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Tip of the Week – What if?

What if your students were able to change the past? Which events would they change and what would the outcomes be?

Following a unit of study, ask your students to think about the “what ifs” of history and give them the chance to do just that. You and your students brainstorm a list of the events that took place during the period of time just learned and select the two or three most pivotal.

Next, create a question for each event i.e. What if the D-Day invasion in June 1944 had failed? Have a simple graphic organizer prepared to help them sort out their thinking. On the left side of the organizer, they should explain the cause of the “new” event. On the right, students should list and explain the possible outcomes of the “new” event. In the case of the D-Day failure, the cause might have been that Eisenhower delayed the invasion for a month due to bad weather. Outcomes could include the development of German atomic weapons, a separate German-Russian peace treaty or even a different result in the Pacific due to a lack of resources and manpower.

You could create the questions yourself though I think working with your kids to write the What Ifs increases the student buy-in.

Possible topics might include:

  • What if early Chinese governments had encouraged world exploration?
  • What if North American indigenous peoples had been immune to European disease?
  • What if Eisenhower had given Patton enough gas in fall 1944?
  • What if Lee had won the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863?
  • What if Hitler had invaded the Middle East instead of Russia?

I know that many historians stick up their noses a bit when we talk about these kinds of counterfactuals or virtual histories. But I think most kids enjoy this type of thinking and they have a way of sucking kids into the practice of asking questions and thinking deeply about history. What Ifs also help activate prior knowledge and reinforce new learning.

There are a few books available that might be useful:

Give it a try and have fun!

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great exercise – I did something similar with my History class on their most recent exam… basically, what if the agricultural revolution had never happened?

    November 28, 2008
  2. glennw #

    I like your question! Having a US history background makes it harder for me to think at the world level.

    I’ll be working with a group of secondary teachers next week – I think we’ll spend some time brainstorming possible counterfactuals. Hopefully it will be useful for them but I’ll get a lot out of it.


    November 29, 2008

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