery.
The harder part of this, then, is being willing to let your kids take the lead in their own experimentation. (Within safe boundaries, of course!)

What happens if we freeze water beads? Let’s find out!



** any links to resources on the Amazon website are part of the affiliate program. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites. There is NO pressure to buy. 🙂 **

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s