Category: 4QM Teaching

“I Don’t Know How To Do It”

We recently heard from an elementary teacher who admitted to skimping on social studies instruction in her classroom. She explained that she knows it’s important, but “I just don’t know how to do it.” 

This is a common problem. Elementary teachers have lots of ideas and models for teaching math and reading. That’s not surprising, since these subjects get the lion’s share of teaching time, and are what most states test. There are lots of elementary math curricula, and most teachers have an image in their minds of what a math lesson looks like. We demonstrate addition, and have students practice addition problems. Throw in some manipulatives, write some funny word problems, voila – math lesson. The recent push for science-aligned reading instruction (which we strongly support) has certainly made it clear that there is also a wealth of resources and ideas available for elementary reading instruction. 

But social studies in the early grades? Not so much. Elementary schools don’t devote a lot of time to social studies, and there are fewer resources available. But this teacher’s lament goes well beyond a lack of available resources. She’s complaining about her lack of understanding of the discipline itself. She has a planning problem because she doesn’t really know how the discipline of social studies works. 


When this teacher said she doesn’t “know how to do” social studies, she was talking about learning activities. What sorts of things make up a good social studies lesson? What do the students actually do? What’s the equivalent of manipulatives and addition practice in social studies? 

Anyone who’s ever been a teacher has felt this kind of anxiety. And because we conceive of the planning problem in this way (“what are we going to do?”) we often make the error of conceiving of the solution in terms of activities. How am I going to fill my social studies block tomorrow? I’ll show a BrainPop video on Martin Luther King Junior! I’ll have the students make stovepipe hats like the one Abraham Lincoln wore, or make their own flags!

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities. But patching a twenty-five minute hole in your week with an activity isn’t really teaching social studies, and collecting a lot of activities doesn’t actually answer the important question that this teacher is really asking: What intellectual tasks make up good social studies instruction?


The Four Question Method answers that question simply and directly. There are four intellectual tasks in our field: narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. We do these things in response to the four questions that define inquiry in our field: What happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that?

In our book we explain various ways to structure lessons and learning activities so that students of all ages can engage deeply in answering these Four Questions. It turns out that narration, giving a true and accurate answer to Question One (what happened?), is a challenging skill — and one that students really enjoy mastering. Once students know a historical story, they can dive into the minds of the people involved, and use artifacts, images, or the story itself to answer Question Two (what were they thinking?). Question Three (why then and there?) helps young students to begin to understand the myriad ways in which the past differs from the present. And judgment questions (Question Four, what do we think about that?) loom large in the elementary classroom, where student conversation about right and wrong is such an important part of instruction.


We once worked with a fifth grade teacher who called the Four Question Method “the Swiss Army knife of history teaching: it gives me four tools, each with multiple uses. It cuts through all the red tape I have in my head about planning, and gives me and my students a clear and smart way to think about what we’re learning.” 

He meant that by focusing social studies teaching and learning clearly on specific and accessible questions, the Four Question Method solves the social studies planning problem. It gives teachers a clear intellectual schema that guides their thinking, and allows them to define clear learning tasks for students. With 4QM training, both students and teachers can know how to do social studies.


Real Content. Real Questions. Real Thinking.

Happy New Year to all our readers! We wish you all the best for 2024. In this post we are looking back to one of our highlights for 2023: a visit to a fifth grade classroom that was using 4QM curriculum. In this post I’ll describe what we saw there and explain how the curriculum made it possible. We’ll be writing even more curriculum in 2024, and it will all follow the same basic structure that made this fifth grade classroom successful.

The visit took place during the 2023 national social studies conference, which was in Nashville in early December. We had a great time at the conference; we saw some old friends and made new ones, we met people who’ve read our book (thank you!), we gave a presentation, we went to presentations — it was two full days of history teaching nerds hanging out and talking all things social studies. Next year’s event will be in our hometown of Boston, and we hope to see you there.

As it happens, Nashville is home to Nashville Classical Charter School, a K-8 charter network that has been working with us to adapt their social studies curriculum to the Four Question Method. On the Friday afternoon of the conference we took a group of social studies leaders from Texas, along with journalist and 4QM Teaching advisor Natalie Wexler, to observe a fifth grade classroom that was using a 4QM unit on Native Americans. 

A Question Four Lesson

The lesson we saw came towards the end of the unit. Students had learned about Native Americans and their history of conflict with settlers, and about the Indian wars of the late 1800s. On the day we visited, students were focusing on Chief Joseph, the leader of the Nez Perce tribe. After a series of battles against U.S. military forces, the Nez Perce were ordered to remove themselves to a reservation. They resisted at first, fighting and trying to flee to Canada. But eventually, when military victory or freedom in Canada seemed impossible, Chief Joseph made the decision to surrender to the U.S. army. Students had read his surrender statement, and were now making their own judgments: did Chief Joseph do the right thing?

