Category: 4QM Teaching

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 describe 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.



Whodunnit? Identifying Actors in Narrative Notes

Last week, Jon wrote about Graham Delano, an awesome young teacher at Nashville Classical Charter School. Graham’s students had learned a story, but didn’t know how to begin retelling it. Graham called them back and identified the actors in their story — Native Americans, led by Chief Joseph, and the American military. That prompt allowed students to do what skillful narrative requires: say who did what, in an active voice.   

Graham’s students aren’t the only ones who need help with that task. (In our book we have a whole chapter on historical narratives.) My own students are much older than Graham’s, and they too struggle to narrate historical events in a way that highlights the actors. Their default mode is to list events: this happened, then that happened. As if the people of the past were spectators watching events unfold before them! 

Note Taking: One Source of Bad Narratives?

I’ve begun to wonder if the way we teach history, or at least the way I do, trains students the wrong way. I have a particular culprit in mind: note taking. 

Notes on reading and lecture can end up looking a lot like lists. And if you don’t know better, you can think that getting down the names and dates of events is the main purpose of notes. In fact, as Dan Willingham has clarified, the goal of notes is to remind us of stuff we’ve thought about, so that we can think about it again. 

For historical narratives, we do want to think about and remember events, but not independent of the people who did those things we now designate “events.” Our narrative memory is most meaningful and stickiest if we make it a package deal: who-did-what. 

But that’s not my students’ default. I’ve tried a variety of ways of addressing this problem in my own classroom. One of them is substituting more engaging narratives than the textbook when I can find them. For my origins of Islam unit, for example, I use two chapters from Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (Public Affairs, 2010). Ansary has written for textbook companies, so he knows our audience. His book is different, though: it foregrounds the actors in the narrative. 

I’ve found that even that isn’t enough to keep students from taking reading notes as bulleted lists of events. So I came up with a hack that worked reasonably well. It’s simple, and can work even with relatively dry textbook readings. 

I made students a printed, four-page notes template. I designed each page to capture notes on a segment of the story, from Muhammad’s birth in 570 CE to his death in 632 CE. Each page had three sections for students to complete. 

  • Part One: When and Where? 

This one’s simple: when is the action taking place, and where? The whole story takes place in Mecca and Medina, between the years I listed above. Students just need to lock in the context for the chunk of the story they’ve read. 

  • Part Two: Main Actors 

This section has two columns, one for the names of actors who do things in this chunk of the story, and one for a brief description of each of these actors. The first chunk includes Muhammad, Abu Talib, the uncle of Muhammad who adopted him after his parents died, and so on. 

  • Part Three: Our Story So Far

For this template, I framed the narrative notes section as a storyboard. So, below “When and Where” and “Main Actors” sits a little four-box storyboard. I filled in the title of the last box for each of the four mini-storyboards so that students would know where to end up. They had to make titles for the other boxes and then write a brief sentence describing who did what below it.

Here’s an example from Max, from page two:

How’d It Go?

When we debriefed the reading, which we began in class and students completed for homework, I asked about the notes template. We’d done traditional outline notes on similar readings, and have storyboarded plenty. I asked if this worked for them.

Hallie volunteered immediately that the “main actors” section helped a lot. I checked during the class, and she in fact knew the story well. (She tracked Omar, who is a bit player in this chapter but ends up becoming the second Caliph and a crucial figure in the development of Islamic doctrine and the Islamic empire.) 

One of the comments I ended up making on lots of the templates was about the overuse of pronouns. The storyboards were full of sentences that said “He” did this or “they” did that. Still, the list of main actors gave me more confidence that students had a particular “he” or “they” in mind when they took their notes. (As I pointed out, whether they’d remember who “they” were when they studied from these notes is a separate question.)

Ideally, I’ll wean my students off my templates and have them create their own in their notebooks from here on out. They can make a section for “where and when” and a section on who’s making history before they record events. The fact is, a storyboard is just an outline laid out on a page for visual effect. They can make their “storyboard” vertical and proceed chunk by chunk. On the other hand, I do like forcing them to read and learn the section before writing their notes. That requires more thinking about the action before writing stuff down. 



Quick Question One: Turn & Talk!

