George Lucas Educational Foundation
Critical Thinking

Hypos: Real Engagement With Unreal Questions

Use hypothetical scenarios to help engage your students, efficiently apply knowledge, provide problem-solving exercises, build conflict-resolution skills, and reinforce study habits.
November 16, 2015
A closeup of two teenage students sitting in a classroom, talking, smiling, and laughing, with other kids sitting and talking in the background.
Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv via flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

A recent lesson in my ninth-grade language arts classroom reminded me of the power and efficiency of using hypos -- discussions based on hypothetical scenarios -- to engage students and extend their thinking.

What If . . . ?

At the start of a project-based research unit, we reviewed our school handbook's definition of academic misconduct. This wasn't exactly thrilling, inspiring work. But it was important to the students' learning that they improve the ethics of their practices. After reading together the handbook's academic misconduct definition, I asked students to discuss four hypos involving student actions to determine whether their conduct would constitute academic misconduct. In actuality, I based each hypo on behavior of prior students. Most students in this ninth-grade class identified misconduct in only two of the four scenarios -- the obvious examples of plagiarism. Discussing and debating these hypos helped me show students that behaviors such as letting non-productive groupmates take credit for work that they didn't perform or simply failing to cite sources properly could also constitute academic misconduct.

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Pushing students to apply a relatively simple definition of academic misconduct reminded me about hypos' simplicity and power. I couldn't believe that it had taken me 15 years to try incorporating them in this lesson.

I first came to appreciate the value of hypos as a student in law school, an institution where the pedagogy remains notoriously antiquated. But professors and students rely on hypos to address law's fundamental challenge. Learning black-letter law (the rules of statutes and common law) is easy, but learning how reasoning and policy affect analysis of differing facts can be brutally hard. Each case becomes a hypo, and law students learn quickly that "reading a case" also means thinking through how applying the case's reasoning would change given variations of the facts. My own experiences as a law student convinced me of the pedagogical value of hypos.

5 Reasons to Use Hypos

Hypos are a powerful, easy-to-include instructional tool worthy of use in any classroom. Here are five reasons that I deliberately feature hypos in my own pedagogy.

1. Engagement

Hypos furnish natural, authentic student engagement. Students delight in exercising their burgeoning ability to push beyond concrete thinking into abstract analysis. They also enjoy debating their answers. I suggest using clickers or Plickers to chart initial student answers for all to see to before beginning discussion. I also often conclude discussion of a hypo by asking students to re-vote so that we can see how discussion changed our perspectives.

2. Application

Hypos provide a means to move efficiently to application of knowledge. For instance, after just two or three minutes, my students could state the elements of our school's academic misconduct rule. Moving immediately to discussion of hypos invited my students to revisit the rule in order to close-read its language and consider its implications.

3. Multiple Perspectives in Problem Solving

The open-ended nature of hypo-based discussion leads to using multiple perspectives in solving problems. When discussing hypos, a student's peers model thinking strategies and demonstrate alternate paths to solutions. I am proudest when my students report that discussion of hypos helped them realize how others' support for their claims helped them synthesize a new, more thorough solution for themselves.

4. Conflict Resolution Skill Building

Successful conflict resolution depends on the parties' ability to appreciate each other's interests and generate creative possible solutions. Discussing hypos provides students with useful training in these skills. By simply asking "what if," students learn to try out possible solutions, evaluating their strengths and weaknesses without becoming inordinately invested in any one possibility. By seeing others model thinking that differs from their own but that leads to a solution which satisfies their own interests, students learn to accept that there is more than one way to skin a cat, so to speak.

5. An Efficient Study Method

I try to impress on students that one of the most efficient means for retaining information is to practice applying that information. I encourage them to form their own hypos as they study and generate -- or, better yet, discuss with others -- possible solutions. For example:

  • What if Gavrilo Princip had not assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand? Would World War I still have been fought?
  • How would the universe be different if the force of gravity were stronger or weaker?
  • How would Of Mice and Men have ended if Curley had gotten to Lennie before George did?

Simple hypos such as these force students to work intimately with facts and understand their implications, leading to strong long-term fact retention. And most students find such strategies more engaging than rote memorization.

Hungry, Hungry Hypos

A modestly creative teacher can find countless ways to incorporate hypos into lessons. Sometimes my students and I play a game that I call "Hungry, Hungry Hypos," involving small groups competing to produce the best-supported answers to a series of hypos. We use this game to open discussion about characters in a novel, perhaps, or to extend application of a concept, such as methods to organize an essay. ("What if your primary goal is to attract the interest of customers? What if your goal is to share findings with fellow professionals?") Whether they comprise a brief adjunct to a lesson or the heart of a unit, hypos work as an easy-to-plan, high-value instructional method that I encourage fellow teachers to try more often.

How do you engage students in critical thinking? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

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  • Critical Thinking
  • Collaborative Learning
  • Formative Assessment
  • Student Engagement
  • Teaching Strategies