In 4QM terms, this lesson is a Question Four: “What do we think about that?” The classroom discussion was robust. Most students thought that surrender was the right decision, since it would almost certainly save lives. But two thought that fighting on would have been a better choice, since surrender might mean the end of Nez Perce culture, and there is honor in sacrifice. One student compared Chief Joseph to his grandfather, who had fought in Bosnia in the late 20th century. All the students wrote full sentences explaining the reasoning behind their judgments, and student engagement was high throughout the class period.

In our post conference with the teachers of the class, they credited the 4QM unit with improving their classroom culture. This was the first 4QM unit the class had used, and teachers reported that their students were noticeably more focused and productive than they had been in earlier history units. The discussion that we saw was a high point for them, and they were definitely looking forward to upcoming 4QM units on ancient Greece and Rome. (One teacher actually got a bit teary as she described the progress this group had made in their ability to learn together.)

Why Did It Work?

What was it about the 4QM unit that made it so effective? We think there are three things. First, we always start a unit by teaching real historical content (regular readers know our unofficial slogan: “Story First!”). Every unit opens with a contrast between the setting, the unit’s start date, and the outcome, the unit’s end date. In this case, the setting was 1492: 100% of the population of North America was Native American. And the outcome was today: 3% of the population of North America is Native or partly Native American. How did that happen? The contrast between the beginning and end of the story piques student curiosity, and motivates them to learn the story that unfolds between those dates. Students need to learn the story before they can be asked to think effectively about it. By the time the students we observed were judging Chief Joseph, they knew a lot about the changes that had happened in North America since 1492.

Second, we ask real questions about the story. Every 4QM unit is based around story-specific versions of the Four Questions that define thinking in history/social studies. First students need to answer Question One, “What happened?” for each part of the unit story as they learn it. We then ask Question Two, “What were they thinking?” about key people in the story. We ask Question Three, “Why then and there?” about an interesting outcome of the story. (The Question Three for this unit is “What three advantages allowed the settlers to finally defeat the Native Americans?”) And we choose an important decision point in the story to ask Question Four, “What do we think about that?” 

When we say these are “real questions” we mean that they define serious intellectual tasks that scholars in our field engage with. One way we know this is that when we do unit preparation with teachers, we are able to discuss all the unit questions seriously as adults. When we prepped the Native Americans unit with two fifth grade teachers at Nashville Classical, they had a deep disagreement about Chief Joseph’s decision. This surprised them both, and illustrated why it was a real Question Four: serious and responsible people can and do answer it differently. 

And finally, the Four Question Method teaches students real thinking skills. In our book we provide rubrics for answering each question, and in our preparation work with teachers we practice the thinking skills associated with each: narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. Because we have defined these skills clearly and provided a clear structure for teaching and learning them, a wide range of students can access them effectively. This means that discussions like the one we witnessed about Chief Joseph happen with more depth and engagement than they would without the method, because the whole class can participate meaningfully and responsibly.

We were proud and happy to see our curriculum working so well with students, and we were gratified to see the teachers’ enthusiasm for the Four Question Method. You can check out the Native Americans unit guide here, and the unit storyboard here. Looking ahead to 2024 we are planning to write more curriculum units, and we will be building a curriculum section of our website to make them available to anyone with an internet connection. Here’s to a great new year for all of us!


Judgment Questions: “Is It Just? Is It Effective?”

I recently had the pleasure of giving a workshop with our friend and colleague Art Worrell, the history curriculum leader for the Uncommon Schools network and co-author of a new book on secondary school history teaching. We were working with a group of social studies teachers in Indianapolis, and we opened the day with a lesson simulation that took the participants through all four questions of the Four Question Method as though they were students. Art is a master teacher, and he designed a really engaging lesson about the Stono Rebellion of 1739. You may not have heard of it, but it was one of the most important rebellions of enslaved people in the thirteen colonies. It happened in Stono, South Carolina, which is near the coast (today it’s actually part of Charleston) and was about 150 miles from Spanish Florida.

Art told the story of the rebellion, so our “students” could answer Question One, “What happened?” After establishing the story, we interpreted a primary source to try to answer Question Two, “What were they thinking?” about the insurrectionists. Then we identified things that were different about South Carolina in 1739 so we could answer Question Three, “Why then and there?” 


After we’d done all that, we asked two versions of Question Four, “What do we think about that?” The first version was specific to the Stono Rebellion: “Did the Stono insurrectionists do the right thing?” The second version was general: “When is it right to rebel?” 

