One of the most fun things about attending this year’s National Council for the Social Studies annual conference was meeting teachers from around the country who have been using the Four Question Method. They gave us great validation (a teacher from San Francisco stopped by our booth to enthuse, “This stuff works!”), and asked great questions. One excellent question came from a California teacher who attended our presentation on Saturday morning, and whose students are struggling with Question Three, “Why then and there?” That’s not surprising, since Question Three is the most abstract and difficult of the four questions, and it’s easy to get it wrong. In this blog post I’ll explain how Question Three is supposed to work, and describe some tools we use to help students (and teachers!) answer it well.


The specific case this teacher brought up was a lesson on South Carolina’s decision to secede from the United States in 1860. Lincoln had won the presidency that year, campaigning on a platform that called for no expansion of slavery beyond the states where it already existed. Before his inauguration, South Carolina became the first of the slave slates to declare themselves independent from the United States. The state issued a “Declaration of Secession” on December 24th, which the students had read and interpreted in class.

The teacher was having trouble getting her students to answer Question Three, “Why then and there?” about South Carolina’s secession. She described a common error: when she asked her students why the secession ordinance was approved in 1860, they re-told the story summarized above (that’s answering Question One, “What happened?”), and described the motivations of the South Carolina legislators (that’s answering Question Two, “What were they thinking?”). How could she get them to answer Question Three?


This is Jon writing, and I am very sympathetic to this error with Question Three because I made it myself for a long time. I’m a trained historian, and when Gary and I were working out the Four Question Method I spent eighteen months telling him that there was no Question Three. I argued that once we’d told a story and described the motivations of the actors in the story, nothing further was needed: we’d already explained why the events happened. Gary is a trained political scientist, and with great patience he eventually got me to see that Question Three defines a different kind of explanation than Questions One and Two, that we should also explore. 

The key insight that helped me to understand Question Three thinking, and that I offered to the teacher at our presentation, is this:

Question Three is always comparative.

Questions One and Two focus on one specific story, like the election of 1860 and South Carolina’s secession. Question Three is always comparing that one specific story with others, either in different times or different places. 

As a teacher working to structure that comparison for students, it helps to remember our first rule for answering Question Three:

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

The first part of this rule refers to change over time, and the second refers to differences across places. In the case of South Carolina’s secession, we’re going to compare South Carolina’s decision to secede in 1860 with previous times in the United States when states did not vote to secede. There must be something that changed by 1860 to make secession a more popular option than it had been previously.

The first step in structuring a Question Three comparison about change over time is to identify a specific long standing pattern that the event you want to explain disrupted. South Carolina seceded in 1860 in order to defend the institution of slavery. The secession broke a long-standing pattern of peaceful compromise on that issue. The leaders of the United States compromised on slavery when they wrote and ratified the Constitution in 1789. They compromised on slavery in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise, and again in the Compromise of 1850. There were many smaller incidents in which slave and free states came to agreements that preserved the union before December of 1860. Clearly, South Carolina’s decision to secede from the union broke this pattern: it’s a big change. What underlying change might explain that?


Identifying the comparison specifically is the first part of guiding students to a thoughtful answer to Question Three. Our second rule helps them (and us) to finish the job. That rule is, 

Factors, Not Actors

This rule is a reminder that we are seeking an explanation based on underlying changes in context or conditions, not specific stories of individual people. It’s easy to “answer” Question Three with circular logic: “South Carolina seceded in 1860 because by then many more people were in favor of secession than they were in 1820.” Yup. that’s a re-statement of the outcome we’re trying to explain, and an answer to Question Two. We want to take a metaphorical step back from that answer, and ask, “What underlying conditions had changed between 1820 and 1860 that might explain why so many more people favored secession in 1860?”

This phrasing helps us see that good answers to Question Three will use social science categories (political / economic / social, or others) and be generalized descriptions, not particular stories. So for example, in this particular case, one might answer the question above this way: 

The underlying political conditions in the United States changed between 1820 and 1860. In 1820, there was a balance between free and slave states. This meant that both sides could reasonably expect their interests to be represented on the federal level as the country expanded, so both had reason to compromise. By 1860 the balance had shifted in favor of the free states, with no prospect for its ever being restored. This meant that slave states like South Carolina had much less incentive for compromise within the framework of the U.S. Constitution, and secession became a much more attractive option to them than it had been earlier. 


As I said in the introduction to this post, Question Three is the hardest of the Four Questions. Answering it responsibly requires abstract thinking and knowledge of more than one historical story, and it helps if you’ve got some experience with the social sciences. But we know from our own experience and observation that when the student experience is well structured, even those who don’t read on grade level or have a lot of academic success behind them can engage Question Three puzzles effectively. And when they do, the “ah-ha” moments are especially sweet: kids feel really smart when they can answer a hard question well. 

We’re grateful to those of you trying the Four Question Method out in your classrooms, and taking the time to ask us questions. Keep them coming!