As an educator who advises students working on theses and dissertations, there’s a standard question I ask—I refer to it as “the PhD question”: So what? It’s a shorthand to challenge students to consider the question: If everything you’ve just said is shown to be true, what will that mean for changes in our understanding of the world or how we engage with it?
I found myself using So what? again recently at ICER 2019, a community of education researchers that values openness and community building. I heard myself saying it, and I realized I didn’t like the tone of it at all. So what? is confrontational. It’s a conversation stopper, not a starter. It’s a blockade, not an invitation. Yes, I learned it from my graduate advisors way back when, and I think it’s time to put it to bed.
Instead, I feel like I should be drawing upon my experience—admittedly minimal—with improv and inviting students to take the next step, to build upon what they’ve said and go a step further: yes, and…?
In improv, yes, and… isn’t so much a question as a conjunction. You take what your scene partner has offered, agree that what they’ve imagined is reality(yes…) and build upon it (…and…). It serves to move an improv performance forward, rather than creating barriers by ignoring or even rejecting (no, but…) what your partners have offered.
For example, if your scene partner opens an invisible door to admit an invisible visitor, you accept the existence of the door and visitor as reality and add to that reality with your offering. Maybe you warmly welcome your invisible mother-in-law, adding a role to the previously anonymous visitor. Or maybe you walk into the (imaginary) open door, bumping your nose. In both ways, you’ve accepted a reality that’s been offered to you and imagined what comes next in that reality.
In working with students, suppose they want to propose a study of U.S. 6th grade students engaged with computing technologies. Their research hypothesis is that eating breakfast before taking a class about programming improves student attainment of learning outcomes. Yes, and…?
If they find evidence to support their hypothesis, then what comes next…? How should we change the world in light of their findings?
Should we consider funding a system of breakfasts offered before programming class? Or do we assume that whether someone eats breakfast is outside the scope of educators? Should we refuse to teach programming classes, unless everyone has recently been fed? In short, how should we change the world, if you find evidence consistent or inconsistent with your hypothesis?
Too often, people get bogged down in designing the questions they want to research, the activity they’ll conduct, or the methods they’ll use to collect evidence and forget to think about what it would mean, were their theories supported.
Yes, and…? is a way to expand how we think about the research we propose and present so that we’re attentive to how our work would change the world.