The Question Four discussions were really fun, and they illuminated a key distinction that is very helpful to keep in mind when teaching Question Four. When considering if a decision or action is “the right thing” or not, it’s helpful to guide students to think about two different questions: is the decision or action just? (as in fair or ethical), and is it effective?


At the outset of our conversation about the specific Question Four, did the Stono insurrectionists do the right thing, everyone in the room said yes. That’s because they were all thinking about justice. We all quickly came to consensus that enslaved people are justified in rebellion, and even violent rebellion. So in that sense, the Stono insurrectionists did the right thing. 


But our conversation didn’t end with ethics. Art pointed out that while a revolt of enslaved people might be ethical, it might not actually be advisable. We had a much more lively conversation about whether the Stono Rebellion was a good idea from a practical standpoint. Was it effective?

Of course we know, with hindsight, that in this case the answer was “no.” The rebels did not achieve freedom, and were all executed. South Carolina then passed much more restrictive laws regulating slavery, in order to prevent future revolts. But of course, the people at the time could not know this outcome in advance. When leading students through a question four discussion, teachers have to emphasize this reality and ask students to put themselves in the position of the people we’re studying. Given what they knew at the time, was rebellion worth the risk?

This question produced a very lively discussion, and also demonstrated why it’s crucial to teach “story first.” One participant in our workshop used her knowledge of the story to argue that the particular circumstances of Stono made this revolt a good idea. The Spanish authorities in Florida had promised freedom to any enslaved people who crossed into Florida, and word had reached Stono that several former slaves had in fact made it to freedom in Florida. In addition, the enslaved population dramatically outnumbered the free (white) population in South Carolina at the time. She argued that these particular conditions improved the odds of success to the point where rebellion was a good idea.

Other participants were not so sure. They pointed out that it’s one thing for a few individuals to flee to Florida, and another thing for a mass rebellion to succeed. Maybe the idea was misconceived from the beginning.


This conversation was the bridge from our specific question four (“Did the Stono insurrectionists do the right thing?”) to our general question: “When is it right to rebel?” At this stage of a Question Four discussion, the teacher is guiding students to try to create a general statement of principles that can apply across specific cases. This was also a lively conversation. All agreed that the first necessary condition for a rightful rebellion was ethical justification: you can rebel when your fundamental rights are being violated. After that things got messy, in a good way. Does the chance of success matter in the calculus? Most of our participants said yes, but not all. Perhaps martyrdom (death in fighting for a just cause) is a good outcome. If you do believe that rebellion is only right when you have a chance of success, then you get into a conversation about how one might know that, how much of a chance, and so on. It’s a rich conversation, and unfortunately one that we had to cut short in our workshop due to time constraints. 


In our book we devote a whole chapter to planning and teaching Question Four. Question Four is the payoff for good history/social studies teaching: lively conversations about big questions that matter. And Art’s lesson on Stono was a great example of how to do it well. Start with a story, provide a specific and a general version of Question Four, and guide students to consider both justice and effectiveness in answering it. Try it yourself, and let us know how it goes!



Want Discourse? Ask Students Four Questions!

We often hear from schools and teachers that we work with that one of their main goals is to increase or improve the quality of student discourse. This is indeed a worthy goal: we want history and social studies classrooms to be active places where students are doing the intellectual work of our discipline, and often that work is best done in conversation with peers or with a teacher or both. There are not many teachers who disagree with this goal — but there are many teachers who don’t know exactly how to achieve it. The Four Question Method can help.


If our goal is simply to get kids talking in class, it’s not actually that difficult to achieve. But of course that’s not all we want. We want students to be having meaningful conversations about the subject. We want them to be listening to each other. We want them to be moving forward in their thinking. And we want them leaving the classroom conversation feeling like they actually learned something from it. 

I once participated in a professional development session in which we watched a video of a class of about fifteen eighth graders sitting in a circle talking about the U.S. constitution. The video was meant to be an inspiring example of excellent student discourse: every student in the circle spoke, and the pace was fast and energetic. I wasn’t especially inspired though, because no student responded to anything another student said, and some of the things they said about the constitution were quite outlandish, and one student made a critical error of content which was never corrected. There was plenty of talking, but not a lot of high quality discourse. 

The Four Question Method gives teachers a way to structure student conversations that are not just energetic, but also academically meaningful. Because students know the goal of their conversations and get repeated practice with the thinking skills associated with each question, 4QM classrooms are able to consistently achieve high quality student discourse. Each of the Four Questions lends itself to strong academic conversation.


We always start our teaching by answering Question One, “What happened?”. Students need to know a story before they can move on to the next three questions. But teachers often overlook an opportunity for student discourse and formative assessment when they don’t ask students to tell the story back to them. 

