I teach tenth grade world history at an urban charter school in Boston. Most of my students are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and many speak Spanish or Haitian Creole at home. This fall they started school having not attended regular in-person classes since March of 2020, which meant we  had some catching up to do on top of our usual work together. So I was especially proud last week when I read some pretty good essays on a challenging question: Why did the industrial revolution start in Britain, not in China? In this blog post I’ll explain how I used the Four Question Method, along with some things I learned from The Writing Revolution, to get these good results. I’ll show you two student work samples, and link to the lesson materials so you can try it for yourself.

Question Three Is Always Comparative

The Four Question Method builds social studies units around a sequence of questions that define our discipline. We start by teaching students to answer Question One, “What happened?” with a true story of a change over time. In this unit we learned about the industrialization of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Question Two focuses on some interesting people in the story and asks, “What were they thinking?” For this unit we asked about Adam Smith and Karl Marx and people who supported their ideas. Questions Three and Four pull back from the unit story and the individuals in it to ask more generalizing questions: “Why then and there?” and “What do we think about that?” The specific Question Three for this unit was a classic of world history: Why did the industrial revolution start in Great Britain, and not in China?

If you’ve taught world history, you’ve probably worked with a shorter, more common version of this question: Why did the industrial revolution start in Great Britain? But one important insight of the Four Question Method is that a good Question Three is always comparative. You can’t actually create a defensible explanation for why something happened in one particular place without contrasting it with another place. We teach our students this basic logical rule for answering Question Three:

“Explain a change with a change, and a difference with a difference.” 

If we want to explain why industrialization happened in Britain, as opposed to just describing how it happened there, we have to contrast Britain with another place where industrialization did not occur. That’s the difference we want to explain. We then look for contrasting conditions between Britain and the place that did not industrialize that could plausibly explain why Britain industrialized, but the other place did not. It’s those differences that we use to build a hypothesis about what conditions lead to industrialization generally.

Curriculum Materials: Why did the industrial revolution start in Great Britain, not in China?

Creating a hypothesis about the conditions that lead to industrialization is a challenging intellectual task for anyone. But 4QM curriculum materials that structure the task step by step make it do-able for students, and even fun. In building  the materials for this lesson I used the templates Gary and I developed for our book, From Story to Judgment. You can find the student-facing documents and a version that’s annotated for teachers here

There are two crucial intellectual steps in the process of answering Question Three, clearly laid out graphic organizers for students:

  • First, identify correlating factors. What was different about Britain and China?
  • Second, make explanatory claims. Say how these differences might have led to industrialization in Britain, but not in China.

These two steps took a full 52 minute class period working with the six documents, followed by a homework assignment, followed by a second 52 minute class period. We worked in small groups and discussed each step as a whole class, with student exemplars on the document camera. At the end of the second class period I had students complete the “sum up” part of the assignment, in which they wrote up their explanatory claims in a paragraph. 

There’s a third intellectual step in answering Question Three, which requires finding a third case to test the claims on. I didn’t do this part with my students, although it’s included in the teacher annotated documents. I’m planning to circle back to it when we learn about Stalin’s U.S.S.R., and I felt the assignment was challenging enough already.

Writing an Essay

Once we’d talked our way through steps one and two, I assigned my students to write up their claims in a five paragraph essay. Writing clearly is challenging for my students, but the task was made much easier by the clarity of the materials we had used to answer the question. Students could see how each main body paragraph would address one contrast between Britain and China, and understood that they needed to both describe the difference and explain how it led to industrialization in Britain but not in China. Because the “step two” graphic organizer includes sentence stems (thank you, Writing Revolution) students had an easier time of structuring both their main body paragraphs and their introductions. Paragraphs are just organized collections of sentences, and an essay is just an organized collection of paragraphs. Because the curriculum materials broke the thinking task down into its component parts, students were able to write an essay that most of them otherwise might have seen as too long or confusing.

Some readers might wonder if this step-by-step breakdown of thinking and writing tasks allows students to succeed without actually understanding the material. But being clear about what we’re asking doesn’t make historical thinking itself any less demanding, and my students’ papers demonstrated that writing a good essay requires accurate understanding. You can check out two student samples of main body paragraphs here. Student A understands the material, and Student B does not yet. I allow revisions on essays, so the student who misunderstood the situation of agricultural workers in China will get another shot at it. (And yes, these paragraphs are way too long — that’s on me. I should have coached them to split them in two, one for Britain and one for China.)

Try It, and Let Us Know How It Goes!

We’re actively seeking feedback on our curriculum materials, so please feel free to give this lesson a try and let us know how it goes. Obviously there are lots of possible variations here: you could change the order of the documents, you could jigsaw the documents, you could skip the essay and just do a discussion… knock yourselves out.

Whatever your lesson format, it’s always true that clear questions and procedures enable clear student thinking. The Four Question Method is a way to achieve both.

Thanks for reading, and we look forward to hearing from  you.