Jon and I got invited to present at a Learning and the Brain conference in New York last weekend. Before we presented, we got to hear a series of talks by psychologists and neuroscientists. I have to say, it made me nervous. We figured out the Four Question Method by teaching real students ourselves and observing other teachers do the same thing. We experimented, for sure, but in a decidedly unscientific way. (We never 4QM’d one of our classes while teaching traditionally to a control group, for example.) So, sitting through lectures by people who actually do experiments was a bit nerve wracking. What if they told us things that made us doubt our method?

They didn’t. On the contrary, the speakers gave us good reasons to believe that what we’ve observed in our classrooms is what brain science would predict. Naturally, this conclusion isn’t particularly scientific either. We were motivated listeners, not impartial auditors. And, there’s lots more to consider about our method than what we learned at the conference. But we were gratified to learn that what we figured out on our own reconciles nicely with what researchers have discovered experimentally. 

Willingham: Re-Tell The Story

The first speaker was Dan Willingham, whose book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, I read while we were writing ours. Willingham shared highlights from his forthcoming book. The part of his talk most relevant to the 4QM was about note taking during lectures. The goals of note taking during a talk (which I practiced as he preached!) are to prompt recall and to help fix information in long term memory. In surveys, college students report as much: they know why they’re taking notes. That doesn’t mean they do it right. According to Willingham, notes achieve their purpose when they record what the note taker was thinking about during the lecture. In other words, our notes shouldn’t be transcripts or copies. They should capture our thought process as the speaker engages it. 

In Why Don’t Students Like School?, Willingham wrote that “memory is the residue of thought.” That is, we remember what we think about. Our notes should facilitate that, both as we take them and as we use them for study. Willingham reported that his own students at the University of Virginia accept this part of his argument. They get that they shouldn’t be copying things he says, but rather recording the meaning they make of what he said, in their own words. 

The second part they struggle with: study your notes by reorganizing them. This is where I had a 4QM-connection moment. When Jon and I give narrative lectures, or assign students narrative readings and tell them to take notes on them, we follow that up by asking students to use their notes to create storyboards (or, sometimes, to write BBS sentences). Making meaning from a record of our thinking consolidates what we’ve learned, and so becomes part of the velcro in our brains that we can use as an adhesive for new knowledge. The four-box storyboard does what Willingham says we should do, and that students are reluctant to do: it gets them to think and make choices about a story we want them to learn well. 

Immordino-Yang: Question Four Helps You Remember

We also heard Mary Helen Immordino-Yang give a talk on the role of emotions in learning. She shared two things that connected to what we’ve observed and incorporated in the 4QM. First, she pointed out that enduring memories come from activating episodic as well as semantic and procedural memory. This point is a bit technical, but put simply: students remember better when the story they’re learning connects to a story they tell about themselves, about who they are. (That’s what episodic memory does: it keeps a record of salient events that help us to figure out who we are.) 

When we set out to “kill the list” and replace it with storytelling as the basis for learning history, this is what animated us. Lists mean nothing to our students. Memorizing them is a chore. On the other hand, real stories about real people doing remarkable things — that’s what we get to teach about, and that’s what our students get to think about, if we’re teaching history the right way. It’s on us as teachers to animate those stories, to make them real to our students. We do that, in part, by inviting our students to see the actors as real, complicated people. Digging in with Question Two (What were they thinking?) is particularly helpful for that: it gets us closer to those people by showing us how they saw the world. 

Immordino-Yang also reported on evidence that “admiration for virtue” invokes a very strong response from students (and the rest of us). People admire skillful people. But they remember the exceptionally good. Immordino-Yang told us a story about a Chinese woman, a new doctor sent out to the countryside to do an internship before starting her practice in a big city. As she was about to return from her internship, she was called to assist a woman having a difficult childbirth. After that, she decided that her place was with these underserved people who needed her. So she stayed. (And I remembered the story, without notes!)

Question Four asks, What do we think about that? When we think about people who do admirable things, we activate all kinds of emotional responses that lock their stories in memory. We made consideration of virtue a basic element in the 4QM. It turns out that our brains resonate to that kind of consideration. 

Gotschall: Question Your Story

Finally, we heard Jonathan Gottschall talk about the power of stories, for better and for worse. Gottschall isn’t a scientist, but he writes about the research he’s read and interpreted for a popular audience. Like the others who spoke, Gottschall emphasized the power of stories to lodge in memory. He also pointed out that we almost can’t avoid telling them, even when the information we’re given barely registers as a narrative. (He shared a short video of geometric shapes moving around on a screen. Even that we turned into a story, which audience members shared.) 

Gottschall’s main point was that stories can mislead as well as they can inform. For sure. Social media is full of bizarre stories that people seem to take at face value. Those stories satisfy an urge to make meaning of a messy, complex reality. That so many of them are bogus doesn’t make them any less satisfying to lots of people. 

Jon and I are resolute advocates of “Story First!” But we’ve never said or meant to imply that storytelling is enough. The 4QM is an inquiry method. We want our students to learn true stories about real people doing memorable things, for sure. But we also want them to acquire the tools to take those stories apart and to interrogate them. What really happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? Each of the four questions slows us down and forces us to rethink the story we just learned. Stories are fast and sticky. The 4QM is designed to slow us down. In the end, the method is designed to teach students both important stories and how to think skillfully and critically about them. So far, the evidence suggests it’s a pretty good idea.