We’ve written and blogged extensively on storyboarding, which is an excellent tool for engaging students in discourse while answering Question One. Once you’ve taught them a historical story (whether through lecture, reading, video, or some other technique), put the students in small groups and tell them to make a 4-box storyboard of the narrative. They must agree on date ranges and descriptive titles for each box, and then draw their own individual pictures to describe the events that go in each box.

The student conversations that happen in these small groups are excellent examples of meaningful student discourse. Students debate about what events are important enough to include and what can be left off the storyboard. They debate about the date ranges and turning points in the story. They try out ideas for descriptive box titles. They pore over their materials and correct each other when events are out of sequence or misunderstood. It’s energetic and fun, for sure — and it’s also academically focused, and requires real conversation among students.


Once students know a story, they can slow down and dive in on some of the interesting people in that story and ask Question Two: “What were they thinking?” The thinking skill associated with Question Two is interpretation, and in high school we’re usually interpreting a primary source document. In the earlier grades we are often looking at a pattern of behavior or an artifact. But the intellectual task is the same: we want to get into the heads of the people we’re studying and try to understand their purposes and assumptions about their world.

These conversations can be done in small groups, or whole class. Our Question Two interpretation sheet takes students through the steps of responsible interpretation: identify and contextualize the source, paraphrase or summarize it, then interpret the thinking of the author. This last step is where the richest discourse happens. Interpretations differ, and must be supported with evidence about and from the source — so students end up debating the question with reference to the historical document, artifact, or behavior in question. If the subject of our interpretation is well chosen, students are genuinely curious about the people they’re studying, which encourages energetic and meaningful discourse.


Question Three is “Why then and there?”, and it is the most difficult and abstract of the Four Questions. We’ve built a series of Question Three Puzzles for high school students that work extremely well as small group projects. (Here’s one you can download about the industrial revolution.) The dynamic in these small groups is similar to what we see with storyboarding: students are deeply engaged in a challenging intellectual task, and they work together to understand the puzzle. In this case they’re exploring data, looking for comparisons and contrasts, and trying to explain how the changes and differences they find in the data can explain the outcome we’re curious about. Calling on groups to explain their thinking to the class is a great way to highlight student success and illustrate common errors.


Question Four is “What do we think about that?” and it’s the question that everyone recognizes as being made for student discourse. The thinking skill that goes with question four is judgment, and judgments are best honed and expressed in meaningful conversation.

The Four Question Method makes student discourse about judgment richer and more powerful through a simple technique: we postpone it until we’ve studied the other questions. If you ask students to make a judgment about a historical topic before they understand the story, what the people in the story were thinking, and how the context and conditions influenced the events, you’ll get irresponsible judgment. And you won’t have a meaningful conversation back and forth among students, because they won’t have a rich store of common knowledge from which to draw as they argue their positions. Jumping too quickly to Question Four can generate a lot of talking in class, but it tends to be like the video of eighth graders I described above: everyone makes their own point, without really listening to anyone else. 

Meaningful Question Four conversations take more time to prepare for, but they’re worth it. One of my favorite moments in class is when students recognize the challenge of a Question Four. It usually sounds like someone saying, “Wait, I think I just changed my mind,” or “Gosh — that’s a hard question!” Meaningful discourse, indeed.


The big insight of the Four Question Method is that every question we deal with in history and social studies is a specific variant of one of four questions: What happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? 

And it turns out that increasing and improving student discourse is much easier when everyone in the room knows what the four questions are, knows the thinking skills involved in answering each one, and gets repeated practice over time. We explain how to do that in our book, in this blog, and in person — let us know if you’d like to talk more!


Civic Education & 4QM

Is the Four Question Method applicable to civics education? Gary and I get this question a lot. As history / social studies people we’re often in contact with civic education advocates and organizations, and as a small organization interested in growing we’re sometimes advised to make a pitch for ourselves as civics educators. As a friend of mine put it to me over drinks a few weeks ago, “There’s a lot of money in the democracy space right now.” We’re not the sort of people who would misrepresent ourselves for money, but I do actually believe that learning history with the Four Question Method is civics education, and in this post I’ll explain why I think so. 


Democracy is an especially challenging form of government, because it requires a lot of its citizens. Every year my tenth grade world history students read John Locke, the English philosopher whose ideas formed the basis for the American Declaration of Independence. And every year they are struck by Locke’s ideas that “the people” will decide when their rulers have infringed on their natural rights, and that such an infringement can eventually justify revolution. Someone always points out that since Locke assigns such enormous responsibility to the people, he must think them wise enough to make important political decisions. And that usually leads the class to conclude, rightly I think, that civic education is of crucial importance to a functioning democracy.

