4 Whys and 4 So Whats


Very often the simplest ideas are amongst the best. This one is incredibly simple – it works well as a ‘5 minute activity’, or as a warmer, or as something to do when asked to stand in for a colleague who is late.

  • 4 Whys drill down to the root of a problem.
  • 4 So Whats analyze the implications of a simple fact or statement

In my experience the ‘Whys’ nearly always lead to something interesting whereas the ‘So Whats’ can sometimes produce a dead-end.


1 Decide which of the two 4s you are going to use:

  • For the 4 Whys ask students to write down on a piece of paper a significant problem they are currently facing at work. They should write this as a single sentence.
  • For the 4 So Whats they should write down a significant fact that they have recently found out (eg the latest sales figures, the budget they are going to get to spend on a marketing campaign, the details of a reorganization, etc). Equally, they should write this as a single sentence.

2 Now go to the board and write up one of the phrases: ‘4 Whys’ or ‘4 So Whats’. Explain that you are going to say Why (or So What) 5 times, and each time you want them to write down another sentence to answer the question. They don’t show their sentences yet.

3 When they have six sentences (the original one plus the five answers) they can read them aloud to you, the group or a partner. This then leads into a more open discussion in class as the student is asked other questions (not just Why or So What), people react and join in the discussion, etc.

This activity works well as preparation for writing a short report. Often writing a report off the back of a speaking activity feels artificial, but here not. The reason is that stating a problem and analyzing its causes (the Whys) is a completely authentic area for report writing, as is analyzing the implications of important information (the So Whats).
In either case, the subject of the report is simply the very first sentence they wrote down: the statement of the situation. The rest of the report should be based on the whole discussion, and the students do not in any way have to follow the ‘4’ structure. Remember to set a reasonable word or paragraph limit.