The power of asking 'How might we...? in education

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Educators need to facilitate learning environments in which they ask ‘How might we solve a problem?’ Rather than saying, we need to design affordable space travel or a solution to eradicate poverty, for example. The “How Might We” question deliberately maintains a level of ambiguity and opens up a range of possibilities.


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It is a more exciting prospect for anyone to believe that there are no initial restraints to their thinking. It feels, in effect, going back to those toddler days of free and unbridled expression.


We know that their favourite question that they ask hundreds of times a day is ‘Why?’ If you have ever parented a toddler, this begins as an endearing quality but soon descends into parental delirium. My own children would save up their most intriguing ‘Whys?’ for bedtime, with highlights including ‘Why can’t I see my eyes?’ and ‘Why don’t fish have eyebrows?

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And yet, what toddlers are doing when they ask such intriguing questions is developing their curiosity, language and learning abilities. One of my former toddlers is now a teenager. Her questions revolve around the reasons why she can't stay up later and why can’t she have her hair highlighted. These are still why questions but they are not based in curiosity, language and learning. These questions have their foundations in pushing boundaries.


I do not believe that we become less curious as we age, but I do think that if we do not hold curiosity in high regard and determine it as a desirable and essential skill, it can be lost.

If we tell young people to stop asking questions, as parents or teachers, that desire to know more will ebb away and like muscles that are not used, it with wither and become weak.


One design thinking strategy to reignite the toddler approach to life is known as the ‘5 Whys’ exercise. The 5 Whys technique was developed and fine-tuned within the Toyota Motor Corporation as a critical component of its problem-solving training.


The basis of Toyota’s scientific approach is that by repeating ‘why’ five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear. Here is an example Toyota offers of a potential 5 Whys that might be used at one of their plants:

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Asking questions is a simple route into critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. Students could be presented with a real-world problem of tackling food security and using the ‘5 Whys’ technique, a conversation could go like this:


1. Why is there food insecurity in the world today?

The primary cause of food insecurity is poverty.


2. Why is there poverty in the world?

Lack of access to quality education is the primary reason why people still live in poverty. Without education, a person might not be able to get a good job or launch a successful career.


3. Why is there a lack of access to quality education?

One of the main reasons is persistent inequality and marginalisation of certain groups of people.


4. Why does this inequality and marginalisation exist?

The roots of this can be found in gender inequality in some parts of the world.


5. Why is there gender inequality in the world today?

One reason is the legal impediments to women undertaking economic activities.


What this approach highlights is that while ‘quick fixes’ to problems such as food insecurity may seem convenient, like increasing agricultural output, they often solve only the surface issues and fail to get to the root cause that could otherwise be tackled to help solve the original problem.


For me, if students are not asking why, I feel concerned. Why are they simply accepting what I say to them? Why are they not challenging facts or views? Critical analysis of ideas is essential in our current state of fake news. They may trust me, and that feels good, but really, I would be happier to see them thinking out loud.


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