Gary and I agree with those who have argued that defining civil education with a narrow focus on the mechanics of government is insufficient. Instead we think history/social studies curriculum built around the Four Question Method provides students with the information and practice they need to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. Each question is important to this endeavor.


Question One, “What Happened?” teaches students some important stories about human societies in the past. Historical knowledge is a crucial base for civic participation. Knowing the important stories of world history gives us a catalog of human behavior we can refer back to as we decide on our course of action in the present. This point is perhaps best made by the satirical newspaper The Onion, in their 2011 article titled “Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In The Past Before Making Any Big Decisions.” It’s funny, but it’s also true: people use the past as a reference point for what’s possible in the future. Of course, we can only do that if we know something about the past. As we like to say here at 4QM, “Story First!”

Once students have learned an important story from history, Question Two slows down to focus on interesting people in the story who did something that seems important or strange to us, and asks, “What Were They Thinking?” The authorities in Salem Massachusetts in 1692 executed twenty people who they had convicted of witchcraft — what were they thinking? Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, even while he owned human beings — what was he thinking? Question Two asks students to use the thinking skill of interpretation to build “historical empathy,” which means understanding the world of historical actors as they themselves did, especially when their understanding seems different from our own. We look at what these people said and did, and try to figure out what their purposes and assumptions are. 

The same skills that students use to build historical empathy can be applied to civic life in the present day. Politics in a democracy require us to figure out how to work with people who think differently from us, and understanding them is an important step in doing that. We’re not naive: we know that understanding the thinking of our fellow citizens may lead us to even deeper disagreements with them. But we are equally confident that misunderstanding them, or not trying to understand them at all, is always bad for the political discourse and decision-making that democracy requires of its citizens. Question Two teaches us how to listen to our fellow citizens. 

Question Three pulls back from the particulars of a historical story and looks at underlying context and conditions to ask, “Why Then and There?” Question Three is valuable in civics education because it moves our attention away from the particular actors in a story and onto the circumstances that shaped their choices. This means that students who are familiar with Question Three thinking are less likely to ascribe historical outcomes solely to the virtues or vices of the individual people involved in the story, and more likely to consider the context within which those people operated. This is a valuable perspective to have on contemporary civic life as well. It’s easier to work towards policy agreement when you’re thinking about the conditions that will bring it about, instead of the personal qualities of your fellow negotiators.

Every 4QM unit is ultimately a practicum in judgment. Judgment is the thinking skill associated with Question Four, “What Do We Think About That?” In a 4QM history class we ask Question Four about important people or decisions in our story: did they do the right thing? Are they admirable or contemptible? And what do we assume or believe that makes us think so? The Question is phrased as “we” not because we expect our students to arrive at consensus, but because the question is debated and discussed in community. Our classroom community will almost certainly disagree about our judgments of the past, but because the Four Question Method defines and structures our judgment thinking steps clearly, students will know precisely what they disagree about — and why. This is, obviously, good practice for present day disagreements about politics and policy.


The 4QM classroom is a model of civic life in a democracy, and like a democracy, it demands a lot of its citizens. 4QM Teachers and students need a solid understanding of the four questions and the techniques for answering them, which takes practice. But we think that giving students regular practice in historical knowledge, empathy, understanding of contexts, and thoughtful judgment is actually great practice for present day civics. 


Kids Don’t Learn What They Aren’t Taught

One thing we all learned during the COVID pandemic is that school matters. Test scores fell after the year of interrupted schooling in 2020-21, and anyone who was in the classroom during the 2021-22 school year can testify to the fact that students who were not in school the year before missed a lot of learning about positive school habits and behaviors. I suppose it’s good news, in a way. Most of us who work in schools are motivated at least in part by a desire to make the world better, and it’s nice to know that our work actually makes a difference in what young people know and can do.


Since teaching actually seems to make a difference in what students learn, I think we should not be surprised by the latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which shows that eighth graders’ proficiency in history is falling from an already low baseline. This decline isn’t solely due to the pandemic, but the explanation is the same: kids don’t learn what they’re not taught. And many elementary schools have basically not been teaching history for some time now.

The main reason for that is state testing. State tests are a crucial tool for gathering data about student performance and holding schools accountable for results – this is not an anti-testing blog post. But state testing focuses school time, attention, and resources on the tested subjects, to the detriment of non-tested subjects. And for years now the tested subjects have mostly been math and reading. So everything else, including history/social studies, gets squeezed out of the school day, especially in the early grades. At 4QM we know from our work with a wide range of schools that in many places social studies is lightly taught or entirely ignored in the primary grades. (We did some work for a public school in an urban district that was having trouble when their fifth graders were reading a book set in the Great Depression and literally had no idea about the context for the story.)

