One of our favorite things about the Four Question Method (4QM) is how it helps social studies teachers to sort through and make better use of existing curriculum materials. We were reminded of this at a recent workshop when an eighth grade teacher said that he’d been using SHEG materials for years, and they sometimes work well in the classroom and sometimes don’t. He was really excited because he recognized that the Four Question Method gives him a framework to understand why some SHEG lessons work and others don’t, and the tools to make them succeed much more consistently. Understanding the 4QM makes planning engaging units and lessons using existing materials a lot easier. 

Most Curricula Don’t Understand Question Types

If you’re a social studies teacher or curriculum coordinator, you’ve probably heard of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) and maybe used their free curriculum materials. They’re a huge presence in our field. Another popular organization with a lot of free social studies curriculum is C3 Teachers. Like SHEG, it organizes social studies curriculum around student inquiry, and uses a lot of primary sources.

The problem with both of these groups’ materials is, as the teacher at our workshop found, that they don’t have a strong understanding of the different types of questions they are asking. This may be the pre-eminent problem in social studies curriculum. Most curriculum writers can’t identify the intellectual structures that differentiate between question types, so many of their inquiry lessons ask ambiguous questions, or boring questions, or questions that are rhetorically cute but impossible to answer honestly. (“Can Peace Lead To War?” Every time! Except when it doesn’t!) Without a clear understanding of question types, social studies teachers are left with vague similes and guesswork to determine what to ask students in order to elicit responsible thinking about the past. Sometimes they (or the curriculum writers) guess right, and the lesson goes well. Sometimes they guess wrong, and the lesson isn’t so great. Students don’t experience the cumulative intellectual growth that consistent questioning over time can produce. 

4QM Eliminates Guesswork

The Four Question Method takes the guesswork out of social studies inquiry. Teachers who understand the 4QM can use it to make existing curriculum materials much more effective in their classrooms. SHEG and C3 have done a great job of collecting and curating a wide range of primary and secondary sources related to important history topics, and presenting them in student-friendly formats. Most of their lessons can be tweaked into a 4QM format that will use those materials to teach social studies thinking clearly and consistently. 

Of course the gold standard would be curriculum materials designed for the Four Question Method from the beginning. We’ve started writing those materials, and our book describes how you can do the same. Let us know if you’d like to start a conversation about 4QM curriculum for your school or district. And in the meantime, apply the Four Questions to your existing curriculum materials — we think you (and your students) will enjoy the results.