If 4QM Teaching had a t-shirt it would say “Story First!” on the front (and “What’s the Question?” on the back). That’s because we know that students can’t do any serious thinking about history until they have answered Question One, which is “What happened?” Good answers to Question One come in the form of a historical story, and telling an accurate and true one is actually quite challenging. In our book we devote a whole chapter to teaching Question One, and we include specific ideas about how to assess it: can your students actually tell the story you think you’ve taught them? We’ve also blogged on Question One assessment before.

But we know that good history teaching doesn’t stop with Question One. We also want students to answer Questions Two, Three, and Four: What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that?In this post we’re going to share a brief video clip from a first year teacher teaching a Question Two lesson. But before he can get there, he needs to make sure his students know the story. In this clip he does a great job assessing Question One really quickly, with a technique you’ve probably used before: a turn and talk. We’ll show you what he did, and explain why it’s so effective.


This clip is from a fifth grade unit on Native Americans that we wrote for Nashville Classical Charter School. Nashville Classical uses Core Knowledge History and Geography (CKHG) for elementary social studies (it’s available for free download). The curriculum is knowledge rich and well written, but it has a fairly limited pedagogy (mostly reading and answering questions that are based directly on the text), and doesn’t engage students in rigorous historical thinking. We’ve written three new units (with more on the way) that build around the Four Question Method while using a lot of the CKHG materials.

In this lesson first year teacher Graham Delano is teaching a Question Two (“What were they thinking?”) about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Chief Joseph fought a series of battles against the U.S. Army, before formally surrendering in 1877. The focus of this lesson is interpreting that decision: 

  • What was Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe thinking when he abandoned his struggle against the American government?

But before students can answer that question, they need to know the story of the Nez Perce wars. Graham’s students learn that through reading the CKHG text aloud during the first ten minutes of class. 


Once they’ve read the story, Graham checks their understanding of it by asking them to “turn and tell your neighbor what decisions were made that led to the war. Go!” He’s a first year teacher, and he quickly realizes that his students need a bit more scaffolding, so he calls their attention back to himself. He clarifies who will be talking to whom, and then he gives them a more specific version of the question: 

“It could be decisions made by the Native Americans, and decisions that were made by the U.S. Army. What decisions were made that led to the outbreak of war?”


Graham’s reset gives the kids what they need, and they quickly get down to work. Even more importantly, the new wording incorporates one of the key elements of good historical narration: it identifies the actors in the story. One of the most important things we want students to learn in history class is that historical events don’t just happen. People make history by making decisions. In this particular case, Graham is teaching his students that the Nez Perce war didn’t just “break out” by itself. It was the result of decisions made by the U.S. government and army, and decisions made by the Nez Perce. (You can access the 4QM narration rubric here.)

When the students share out, they identify two key decisions that led to war: the army’s decision to order the Nez Perce to a reservation in Idaho (despite the fact that they had signed no treaty giving up their lands), and the decision of some Nez Perce warriors to fight that order. So the students demonstrate that they understand the story, and the role of actual people in driving it. Graham is now ready to move on to Chief Joseph’s decision to surrender, and students’ interpretation of his thinking.


We’ve seen a lot of history classes go badly when teachers skimp on teaching “What happened?” because they want to get to questions that they think are more interesting or more demanding. But if students don’t have a solid base of knowledge to work from, they can’t answer those subsequent questions well. Graham shows us that building Question One knowledge can be done quickly, effectively, and in a way that puts students at the center.


A Teacher Asks About Question Three

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!



We Remember What We Think About

The Four Question Method was originally designed to solve a common problem for history teachers: How do we wrestle all of our mandated content into manageable and meaningful chunks that our students can understand? The solution is the six box storyboard that we use for unit planning. Fitting the “story of the unit,” whether it’s the American Revolution or the expansion of Islam or sub-Saharan African kingdoms, into six boxes forces teachers to make thoughtful decisions about what specific content is in and what’s out. These thoughtful decisions replace the not-so-thoughtful ones that get made for you when you don’t storyboard your units, and you are forced to skip content because you’re suddenly out of time.