The bitter irony here is that it’s now very clear that “reading” is not a discrete skill that can be taught or tested in isolation from general knowledge about the world. If we want students to learn “reading” we should actually teach them history. But that’s a different blog post.  

The point of this post is that if we want eighth graders to know something about American (or world) history, we need to teach it. And these test results make it clear that just starting in middle school is insufficient. Students need to start building their historical knowledge early, because knowledge in any field is cumulative.* Jumping right into American history in grade six or seven with no previous study of history at all will likely produce much less learning than providing students with a coherent history curriculum throughout their elementary school years. 


Teaching history well in the early grades can be challenging, in part because elementary teachers are generalists, most of whom do not have strong academic backgrounds in history themselves. In the middle grades, teacher “teaming” means that social studies is often taught by teachers certified in something else. And even those middle school teachers who are certified in social studies need years of reading to become truly fluent in their content. (Contrast their situation with math teachers: anyone who majored in math in college already knows all the content they’ll need to teach middle school math. A history major simply can’t know their whole curriculum deeply without significant further study.)

We won’t overcome that challenge by transforming teacher preparation — that would take decades even if it were possible. Instead, we need to give elementary and middle school teachers high quality social studies curriculum, and the intellectual tools to help them learn and understand it themselves and teach it to their students in ways that are engaging, powerful, and meaningful. We think the Four Question Method provides those tools, and we’re writing curriculum based on them. Our Four Questions are simple enough for young students to understand, but powerful enough to drive deep learning on all grade levels. They provide a tool for curriculum internalization by adults, and a planning schema for designing units and lessons for students. 

We describe all this in detail in our book, and we’ve written extensively about the method and its application in our blog. We’re hopeful that the next few years will see new attention paid to history and social studies education, and we’re excited to be a part of that movement. Because one thing is absolutely certain: if schools don’t teach history, kids won’t learn it.


*Hirsch, E.D. The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, Doubleday 1996, p. 20.

Why Our Students Aren’t (and Can’t Be) Historians

We just had a consultant come to my school to do a review of our social studies program. We got some useful feedback, which will help us to set our agenda for professional development and materials acquisition. 

I noticed something strange, however. For classroom observations, they used a rubric, naturally. That rubric defined “rigor” as student engagement with primary source texts and artifacts. In other words, that’s what they expected to see in a high-functioning social studies class. 

Jon and I believe very strongly that students in social studies classes should engage with meaningful artifacts created by the people we’re studying. In fact, we believe so strongly in the activity that we’ve taken pains to identify its primary purpose in our classes: to equip students to practice the disciplinary thinking skill of interpretation. In other words, we teach our students that one of the four essential questions in our field — “What were they thinking?” (Question Two) — is most appropriately addressed by interpreting primary sources. 

What’s weird is that Question Two pretty much exhausted the consultant’s rubric. No narration (Question One, “What happened?”), no explanation (Question Three, “Why then and there?”), no judgment (Question Four, “What do we think about that?”). It’s not their fault, really. The consultants were not social studies experts. In fact, it’s not clear to me that they’d ever done a social studies review before. (My district hired them. Above my pay grade.) 


The fact is, even people who should really know better often make the same mistake. Sam Wineburg’s SHEG makes it sound as though “document analysis” were the primary purpose of social studies education. Generic accounts of thinking skills often treat document reading and analysis as the bread-and-butter of history teaching and learning. 

This mistake — the narrowing of history pedagogy to “document analysis” — reflects another mistake: confusing novices for experts. 

Reading primary sources sounds like the authentic activity of professional historians. And it’s true: if you’d like to earn a PhD in history and eventually land one of the handful of academic jobs available each year in that field, you’d be well advised to spend some serious time in an archive, or several of them. Primary source research is definitely the bread and butter of the historical profession. 

The mistake is thinking that children who are starting out in our field should imitate dedicated professionals, the virtuosi of (one of) our field(s). (Social Studies education is also the home of the social sciences and moral philosophy, or at least it should be.) 

Here’s why that’s a mistake: imagine a person who knows nothing at all about, say, the American Revolution. Now imagine that you decided that, in order to teach them about that topic, you would assign only primary sources. Go ahead. Plan it out. 

Now confess: you didn’t learn about the American Revolution that way. Nor, for that matter, did the PhD candidates in American history at our finest graduate schools. They learned from reading, first, reference sources (like textbooks), and then more narrowly focused secondary sources. Maybe they listened to podcasts and watched videos, too. Most likely, they heard the story from their teachers. The point is, when they were starting out, someone, in print or out loud, told them the story. No doubt they learned the story in chunks, not in one big gulp. And, if their social studies education was reasonably good, they likely stopped along the way and read and “engaged with” some primary sources like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, some Federalist papers, and so on. 

