A month ago I wrote a blog post about how the Four Question Method can take existing inquiry based social studies curriculum and make it better. Most inquiry curricula lack a clear understanding of question types, so they often ask questions that don’t work very well in the classroom because they are ambiguous, or can’t be answered effectively as written.

The fact is, it’s easy to write ambiguous or boring or unserious questions. One of the reasons we defined the Four Question Method is to make it easier for history teachers to write good questions. We like to say that we didn’t invent the Four Question Method, we observed it. We created our question types after years of observing history teachers and practicing in our own classrooms, and it’s proven to be an excellent tool for designing, or improving, inquiry lessons in history and social studies. This week I’m going to show you how you can use the 4QM to improve this question from the C3 Teachers unit on the French Revolution:

“Did Napoleon’s rise to power represent a continuation of or an end to revolutionary ideals?”

This is a common type of history question: the either/or question. Teachers like these because they force choices, and we tend to think that forcing students to take sides will generate good class discussion. It’s true that either/or questions may generate high participation, but if your question is unclear you won’t generate high quality student thinking. Let’s apply some 4QM thinking to this question to see how it can be improved. 

Clarify The Question: Q1? or Q4?

As written, it’s not clear what type of question this is. It might be a Question One, “What Happened?” In that case, we should rewrite it so that it’s clearly asking students to compare what Napoleon actually did with revolutionary ideals. To answer that question effectively, students would have to know what the revolutionary ideals were, and then compare things that Napoleon did with those ideals. That’s demanding, which is a good thing. But of course, Napoleon did both kinds of things: Some of his actions continued revolutionary ideals, and some of them contradicted them. That’s the only honest answer to the question, which is why the question in its current form is misleading: the either/or is pretend, because the correct answer is “both.” So as a Question One this is an exercise in categorizing. Valuable, for sure. But ultimately I think it’s not especially interesting.

The more interesting option that jumps out here is a Question Four, ”What Do We Think About That?” The clue here is the verb “represent” in the current question. The question writers don’t just want to know what Napoleon did. They’re also asking for students’ judgment on those things. What do Napoleon’s actions “represent?” That’s a question that’s asking us for our judgment today, in the present. So let’s make that more clear. Instead of making the question an exercise in categorization (promotions by merit in the military = for revolutionary ideals,  censoring newspapers = against revolutionary ideals), let’s clarify that it’s asking for an ethical judgment:

“Consider Napoleon’s reign as Emperor of France. Do you think Napoleon should be admired or condemned?”

Students need to know a lot in order to answer this question well, and they may even need the categories of things Napoleon did that support or oppose revolutionary ideals. But an honest Question Four gives us more room for real debate. Napoleon violated many revolutionary ideals. Was that bad? Or was an authoritarian ruler the best kind of ruler for post-revolutionary France? What do we think of the revolutionary ideals, anyway? 

I’ve had good luck with this question by starting class with a virtual tour of Napoleon’s Tomb in Paris. It’s clear that the government of France thinks Napoleon is worthy of admiration. Are they right?

Writing questions that generate high quality student thinking requires intellectual clarity. Applying 4QM thinking can give teachers, and their students, that clarity.

J. B.