As we developed the method, we realized that teacher planning is just a model for student learning: we want our students to learn and practice all the same skills that teachers use in planning. When teachers are storyboarding a unit, they’re answering Question One, “What Happened?” for their unit. A good answer to Question One takes the form of a narrative, and crafting a good historical narrative requires a lot of decisions. What events do you think are most important? What ones can be dropped or given less emphasis? Where do you want to break and “chunk” the story? What are the key turning points? These decisions shape the story that you’re going to tell, and ultimately reveal what you think is worth telling.

It turns out that making those decisions is a great way to actually learn the story, which is why we often have students make their own storyboards in class. It’s a lot to ask students to storyboard a unit, so we almost never do that. Instead we ask students to take one part of the unit story, usually one box of the unit storyboard, and use four boxes to tell that story. I did that activity today with my tenth graders, and it was a great example of why this technique is so powerful.


We’re in the middle of a unit called “Enlightenment and Revolutions” in my AP World History course. We’ve done more than two weeks of learning: reading philosophy, discussing philosophy, taking lecture notes. We’ve had two formative assessments along the way, one on the Enlightenment and one on the early phases of the French Revolution. Yesterday we finished learning the story of Napoleon, which ends with his final defeat and the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815. Historians generally accept that date as the end of the revolutionary era in France. 

I’m giving a big quiz tomorrow, and I wanted an active way for students to review. So I gave them a four box storyboard (just four blank boxes with the title up top) and told them they had to storyboard the French Revolution from 1789 to 1815. They work in groups of four and five, and I gave their instructions as follows:

  1. First determine your date ranges and titles FOR ALL FOUR BOXES. Your date ranges must be contiguous (you can’t skip years between boxes), and your titles must be descriptive.

  2. Once you’ve done that, tell the story of each box in SIX WORDS. You don’t have to use a sentence, but you are limited to six words. 

The first step generated a lot of purposeful activity. Students were digging back into their class notes and homework readings, trying to decide where to break the story. There was lots of good conversation like, “No, the reign of terror comes before Napoleon” and, “We should break it in 1806 because that’s when Napoleon started the Continental System, and that made everything start to go bad for France.” In both my sections, we had more than one version of the date ranges and titles. Some groups put everything before Napoleon in the first box, then had three boxes dedicated to his rise and fall. Others spread out the liberal and radical phases of the revolution (both before Napoleon) in two boxes, and then had only two boxes dedicated to his rise and fall. 

The second step, getting the story of each box into six words, generated more purposeful activity: what was the most important part of the story? One group’s first box was 1789 – 1792, “The Liberal Phase of the French Revolution.” Their six words were, “From Ancien Regime to Constitutional Monarchy.” A tight, pithy, and accurate summary of the time period, which they had to understand in order to write.


Daniel Willingham famously said that “memory is the residue of thought.” That’s a fancy way of saying that we remember what we think about. And when we have to make the kind of decisions that storyboarding requires, we have to think about our content. A lot. 

My students today spent a full class period working their materials, and thinking about the French Revolution: consulting notes, talking together about what happened when and what mattered most, then writing down their decisions. All of this makes them more likely to remember the story. (Giving them a quiz on it will also help them remember it; that’s called “retrieval practice.”) And honestly, storyboarding is a lot of fun. Students enjoy it, even though it’s intellectually demanding

Of course as teachers we want students to do more than just remember what happened. We also want them to practice answering Questions Two, Three, and Four: “What were they thinking?” “Why then and there?” and “What do we think about that?” My students have done a lot of Two and Four already in this unit (we’ve read Locke, Rousseau, and Robespierre), and we’re coming up on some Question Three thinking as we compare the French Revolution with the Haitian and Latin American Revolutions. The Four Question Method starts with a story, but it doesn’t end there. 

We describe all these ways of teaching, learning, and thinking in our book, From Story to Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies. If you’d like to talk more about this post or anything else related to the Four Question Method, leave a comment or email us at We look forward to hearing from you!



Tough Topics, Young Students, and 4QM

This post is by guest author Sarah Bassett. Ms. Bassett will graduate in May 2023 from the University of Vermont as a certified teacher in grades K-3, and in this post she describes how the Four Question Method can help teachers talk about tough topics with students in the early grades.

