"What If...?" movement aims to open minds, one question at a time

Friday, November 29, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 6:57 p.m. CST, Sunday, December 1, 2013
Matt Murrie and Andrew McHugh have developed the "What If...?" movement to open minds and stimulate curiosity. They typically work from the downtown incubator, a public collaborative space on East Walnut Street.

COLUMBIA —  What if there were lions in America?

What if women were in charge?

What if schools became extinct and learning became the model for education?

These questions might seem like the wisps of thought that run through the mind before drifting off to sleep.

But for Matt Murrie and Andrew McHugh, asking "what if" questions is the most important way to think about almost anything. It forces people to look at the world differently, and it might accelerate change.

In the past three years, the two men have developed the "What If...?" movement to open minds and stimulate curiosity.

They've held two "What If...?" conferences, submitted a business plan and a book deal and are designing a makerspace — an art and building studio open to the public — in Columbia. Murrie also blogs about the movement on The Huffington Post.

Now, they want to start more ripples of awareness and spread it around the globe.

Murrie and McHugh wonder what would happen if everyone in the world became more curious. Without a doubt, they believe life everywhere would improve.

What if optimism ruled the world?

Murrie and McHugh landed on the idea for "What If...?" simultaneously.

After a liberal arts education at Westminster College in Fulton and a stint in the Peace Corps in Macedonia and Honduras, Murrie was accustomed to a free-thinking environment driven by curiosity and innovation.

When he returned home to the United States, he found himself frustrated by a culture of stubbornness and intellectual conformity.

He returned to Westminster College in 2009 to teach English and met McHugh, then a student.

McHugh was also thriving in an environment where he was free to enjoy literature and physics, debate vigorously with students and faculty, and contemplate difficult questions.

"Meeting Andrew and having that conversation about what we both liked and appreciated about a liberal arts education was really a shot of B12 in the butt," Murrie said. "It reminded me to not give up."

Inspired by TED Talks about innovation and problem-solving, the two decided to take inspiration from the active curiosity of the Westminster campus and TED Talks tocreate "What If...?"

Between sips of pumpkin beer on a recent afternoon, the two imagined a world where everyone asks questions and engages in deep conversations, and no one is afraid to admit a lack of knowledge or a desire to learn more.

They are optimistic that the "What If...?" movement can make that happen.

What if socks didn't match?

Murrie gave his own TED Talk last year at the Missouri Theatre in Columbia. He called it, "What If ...Our socks didn't match?"

He spent his 18 minutes talking about the importance of posing questions as a way to generate new ideas.

What if video games could save lives? What if we lived in car-free cities? What if time did not exist? What if there were healthy fast food?

The number of questions is infinite.

They can be whimsical: What if your socks didn't match? Would that be embarrassing or liberating?

Or, they can be profound: What if everyone were treated equally? Would there be greater opportunities and less poverty for more people?

"Ideas worth spreading only spread if there's a community to spread them," Murrie said.

What if education could be reformed?

Murrie and McHugh believe in self-reliance. McHugh, for example, cuts his own hair,  fixes his own bicycle and brews his espresso the way he likes it.

Self-reliance is a key component of their makerspace, a creative studio to be available to anyone who wants to build — rather than purchase — life's necessities. The space would be a way to encourage self-sufficiency in everyone.

One of the most important extensions of the 'What If...?' movement, Murrie and McHugh say, is its application to education.

They are writing a curriculum that embraces the movement and promotes active curiosity. It could give students ways to think outside the boundaries of worksheets and book reports in favor of questions and innovate solutions.

Educators seem to love it.

They say teachers around the country have contacted them to integrate the "What If...?" model into their classrooms.

Denise Ford runs the gifted program at North Kirkwood Middle School in St. Louis and has a doctorate in education and learning. She believes the movement is empowering for students, and she has been working with teachers at Clayton High School to plan an event for their classrooms. 

"The entire concept of 'What If...?' is so powerful because I think most learning is through asking questions," Ford said.

What if I'm wrong?

"What If...?" is also based on the premise that we are wrong all the time," Murrie said.

That concept may seem counterintuitive, he said, but it forces evaluation and progress.

When writing a business plan, planning the next 'What If...?' event or submitting a report, he assumes it's wrong.

"We are comfortable with that," Murrie said.

"Because it means that hopefully we will be doing better next year," McHugh added.

They paused the conversation to wonder aloud: What if politicians, professors and business leaders adopted that mentality?

"We have this idea of 'never admit you're wrong, never show any weakness, and therefore you'll be better,'" Murrie said. "But we can never improve if we don't admit that we can be wrong."

What if we could predict the future?

Murrie dreams of a future where more people unleash their curiosity and leave themselves free to wonder what possibilities and solutions really exist.

Later this year, the third ‘What If…?’ conference will take place in Columbia.

At the first "What If...?" conference in May, dozens gathered in Fulton to see how far their curiosity could take them. Participants didn't need to be experts; they just need to be curious and active listeners.

"What If...?" questions were followed by presentations and breakout sessions for discussion and analysis.

On-site art exhibitions also let the group explore questions related to creativity, and participants had ample time to mingle, debate and imagine.

A few had life-changing experiences.

McHugh described one Westminster student whose father was pressuring him to abandon his dream of pursuing philosophy and instead study information technology in Texas. 

"We got to talking after the conference," McHugh said. "Over the next year, he decided to stay at Westminster and study philosophy."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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