“What if . . . ?” and More Marvelous Questions

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The latest Disney+ Marvel series is new in a multitude (multiverse?) of ways.

First, What if . . . ? is noteworthy as the first animated show in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse doesn’t count . . . not yet, at least.)

Second, What if . . . ? is significant since it explores all kinds of hypothetical storylines in the MCU. The series takes well-known characters and contexts of the films and follows different routes. (Remember when the first Avengers movie combining multiple film heroes was considered a risky idea? Look how far we have come!)

So far, we’ve seen different characters taking the mantle of significant heroes (Captain America, Star-Lord), as well as heroic characters doing unheroic things. In addition to the allure of endless possibilities, the What if . . . ? series is enjoyable because these alternative tales come in bite-sized episodes. Even so, some of these scenarios have potential for all kinds of fun adventures and far-reaching ramifications.

As a testimony to the power of “What if . . . ?” consider how there are 200+ issues of this comic series, begun nearly 50 years ago. As creators publish stories in “regular” comics continuity, other writers can explore branching paths and possibilities.

The question “What if . . . ?” can foster similar results in the classroom. Past blogs have written about the power of questioning, which you can check out HERE and HERE.

It’s important to remember not all questions are equal. Some are more effective in cultivating engaged and reflective students. Below is a list of potential questions teachers can ask to facilitate, encourage, and assess students’ learning.

  • “What if . . . ?”
  • “For what reasons . . . ?”
  • “What do you think could happen if . . . ?”
  • “How might that compare with . . . ?”
  • “Why might . . . ?”
  • “Where else could we . . . ?”

These are just some examples, and I’ve shared more in a recently published article available HERE. Note that NONE of these questions can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No” or similar dichotomous response.

In other words, students have to go further and THINK about the topic in a more robust manner. Moreover, there’s less chance they can “fake it” or just guess an answer. Often, such work promotes collaboration and communication.

Such open-ended questions may not catalyze a zany tale about alternative Avengers, but they can produce meaningful learning.

One caution is to beware of counter-productive conversation. When dealing with open-ended questions like “What if . . . ?” there is potential for students to go down pathways the teacher did not intend. While this may add to creativity and application, it could also veer into darker territories. Just consider some of sadder episodes of What if . . . ? we’ve already seen, in which [Spoiler Alert] a hero becomes the villain, or ultimately destroys their world.

Hopefully your classroom won’t pivot to such hopelessness. Still, be mindful of keeping students on-task and oriented toward learning goals. Even when using open-ended prompts, teachers can guide student thinking toward intended outcomes. Such parameters could be as simple as time limits or brainstorm boundaries. For example, a science teacher might pose a challenge that prompts investigation, but requires students to use only certain materials or technology. Sometimes this is called a “testable question” in science classrooms.

No matter the subject, teachers can be purposeful in using “What if . . . ?”-type questions to get the full effect. For inspiration, consider how masterminds behind the MCU have carefully scheduled and set up movies, television shows, specials, etc. Each production features minute details and allusions that result in monumental meaning in subsequent films. (For example, it’s no coincidence that What if . . . ? has come out between the Loki television series and the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home film.)

Teachers don’t have the multi-million dollar movie machine like the MCU, but they can still be intentional and inspirational by providing creative, challenging, and coordinated questions for their students.

Just imagine . . . What if . . . ?

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