As someone who is in my senior year of my undergraduate teacher preparation program in PreK-3rd grade education, the never-ending negative news about the education world can be discouraging. I am a fixer; someone who wants to solve problems and make things better. Being the curious person I am, I am always poking my mentor teachers to tell me more of why teaching is hard right now. It is often a mix of things: no time for planning, not enough paraprofessionals for the kids who need them, mandatory assessments that take up all the instructional time. But a repeated concern that I have heard from nearly every teacher I have spoken to is, “Trying to talk to the kids about the ‘hard stuff.’” When asked about ways to do so, the answer is often “I just don’t.” 

Addressing Tough Topics in the Early Grades

It’s cheesy, but I always envisioned myself as a teacher who would change lives for good. I have been in my teacher preparation program during years marked by a pandemic, equality movements, polarizing elections, ongoing racism and injustice, and school shootings. Every piece of painful news makes me want to go into my classroom the next day and make the next generation better: more thoughtful, more empathetic, and more confident in the face of injustice and hardship. In my experience, social studies in primary education usually consists of lessons about creating maps, the Pilgrims, and MLK’s I Have A Dream. There is nothing wrong with these topics, but knowing the importance of high-quality social studies instruction, it feels unfair to my students to not provide them with the time and space to think critically about all events, including the stories that don’t have happy endings. I whole-heartedly believe that young children are intelligent, competent, and capable humans, but it can be difficult to even know where to begin teaching trickier topics. 

Coincidentally, in my social studies education seminar in college this past week, our topic was “How do we talk to young children about difficult things?” After my professor fought back tears while telling us about teaching after 9/11, we listed other examples from both the past and present. We brought up topics as broad as slavery and as specific as the recent Uvalde shooting. The class opened to discussion on our essential question, but no one knew where to begin. 

If you haven’t figured it out already, my dad is Jon Bassett. I have watched the growth and development of 4QM from the beginning. I wrote in 2020 about how it helped me with my own college social studies classes, and I have been eager to see how 4QM can help my own teaching and my students’ learning. I broke the ice in my seminar by talking about my dad’s method using four questions, and began to think out loud with the group about how it could help here. While at first the focus was elsewhere (“your dad wrote a book?!?”), my cohort and I began to see how the 4QM could be a missing piece in helping us to address difficult topics with elementary school students.

We used the example of the Holocaust – a tragic and devastating event that none of us could think of how to explain to a seven-year-old. I quickly realized that the 4QM could give our young learners the right information that they’d need to make sense of a topic like that, and could help teachers give them the right amount of information. Like I said before, I truly believe in young children’s abilities as capable learners. Nevertheless, I don’t think my second graders are developmentally ready, nor is it necessary for them to dive deeply into some of these troubling topics. Thinking about the Holocaust and using the 4QM model, we realized young students could walk away with the following simple information: What happened? Hitler and the Nazis killed many Jewish people. What were they thinking? Hitler had mean thoughts about Jews, and he acted on them. Why then and there? This happened during a time of war, when many people were suffering and being killed. What do we think about that? The Holocaust is recognized as one of the world’s greatest tragedies. We think it’s wrong to treat people badly because of their religion or race.

Is that absolutely everything that a seven-year-old might want to know about the Holocaust? No. They might want some more details, and kids are naturally curious. But there’s a conceptual framework that teachers can lean on to build these tougher conversations and lessons. 

Elementary Students Need Social Studies Too

In an elementary school world with little or no high quality social studies curriculum, tools like the 4QM are critical for helping teachers to raise strong thinkers and students who have an understanding of the world around them. Elementary teachers should reconsider teaching the “hard stuff,” and know that there is a system that can support those discussions. 

By this time next year I hope to have my own classroom, and I plan to make space for these conversations and explorations. Using the 4QM makes the idea of leading those conversations feel easier and more manageable, and I am eager to put it into practice. 



History = Literacy

Over the past few years there has been increasing attention paid to “the science of reading.” A few journalists (including our friend and advisor Natalie Wexler) have been pointing out that too many American kids don’t learn to read or don’t learn to read well, because too many elementary schools ignore what science has proven about how we learn to read. In this post I’ll give a super-short summary of that science, explain why high quality history teaching is crucial to building literacy, and give an example of how we incorporated literacy instruction in our fourth grade unit on the Renaissance. The Four Question Method works really well in elementary school, and it may be even more crucial there than at any other grades.

