“What If?” | Using Hypothetical Questions In The English Classroom
What if you could change the English curriculum in your school? What would you do differently? What if there was a current trend on social media that could be used by teachers of English?
There has been a trend this year which started on TikTok and has spread rapidly around other social media and websites. It is based on the deceptively simple idea of asking ‘what if’ questions. The TikTok trend began as a romantic device for couples to find out more about each other, but the trend has mushroomed on the internet and now you can find sites suggesting ‘what if’ questions for people of all ages, in all walks of life. Businesses use the questions in team building exercises, psychologists have been using ‘what if’ questions in a controlled way to build confidence and self-esteem and challenge some forms of anxiety.
In this article, we will explore some possible uses for ‘what if’ questions in the classroom. The aim is to exploit a current trend many of our students will be familiar with to generate discussions and other activities in English. We will provide lists of starter questions for different age groups and levels of ability.
Not Only Grammar and Conditionals
‘What if’ questions can be used to practice or revise conditional forms. Briefly, here are some examples of conditional questions on a related theme using the four conditionals.
Zero Conditional. If water condenses in a cloud, what happens?
First Conditional. If it rains, what will happen?
Second Conditional. If it rained in The Sahara Desert, what would happen?
Third Conditional. If it had rained on the forest fire, what would have happened?
In these examples, the emphasis is on underlining the grammatical structures and the conceptual reasons for using each of the conditionals. You could ask your students to reformulate those questions in different ways or to compose similar sets of questions on themes of their choosing. (For more information about conditionals and some related activities you might find useful in the classroom please see here). But what if grammar is not really the point of the exercise?
What if you looked for these sorts of questions on TikTok or Instagram? Would the grammar be perfect? Probably not. Yet, it has been a big trend in which people are using English to communicate and have fun. It would seem a shame to leave this resource completely outside the classroom. Therefore, in the remainder of this article, we will turn a blind eye to grammar and focus more on the discursive benefits of hypothetical questions.
In discussions and debates ‘what if’ questions provide a starting point that can be interesting and challenging for students of any age or level. For younger or lower-level students, questions that stimulate the imagination are great. ‘If you could be an animal for one day, what would you be? What if you were the teacher? What if you could fly, where would you go?
Children have amazing imaginations and love to ask questions. They often begin questions with ‘why’ but as their thinking becomes more sophisticated, they progress to ‘What if...?’ questions, often prefixed with ‘but’… “But what if this happened? But what if it didn’t happen that way?”
Older, more advanced students and adults also like to ask hypothetical questions. They may enjoy some of the same questions you would use for younger students but can also be challenged with more nuanced hypothetical situations. ‘What if you were the minister for the environment? What laws would you make? What if you were living in a country that was at war? How would your life be different?
Using the ‘what if’ prefix can be a catalyst for change and new thinking in which you open the door to fresh perspectives. It also hints at a change in power or status because while you may not be able to achieve what you want as things stand, the ‘what if’ question highlights what needs to be changed. So how might that be achieved?
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What If and How might?
In any exercise or activity where you begin with a ‘what if’ question it is worth taking the second step of asking ‘How might that happen?’ Or, ‘How might that be achieved?’ This calls for deeper thinking and more thought-out strategies. It concentrates the mind and calls for wider use of English.
What if there was a book or film about it?
Sometimes the books our students are supposed to read don’t inspire them very much. Reading English can become more of a chore than a pleasure. But there is a lot of speculative fiction (often in the science fiction or fantasy section of the library) that can stimulate discussion and which students might prefer to read. Many of them will regularly watch popular films or series on streaming services which come into this genre. What if you suggest they watch them in the original English version?
What if dinosaurs lived again? How about reading or watching the ‘Jurassic Park’ series by Michael Crichton. What if the Nazis had won the second world war? There are many books on this theme such as ‘The Man In The High Castle’ by Phillip K Dick. What if plants were intelligent and could communicate with each other? Try reading ‘Semiosis’ by Sue Burke.
Speculative fiction can of course prompt more ‘what if’ questions. What if your students had to compose an alternative ending to one of the books or films mentioned above?
You could of course select some ‘what if’ questions as titles for imaginative compositions. However, if you decide to use some ‘what if’ questions as a starting point for discussion or debate, how could you do so in an interesting way? You could write a list of ‘what if’ questions on the board and ask the class to vote on which one to discuss more fully. You could give groups or pairs a starter question to discuss on their own and then feedback on their conclusions for the class to discuss or debate together. To make things more competitive and/or creative, you could play the speak-for-a-minute game or speed debating using ‘what if’ prompts. How about asking your students to create a board game based on ‘what if’ questions or hypothetical situations.
Hypothetical Situations For Teachers
Asking ‘what if’ questions can be a useful exercise for teachers as well as students. At the beginning of the article, we asked how you would change the English curriculum in your school if you could do things differently. It is a nice little mind game we have probably all played from time to time. But these questions serve a purpose. They help us to develop professionally and focus on solutions to problems. They can also aid us when preparing for interviews for new teaching positions.
What would you do if one of your students swore at you in the middle of an English lesson? Or what if nobody in the class seemed to understand the concept you were teaching? Many teacher interviews include hypothetical questions that test your ability to think fast and demonstrate how you would handle real classroom situations. Making a list of hypothetical but possible classroom situations and realistic ‘what if’ questions is good preparation for interviews.
These mental exercises are not only useful when preparing for interviews, but also in our daily teaching. It is important to use the ‘how might’ follow-up question to look for a practical way to deal with or solve a problem.
As teachers we probably all pose ourselves with hypothetical questions about our work without really being aware of it. Perhaps if we did so in a more structured way, we could employ this instinct more productively.
A Note On Psychology
As stated in the introduction, psychologists sometimes use ‘what if’ questions in cognitive therapies. However, the same questions can also be a trigger for individuals who suffer from anxiety. Some people, and some of our students, tend to catastrophise situations by asking too many ‘what if’ questions that lead to very negative outcomes. While psychologists will sometimes carefully use these questions to demonstrate to their patients that even in a worst-case scenario, there is a way to deal effectively and safely with a situation, those sessions are carefully structured. As teachers, we need to be aware of any students in our classes who have anxiety issues and adjust the ’what if’ questions we use accordingly.
A Few Example ‘What If’ Questions For Use With Students
Here are some examples of ‘what if’ questions designed for particular age groups and levels of ability. A longer, more comprehensive list of questions is available for download at the end of this article.
Children and low-level learners.
What if your pet could talk?
What if you had magic powers?
What if you were fifty years older when you woke up?
What if you could be another person for one day?
What if we all lived underwater?
What if you could live anywhere in the world?
What if you didn’t need to sleep?
What if you were the head teacher of this school?
What if you witnessed a crime?
What if you could change one day in your life?
What if all your technology stopped working?
What if you could change one thing about yourself?
What if you could read other people's thoughts?
What if you could change one event in history?
What if you could write your own obituary?
What if you would like more starter questions? We have compiled a longer list of 'what if’ questions for different levels and ages, which you can download below.