Book review: From What Is to What If

This book sets out a charming utopian vision – and then suggests that it might actually be achievable

Charly Barrett

From 'what is' to 'what if'

From What Is to What If: Unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want

Author: Rob Hopkins
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Details: 224pp; £19.99
ISBN: 978-1603589055

One might expect a book with “What if” in the title to be somewhat whimsical, almost airy-fairy in its approach to some of the core fundamental questions that underpin our society and our future. Yet this book is anything but.

The introduction sets out a charming, idyllic utopian world, which is both captivating and curious. 

Author Rob Hopkins cements what most of us hope for: for everything to be OK – and not just now, in the present. He offers us a future that most readers aspire to: a future in which communities and environments blossom, political furore and the word “Brexit” no longer loom over our society, education is no longer all about exam results and, most significantly, people work together for the common good. 

Achievable ideals

What, however, is most extraordinary about this book is that Hopkins doesn’t just present us with this utopian ideal. He puts forward an array of examples, case studies and evidence that show that this ideal is achievable. Much of what is needed to achieve this is already being done around the world, but only in small pockets of communities, industries and educational sectors.

In his book, he poses questions such as: “What if we started asking better questions?” and “What if we considered imagination vital to our health?”– questions that directors, managers, leaders and educators have all asked themselves at some point. 

For most of us, providing an answer to these questions is a task that we just do not have the knowledge, resources or time to address. This is where Hopkins’ work comes into its own: he has reached out, across an array of sectors, to provide the answers to these huge questions.

Much of what Hopkins discusses focuses on the power and use of imagination among us as adults, and among the children whom we raise as parents or teach as educators. He puts forward the notion that “attention and imagination are inextricably linked. One does not exist without the other.” Thus, he says, we must harness and embrace both. 

Nurturing young imaginations

His questions lead him to explore issues in the book such as the need for creativity, screen time, stress management, social space and human interaction, to name but a few. 

Hopkins does not claim to be an educationalist. Thus, while his book puts forward his own musings in relation to his big what-if questions, his answers are also underpinned by a great deal of research. 

An example of this is when he explores the question “What if school nurtured young imaginations?” Of course, in an ideal world we’d all love to believe that imagination is fostered within the classroom. Yet, as Hopkins highlights, “Twenty-six percent [of children] feel as though they do not need to use their imagination for their work, study or schoolwork.” 

It is from here that Hopkins then provides numerous examples of where imagination is being fostered and nurtured, such as in The Green School in Copenhagen or the School of the Possible in France. 

Hopkins’ research-based approach and recounts of meetings with leaders from these establishments such as these in turn provide the answers to the big what-if questions of the book.

Far from being abstract ideals, Hopkins provides the reader with tangible, achievable ideas, approaches and concepts, all of which wouldn’t take too much effort if applied. 

Making the impossible possible

What is needed –  as his book highlights – is to allow ourselves to imagine that the “impossible” can indeed be possible. We just need to look to others who, in most cases, are already doing it within their own sectors.

There are many lessons to be taken from Hopkins’ book. What is most telling is how he himself is not just exploring these questions in his writing, but is applying them in real life. Too many radicals write books, blogs and articles where they just put forward their ideas. 

In this instance, however, the author himself is making it happen, in a little town in Devon, in a way that the reader can, too. By the end of the book, the utopian ideal that was set out in Hopkin’s introduction seems somewhat less distant and somewhat more achievable. All it really takes is a bit of imagination.

Charly Barrett is assistant principal of Glenmoor and Winton Academies, in Bournemouth

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Charly Barrett

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