‘Reading” Means Sounding Out Words, and Knowing What They Mean

When we say that someone “reads well” we mean that they have two distinct abilities: they can sound out words written on a page (this is called “decoding”), and they know what those words mean. We’ve all probably experienced the difference between these abilities when we encountered text that we could decode but didn’t really understand. For adult readers of this blog, that experience may have come when reading a technical manual or a challenging article in a college class. But students with small vocabularies have that experience often.

If we think of reading as a discrete academic skill, separate from history or science, we might try to address this problem by drilling students on vocabulary words. But as Wexler and others have explained, “having a big vocabulary” is just a synonym for “knowing things.” In order to become good readers, students need to learn background knowledge about the world. It’s that knowledge that enables them to understand words that they encounter in the texts that they read. 

Not surprisingly, learning history is an excellent way to build background knowledge about the world, and thus to improve students’ vocabulary. This would seem to be just common sense, and a recent longitudinal study confirmed that increased instructional time in social studies in elementary grades is associated with increased reading ability. It turns out that social studies instruction makes students, especially those with low incomes and families where English is not spoken at home, better readers. 

OK, But How Do We Do That?

If social studies instruction makes elementary students better readers, we should invest in doing it well. In our work with elementary teachers we’ve found that most of the widely available social studies curriculum is either activity focused, and so doesn’t build background knowledge effectively, or uses limited pedagogy: kids read (or are read to) and answer questions about informational text. By contrast, the Four Question Method offers elementary teachers a way to build history knowledge (and thus vocabulary and literacy) in a dynamic and engaging way.

We saw this happen in our recent curriculum pilot for a fourth grade unit on the Renaissance at Nashville Classical Charter School. The unit had ten days of instruction, forty-five minutes a day, and a summative assessment on day eleven. Our student reference sheet for the unit included ten “tier two” vocabulary words: they were specific to the unit, but also have broader meanings and are not extremely common. Knowing what tier two words like these mean makes kids better readers. 

Here is our list of ten words and the definitions we provided: 

Medieval: Relating to the “Middle Ages,” from about 500 to 1500 C.E.

Merchant: Someone who makes money buying and selling things, rather than from farming crops.

Banker: Someone who charges a fee to loan money to other people.

Patron: Someone who gives money to an artist to support their work.

Disciple: One of the twelve followers of Jesus, or anyone who follows a teacher very closely.

Chapel: A small church.

Anatomy: The study of the inside parts of the human body.

Boast: To talk with great pride about oneself, to brag.

Printing Press: A machine that copies words by pressing type down on paper.

Thrive: To succeed greatly.

We think that students who learned these words as part of an engaging and demanding social studies unit will become better readers. We expect them to be more likely to understand phrases like “freedom of the press,” or “The Anatomy of a Scandal,” or “a disciple of John Dewey,” than students who have never encountered those words in a meaningful context. 

A commenter on our blog post describing our Renaissance unit wondered if we had cut too much reading out of the original curriculum materials. We did cut a lot of reading, and we honestly don’t know if just reading more history would improve literacy as much, more, or less than using the Four Question Method to actually think about history. But we believe that the kind of engaged student thinking required by the 4QM will improve student retention of the historical content — which is the same thing as saying it will build student vocabulary. And that’s a good thing for future citizens, and future readers. 


Nashville Rocks!

We just completed a 4QM curriculum pilot at Nashville Classical Charter School. Nashville Classical uses Core Knowledge curriculum in the elementary grades. They give it high marks in K-2, where history is integrated into a top quality literacy curriculum. In upper elementary, grades 3-5, the CK materials they have are good, but not great. They mostly consist of readers on historical topics with questions for teachers to ask students. Teachers and students read, and students answer the questions. Students were learning, but lessons weren’t particularly engaging and didn’t transmit a framework for thinking more deeply about history and society. It was not clear, in the end, how much students were actually understanding and retaining.

Emma Colonna, the chief curriculum writer for the school, discovered us a few years ago and saw that we could help with both problems, engagement and thinking, and that addressing those would almost certainly help understanding and retention. (As Daniel Willingham explains, “memory is the residue of thought.”) That led to a series of conversations about when and how to integrate the 4QM approach into history instruction. We settled on the experiment we ran: a fourth-grade unit on the Renaissance built on Core Knowledge materials. 