The Four Question Method acknowledges this brute fact: before you know some true stories well, you simply won’t be able to think historically. Without the accumulated background knowledge of a story, you won’t be able to interpret the primary sources that reflect the thinking of the actors in that story. And, before you know lots of stories well, you’ll be hard pressed to notice recurrent patterns, let alone explain them. Story first! — that’s how we learn history. That’s what prepares us to think like historians (and social scientists). 

Psychologists have studied this error, which is pervasive among advocates of “authentic” learning: the confusion of the epistemology of experts with the pedagogical needs of novices. The ways that experts, like historians or scientists, acquire and use knowledge are different from what our students need in order to learn how to think like historians and scientists.  

In science, for example, it’s tempting to dream that schoolchildren could just do experiments until they’d reproduced the knowledge accumulated by generations of professional scientists. After all, that’s how those expert scientists do their business: they test hypotheses in a lab. But that’s not how they became scientists. They accumulated lots of received wisdom in school before embarking on their independent lab projects. They stood on the shoulders of giants. They knew which hypotheses might make sense because they knew a lot of science before they started experimenting. Good scientists and historians continue to learn that way, even after they dig into the lab and the archive. They read what others have learned from their disciplinary inquiries. 

So, reading primary sources is great. When your students are ready for it, give them a challenge: learn a true historical story from nothing but primary sources. That’ll give them a taste of graduate school. In the meantime, when someone tells you that rigor in a social studies class means engaging with primary sources and artifacts and nothing else, ask them if that’s how they learned what they know about history. 


The “Effectiveness” Trap

I watched a very good teacher ask her students a silly question the other day. The lesson started with a background reading on World War II propaganda in the US. The reading contained information about the Office of Wartime Information (OWI), which FDR established by executive order in 1942 to coordinate the country’s propaganda campaign. The class read the brief, informative article aloud and the teacher clarified and checked for understanding. She then gave groups packets of sample propaganda posters and asked them to identify common themes. 

The lesson was a classic Question Two (What were they thinking?) workshop: contextualize and identify meaningful artifacts, then say what the creators of those artifacts were thinking when they created them. The lesson would have been clearer and contributed more to long-term skill development if it had been identified as a Question Two lesson, but that’s a simple fix. 

The bigger problem was the guiding question for the lesson. The teacher framed the lesson as an attempt to answer this question: 

“To what extent was World War II [US] propaganda effective?” 

That’s not at all a silly question, of course. On the contrary: I’d love to know the answer. I’m sure FDR and the OWI administrators would love to have known the answer as well. The problem is that the students who were asked the question couldn’t possibly have known how to answer it. 


“Was X effective?” is a bait question. The question is powerfully tempting because it’s so obviously useful. If we knew which of the many tactics and strategies we encounter in our study of history were effective, we’d be well on our way to constructing effective tactics and strategies to pursue worthy goals today. That’s a serious bit of payoff for what might otherwise seem to young people to be an antiquarian enterprise.  

The problem is that the effectiveness question is a very difficult one to answer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It does mean, however, that we should stop pretending to try. 

The lesson I’ve described provided students with no information at all about audience response to the artifacts students were asked to interpret. Certainly, given the background information they were provided, students could draw inferences, and did. All of those inferences were about the creator’s goals and intentions. The propaganda designers depicted the Germans and Japanese as menacing predators. The poster artists tried to elicit fear and to equate frugality with military preparedness. They divided the world into a somber and committed “us” and a barbaric, violent “them.” That’s how the students interpreted the posters. That was their collective answer to Question Two, What were they thinking? 

Was that effective? In order to answer that question, we’d need to use the tools of explanation — the skillful response required by Question Three, “Why then and there?” Ideally, we’d look at data that compared two groups, one that had seen the propaganda and a control group, one that had not (or not yet) seen those posters. Then we’d need to see if viewing propaganda correlated with attitudes toward the war, or actions relevant to it, like adherence to rationing, volunteering to serve, and so on. 


When we debriefed, the teacher readily admitted that students couldn’t possibly answer the “effectiveness” question she had posed. Nor were they required to do so in order to complete the lesson activity successfully. The teacher asked the effectiveness question because it was interesting and important. She then did what she could with her students in the classroom, which meant, as a practical matter, ignoring the question she had used to open the class. 

There’s nothing wrong with asking students hard questions. We describe Question Three explanatory inquiry workshops in our book and have done workshops for teachers on them lots of times. Jon does a Question Three inquiry in pretty much every unit of his 10th grade class. (Gary, teaching 9th graders, is more timid, so spaces them out more.) 

