Thinking and Playing Under Pressure

By Herb Kohl

These are troubling times for teachers and students. The pressures of testing and being tested, the uncertainty of the future of tenure and evaluation, and the pressure to adopt new curricula create a worrisome climate for learning. Some experienced teachers I’ve talked with recently express the need to take some time with their students to play and speculate in a relaxed but challenging way.

What If? provides questions to tantalize even the most over-tested high school students:

If you suddenly began rising steadily at one foot per second, how exactly would you die? Would you freeze or suffocate first? Or something else?

How many unique English tweets are possible? How long would it take for the population of the world to read them all out loud?

What if a rainstorm dropped all of its water in a single giant drop?

These and other questions in the book are difficult to answer. But Randall Munroe does not leave you hanging or just skim the surface. Each question is followed by a short essay with diagrams that take you through the solutions and raise other related questions. The book is clear, eloquent, and easily accessible fun, perfect to stimulate an inquiring mind.

The other book I chose this summer, Stuff Matters, centers on a photo of the author, who is sitting on the roof of a building and talking on a cell phone. In front of him is a round outdoor table with a notebook, a coffee cup, and some chocolate. The table is on a concrete floor and there are potted plants on the roof. This photo becomes the basis for an exploration of the origins, science, and uses of ordinary materials that are part of our everyday lives, even though we don’t think or know much about them.

Each chapter begins with that same photo, labeled to indicate the material that is the subject of the chapter, and a heading that indicates a major property of that material. For example, the first chapter is titled “Indomitable” and one of the table’s legs is labeled steel. What follows is a brilliant discussion of alloys and the chemistry of steel, as well as its history and functions.

Here is a sampling of other chapter headings and the materials they describe:


Although Miodownik’s book recounts sophisticated science and history, it is personal and anecdotal. It is great to read and discuss a chapter at a time, then speculate on some of the stuff that constitutes our world and cultures. Whatever you do, don’t test students on these books. Let them simply “Enjoy, enjoy,” as my grandma used to say.