"We want to educate students so that they become larger, more open, more independent human beings, able to function effectively in a world of rapid social and moral change. We believe that a person struggles toward these goals through a process of integrating his thoughts, his concerns and his actions. Our teaching will be directed toward the development of this perspective, this sense of an integrating self." (Borton, Reach, Touch and Teach, p. 66, 1970)
This was the spirit of a group of teachers in the mid-1960s - the spirit, or soil, in which the seed of the 'What Model' was planted and grew.
"We wanted to build a curriculum which would explore the concern for identity by concentrating on the students' own sense of disparity between what they thought about in school, what they were concerned about in their own lives, and the way they acted" (p. 66).
In essence, the What? So what? Now what? model was created as a 'process' to help young people navigate every day concerns. The 'Curriculum of Concerns' these teachers built was the overall structure, the What Model was one of the tools within the structure.
Terry Borton is the author of, Reach, Touch and Teach: Student Concerns and Process Education, published in 1970. Borton, at the time, was an English teacher in the Philadelphia schools during the desegregation era in the United States. After his first year of teaching English (1964), he was inspired to, "talk over an extended period of time with students about things they thought were important" (p. 23). The following summer (1965), Borton and a handful of teachers, "got the chance to run an experimental summer school [Friends' Summer Workshop]...to make an unfettered attempt at finding out how to meet students where they were and show them where they could go" (p. 23). The curriculum they envisioned was designed to explore the diverse social aspect of human life and self-identity. The same area of focus we still have today as 'social' educators and team builders.
I could go on with rich examples from the book about these incredible teachers and how they learned to meet their students where they were, a well-known group facilitation strategy still important today, but I'll leave that up to you if you're interested in getting the book. Let's jump to how the What Model came to be.
Through a variety of classroom activities like role plays, art and poetry, the students in the Summer Workshops were taught useful things about personal development and human relationships. They were also taught about the many ways of responding to different situations that were common in their lives (again, practicing in the classroom). But, the teachers thought, "unless our curriculum explicitly made the transition from literary metaphor to process, we [doubted] many students would make it [out in the world] by themselves" (p. 75).
According to behaviorist theory, "[c]hanges in behavior are seen as a function of the stimulus and the way the response is reinforced. Reinforcement of a particular response is usually accomplished by rewarding its occurrence" (p. 77). In behaviorist practice, this process, more often than not, required at least two participants. Someone would be providing the stimulus and another person the response (e.g., teacher and student). Then, if a different response was desired the stimulus provider would make a change in the stimulus in the hopes of a different response.
The teachers surmised, the process (or tool) they would teach to their students would initially involve sensing information or stimuli - noticing something important to them. Then, transforming this information by giving it personal meaning and value. Finally, acting on this meaning and value after, "rehearsing possible actions and picking one to put into the world as an overt response" (p. 78). "The person using these processes," the teachers believed, will not be "governed solely by the nature of the stimulus and/or reinforcement of the response but is also influenced by feedback on how successful [s]he is achieving [her]his own goals" (p. 79).
Here is the crux of this historical exploration. The What Model was initially developed as a personal growth tool (process). Something young people (the teachers' students) could apply out in the world to help them in the pursuit of their goals - to help them act upon their real life concerns. Within this Model, awareness and feedback were vital. Borton writes, "awareness of the difference between his [sic] response, its actual effect, and the intended effect, forms feedback which can be used to modify behavior" (p. 79). Implicitly, the awareness and feedback were the responsibility of the individual working through the process. However, there are a number of examples in the book where feedback is offered by teachers and students alike over role play exercises and students sharing personal experiences they were going through at the time.
'What?' for Sensing out the difference between response, actual effect, and intended effect [remember, based on a personal goal]; 'So What?' for Transforming that information into immediate relevant patterns of meaning [awareness and feedback - did that meet the goal or not]; 'Now What?' for deciding on how to Act on the best alternative and reapply it in other situations [when doing something different to meet a goal is required]" (p. 88).
For those of you familiar with the What Model, you have probably had the realization that its initial intent rings pretty true to how it's still being used today and how else it's used today. Eighteen years after Reach, Touch and Teach was published, the What Model was included in the book, Islands of Healing: A Guide to Adventure Based Counseling, by Schoel, Prouty & Radcliffe. With a reference to Borton, the Model is shared as a "Debriefing sequence" for adventure-based experiential group work. After an adventurous experience, a group can use the What? So What? Now What? sequence to comfortably think about what happened during the experience and eventually get to the "nub of the experience" and use the insights for future interactions or change.
Since, Islands of Healing, the What Model continues to make its way into the reflection and processing experiences of many different groups. It has also been combined with other Models to emphasize (and even simplify) the pathways in complex psychological theories (e.g., Ladder of Inference). The good news (still) is, What? So What? and Now What? Model is a useful tool (an information processing model) in any team builders repertoire. And, to know it was designed to help people meet the goals they aspired to, keeps us on track to use it for the same ends.
Keep doing the good work out there!
Chris Cavert, Ed.D.
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Dr. Chris Cavert is an educator, author and trainer. His passion is helping team builders learn and grow.