Monday, March 28, 2011

"What If?"

Esteemed non-fiction author Elizabeth Partridge recently wrote in her blog, Hot Tea and a Pencil, that she had just learned about an ancestor of the same name as herself who, in 1846, had been transported from England to Australia. Contemporary Elizabeth asked,

"What did this Elizabeth Partridge do that got her ten years in jail, swapped off for being sent to Australia? What was it like for her once she got there?

What if....

and a seed is planted. I don't know that I would ever take this any further, but it is exhilarating to have my mind tumble in a new direction.
What kind of random things have been making you think 'What if....?'"

Here is what I wrote as a comment:

Hi Elizabeth,

Since you asked what kinds of things make my mind ask, "What if?" I'll say that many of my own science and math picture books are based on "What if?" questions that I asked, going back to childhood:

"What if I could ride my bike to the Sun -- how long would it take?"

"How about if I rode to the distant stars?"

"What if I could ride to the end of the Universe? What would I find there? Would there be a wall with a sign: "END OF UNIVERSE--DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT"? (I really do remember imagining that sign, not because I really thought it could exist but as a way of expressing the mind-boggled feeling I got from contemplating the idea of a finite universe.)

"What if I could hop like a frog? How far could I go in proportion to my own body size?"

"What if someone filled an Olympic-size swimming pool with ice cream and I dived in--how long would it take me to eat my way through the pool?"

"If I grew to the height of a redwood tree, how high would a basketball hoop be if it elevated proportionally?"

And so on. In various ways, these musings ended up becoming books.

When I visit schools, the kids' top three questions are:

1) How old are you? (Teachers always say, "No, don't ask that question!")

2) How much money do you make? (Teachers say, "No, no! Never ask that question!")


3) Where do you get your ideas? (Teachers say, "That's a good question!")

I answer the first question by telling them what year I was born. (I don't mind if they know how old I am. How else will they learn what a 59-year old looks like compared to a 29-year old?) I answer the second question by telling them how much (little) I make on the sale of one book. And I answer the third question by telling children I get many of the ideas for my books from questions I asked when I was their age, and that they will get plenty of great ideas themselves if they wonder about the world. In other words, if they ask questions like, "What if?"

I also point out that I wrote about my love for the word "if" in my math alphabet book, G Is for Googol, under the letter "I" which, in my book, is for "If." With the word "if," I tell readers, you can imagine anything and sometimes you can use math to figure out what would happen if it were true.

I think parents and teachers (not to mention media providers) would do children and our future a great service if they encouraged wondering and the asking of questions rather than simply consuming and accepting information and stimuli. Children need to interact, not just imbibe, what the world sends their way. Our idea of interactivity has come to mean playing games invented by someone else rather than making our own observations, asking our own questions and finding answers through experiments (whether physical experiments or thought-experiments or both).

Case in point: I once met a 6th grade science teacher who had asked her students in a well-heeled public school to put some small piece of the natural world (a few plants and/or small animals) and temporarily transfer it to a contained environment (shoebox, glass jar, etc.) for an hour of observing, speculating, hypothesizing and experimenting. Everyone in the class thought the assignment was too hard. They didn't know what to do for an hour. The teacher lamented that if she had asked them to write a 10-page report on Einstein, no one would have batted an eye.

You might say the whole class -- or a whole generation -- has a "what if?" deficit.

What if we started a nationwide discussion on what to do about it? My two cents: more wondering, not more testing.


Unknown said...

Wow! David.
What a powerful concept! I'm with you, I want to start this "what if" campaign beginning with "What if teachers were free to use wonderful books (like yours) in the classroom without worrying about assessment tests."

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Hmmm - I write about history. WHAT IF kids had to do something today that happened in the distant past? Tiny example: What if they had to travel through the wilderness for 2 years and four months like Lewis and Clark? How would they make it home without a grocery store? A map? A cell phone? What if nobody spoke their language?

(By the way, your "3 top questions" from kids are the same as mine. One little guy even wanted to know if I had a jet plane and a mansion. I would love to have said yes, but this is nonfiction. And I loved your true answers.)

Unknown said...

When students ask how old I am, they get a math problem. I show them a photo of me taken in 1965 and say my age at the time, 6. Some get it right away, some make wild guesses, but it’s more fun than just telling them.

It’s certainly true that always spelling everything out and expecting students to just be photocopy machines isn't the way to create an inquiring mind. Creative thinking should be taught on all grade levels. Personally, I never heard of the word “brainstorm” (not to mention how to do it) until well after college graduation.

My next post on Wednesday is about how the techniques used in video games can inform nonfiction writing and reading...that will be my entry for decreasing the “What if?” deficit.

Elizabeth Partridge said...

I love this post of yours! When you replied to my "what if" post on my blog about the 1846 Elizabeth, I was fascinated by where your mind went when you asked "what if."

It's fascinating to see how differently different minds tumble with "what if."

BTW, thanks to Australian writer Judith Ridge, I found out the 1946 Elizabeth was transported to the worst penal colony in Australia, Van Dieman's Land (now Tasmania. Her crime? stealing an article of clothing. Turns out that was one of the most common charges. Funny, almost all the transported women were between 18 and 29... basically sent to beget another generation of colonists in Australia.