The Four Question Method wasn’t explicitly designed to teach civics, but we think it does a really good job of it. In this post I’ll explain why teaching Question Two, “What were they thinking?” helps students to develop a critical civic disposition: listening to people who we expect to disagree with.
FOUR QUESTION STRUCTURE
The Four Questions were designed to structure historical inquiry, but they work equally well when applied to issues and events in the present day. Question One is “What Happened?” We start with a story, because you can’t think critically about events you don’t know very well. This is equally true about events that happened a century ago or a week ago.
Question Two focuses on important people in the story and asks, “What Were They Thinking?” We want to understand how the key people in our story understood their world and the decisions that they made. We try to understand the world from their point of view. We call this understanding “historical empathy.” It does not require agreement – indeed, we are often trying to understand people who we would not agree with if we met them today. For example, we want to know what Jefferson was thinking when he wrote that “all men are created equal” while he also owned men and women as property.
In order to achieve historical empathy we have to practice the thinking skill of interpretation. This means using evidence from the past to try to understand the minds of the people who created it. When we do a full Question Two inquiry lab in the classroom we usually work from primary source documents, especially in the upper grades. But we can also interpret artifacts, images, or patterns of behavior, which is more typical in the lower grades. Whatever the source, the 4QM interpretation process has three steps. First we identify and contextualize the source, then we summarize or describe it. What is it, how does it fit into our unit story so far, and what does it say?
The third step in the 4QM interpretation process asks us to consider the purpose and assumptions of the person or people who created the source. What was their goal? What are the things they must believe to be true about their world or about human nature, even though they don’t state them outright? How does the source itself support these interpretations?
AP GOVERNMENT: GUN CONTROL
This three-step process of interpretation works equally well when we’re working in the present day. We got a recent example of this from David Nasser, an AP Government teacher at an urban charter school in Brooklyn, New York. David was teaching a unit on gun control, and wanted his students to examine a variety of positions on that topic. The hazard when teaching a tough contemporary topic like this is that students often have an opinion already, and moving away from their position during class can feel like a defeat. And, of course teachers worry that in today’s politically polarized environment classroom conversations can easily become one-sided or intensely angry. But David found that the 4QM structure helped him to turn down the temperature and broaden the discussion in his classroom.
David assigned his students to read four position papers on gun control: from a Parkland High School student in Florida, a teen gun enthusiast from Iowa, a Black advocate of the Second Amendment as protection for Black people, and the head of the NAACP. Their assignment was to focus on Question Two: What were these authors thinking? What were their purposes in writing, and what were the assumptions underlying their positions?
David reported that the lesson went really well, because the Question Two focus forced the students to postpone judgment. Judgment is the thinking skill associated with Question Four, “What do we think about that?” It’s the thinking skill that requires us to articulate and support our own positions on a question about good and bad, right and wrong. David’s gun control lesson succeeded precisely because “the kids couldn’t discuss their own positions, which is Question Four, but had to figure out what the authors were thinking and what their assumptions were.”
David’s choice of sources was purposeful. He assigned two authors in favor of gun control and two opposed, and their purposes and assumptions were somewhat different in each case. By choosing this range of sources and by making it clear that this was a Question Two lesson, David prevented the kind of quick and confident judgment that can easily short-circuit classroom conversation. Instead of rushing to support people they assumed they would agree with, or to condemn people they assumed they would disagree with, students were forced to consider a range of positions on a serious issue carefully and thoughtfully.
This approach allows a subsequent Question Four lesson to be broader and more thoughtful as well. Taking the time to understand the assumptions of people who hold a different position from ours might turn up important areas of agreement, and truly understanding a range of opinions on an issue opens up more possibilities for our own judgments. Even if we don’t change our minds, having students focus on Question Two before Question Four reminds all of us to examine and articulate the assumptions we carry behind our judgments.
CIVICS IN A DEMOCRACY
If democracies were made up of like-minded people, civil discourse wouldn’t be so difficult — but they’re not, and it is. Question Two thinking is excellent training for democratic citizens. To answer Question Two well means listening deeply to other people, past or present. It means taking them seriously and trying to understand them on their own terms.
That might not change our ultimate judgment, but sometimes it might. And it will certainly make our judgments more thoughtful and considered, and our public conversations more civil.