The mistake is pretending to ask and answer a hard question, which amounts to not taking questions seriously. That’s not a good thing to teach students to do. On the contrary: taking questions seriously and answering them well is what we mean by skillful thinking. It’s crucial to successful scholarship, and to successful citizenship. 

In social studies, there are four kinds of questions we can ask and try to answer. Muddying the waters may make our lessons sound more important and relevant than they are. But that’s just propaganda. Avoid the trap. 


Historical Thinking Skills With 4QM

Teachers of history and social studies on all grade levels know they want students to do more than just memorize facts; they want students to practice thinking about history as well. This is a valuable and important goal. Humans remember what we think about, so actually engaging intellectually with history will help students to remember more of it. And as citizens of a democracy, we want our students to be able to grapple with history, politics, and social and civic questions actively and critically. Active thinking in social studies class is good practice for active citizenship. 

Curriculum writers should be conscious of this goal and should have a systematic way of achieving it: they need a definition of historical thinking that they can incorporate consistently into courses, units, and lessons. Unfortunately, the most widely available definitions of historical thinking are too convoluted and confusing to be practical for classroom use, so most teachers ignore them. The Four Question Method (4QM) is different. Its conception of historical thinking is accessible to students and teachers on all grade levels, and robust and rigorous enough to challenge the most sophisticated thinkers.

Two Advantages of 4QM Thinking Skills

The 4QM approach is different from better known definitions of historical thinking skills in two important ways. First, it is simple. The defining insight of the Four Question Method is that every important question in history/social studies is a specific version of one of only four questions: What happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? And each question is linked to the historical thinking skill used to answer it: narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. There are only four questions in our field, and only four thinking skills. 

Contrast this approach with two widely available descriptions of historical thinking skills that we address in an appendix in our book: the College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) historical thinking skills, and the Common Core Standards’ social studies thinking skills. The College Board defines six AP historical thinking skills and three additional “reasoning processes.” If we count up the subheadings under each one we total twenty-six intellectual tasks. The Common Core identifies Social Studies Skills for three grade ranges: 6-8, 9-10, and 11-12, each with nine thinking skills grouped into two or three categories. If we total them up, it’s twenty-seven intellectual tasks. All of this complexity presents curriculum writers with a daunting challenge. Which thinking skills are most important? How should all of them be incorporated into lesson plans and assessments, and how often? In our long experience as classroom teachers and administrators, we’ve seen that most history and social studies teachers respond to lengthy descriptions of historical thinking like these by simply ignoring them.

The 4QM’s second advantage is that it clearly defines the intellectual outcome of each question, thus giving teachers and students a goal to aim at, rather than just a long list of tools to be used. 4QM students (and teachers) know that the goal of history and social studies instruction is to coach students to produce strong narrations, interpretations, explanations, and judgments. All of these tasks require the kinds of thinking skills described by the College Board or Common Core, but 4QM students know why they are doing things like reading primary sources, comparing and contrasting two different places or two different times, or synthesizing information from a variety of sources. 4QM curriculum writers consistently incorporate these sorts of thinking activities into units and lessons organically — not just to tick off a box on a list of historical thinking skills. When everyone in the room understands the intellectual outcome goal, lessons are more clear and purposeful, and students are more motivated. 

Some readers might object that 4QM oversimplifies historical thinking skills. We don’t think so. All four questions are easy to ask (that’s what makes them so accessible), but if taken seriously they are all difficult to answer. This is especially true for students who are learning a particular history for the first or second time, but it remains true even for adults who work in the field. Curriculum experts we’ve worked with have described the Four Questions as “simple yet profound,” and “accessible but really deep.” If you like reading academic history, you’ll notice that even the most abstruse and sophisticated texts (and disputes about them!) reflect the structure and logic of the four questions. 

The “Swiss Army Knife” of History Teaching

One of our favorite compliments on the Four Question Method came from a fifth grade teacher in a Massachusetts public school. He said:

“The Four Question Method is the Swiss Army knife of history teaching: it gives me four tools, each with multiple uses. It cuts through all the red tape I have in my head about planning, and gives me and my students a clear and smart way to think about what we’re learning.”

Long and confusing lists of “thinking skills” fill curriculum planners’ heads with red tape. The Four Question Method cuts through all that with a clear definition of the intellectual tasks that we undertake in history and social studies. Planning courses, units, and lessons around these tasks gives students consistent practice in the kind of thinking that strong scholars and engaged citizens use in their everyday lives. And that should be a major goal of teaching history and social studies in the first place. 


4QM & Civics: Question Two Helps Civic Discourse

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.


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 parphrase 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?


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.


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.