Emma recruited a skilled fourth grade teacher, Lynn, and enlisted her supervisor, Lucy, to support the project. The school has piloted other curriculum projects before, so this wasn’t a heavy lift for them. (The Doug Lemov / Teach Like A Champion “Reading Reconsidered” curriculum had a pilot there, too.) We wrote an eleven day unit, using the Core Knowledge Renaissance reader and designing and writing our own additional materials as needed. Lynn attended two online workshops with us in the fall, and then we did an additional ninety minutes of remote training with her directly, using the unit materials we had created. This spring she taught the unit. We followed up with a post-teaching debrief with the whole team: Lynn, Lucy, Emma, Jon and Gary. 

Purposeful Engagement, Rigorous Assessment

All in all, the unit was a smashing success. Lynn reported, and classroom video clips confirmed, that students were highly engaged and were thinking purposefully about the history they were learning. The unit opened with a Question One reading lesson about the Renaissance in the Italian city-state of Florence (Story First!). But instead of simply answering questions about the reading, students then had to retell the story by sorting events and images into the correct order. When they were done, they had to use the images to guide an oral narration. Lynn told us about groups that got the story wrong, and then had to use their understanding of cause and effect chronology to get it right. (Rich wool merchants can’t patronize artists until after they make their fortunes!) We watched videos of students poring over their materials, talking through events as they helped each other to sort the story cards correctly. It was engagement with purpose. 

In subsequent lessons students learned about perspective, and how it made Renaissance art different from medieval art. They speculated about why Renaissance artists signed their work (Question Two: What were they thinking?), and had their own debates about when it’s OK to boast (Question Four: What do we think about that?). Lynn reported that the Four Question Method provided both structure and variety to the lessons. She told us that “having something different every day was exciting and engaging for the kids, and they learned a lot every day.”

We also found some things that we can improve on. We can do more with biography. The unit had students learn about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, but we didn’t do enough to create strong connections between the stories of these artists’ lives and their work. Our Question Three lesson (“Why did Renaissance thinking thrive in some places but not others?”) was too challenging — we need to design those lessons to be more accessible for fourth graders. And Lynn noticed that while students enjoyed the conversation about when it’s OK to boast, she wasn’t sure the connection to the Renaissance was clear to them. We can make those links between the past and present stronger and more explicit.

Lynn also wanted an extra day or two for the unit, which we think was a very good sign. The Core Knowledge materials we started with include nine chapters of reading totaling over eighty-five pages; the teacher guide recommends assigning all of it over twenty two lessons (not counting a day for an assessment). We used about fifteen pages of the reader in ten lessons, with the eleventh day for the assessment. We believe that the fact that we jettisoned so much reading, but Lynn still felt that the unit needed more time, is evidence that we were asking students to think much more deeply about what they were learning. When students are actively practicing the skills of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment they need more time with less content. Our choice to focus on Florence as a “representative event” allowed us to give students most of the time they needed to actually engage in rigorous thinking about the Renaissance.

The summative assessment we designed was more comprehensive and rigorous than what students had previously done as well. One of the principles of 4QM teaching is that every activity can be an assessment; we’re always practicing the four thinking skills. So this unit assessment asked students to tell the story of the Renaissance, to identify some Renaissance art, to interpret a painting and some text to say what the creators were thinking, and to judge contemporary video of sports celebrations, saying if they thought the athletes’ boasting was justified or not. Results were strong, but difficult to compare to previous years when students had just answered multiple choice questions.

We’re continuing our work in Nashville next year. We’re planning to write more curriculum, with a goal of having an entire year of units for fourth grade so that students can practice thinking skills repeatedly and internalize the method. Assuming that goes well, we’ll continue the partnership until we’ve built out grades 3-5. 

We’ve been really lucky so far. We’ve gotten to work with urban and suburban district schools, independent schools, large charter networks, and stand-alone charters like Nashville Classical. In almost every case, these folks already had “stuff” — textbooks, lessons, handouts, and assessments. In fact, most teachers and most schools already have those things, or have access to them. What makes Nashville Classical and our other clients different is that they have vision. They see that their social studies instruction could be so much better than it is.

G.S. & J.B.

A Psychological Test for the 4QM

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.