Category: 4QM Teaching

Templates For Thinking

In this post Jon plugs an awesome book on teaching writing, and explains why templates are a great tool for teaching students to think.

“They Say, I Say”

On the recommendation of the presenter at an AP workshop I attended this summer I recently picked up a copy of They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. This book does a truly excellent job of breaking down analytical writing into its component parts (“the moves that matter”) and teaching them to students. The major tool the authors use to do that is templates. Graff and Birkenstein give a whole series of sentence frames — sentences with blanks for the specific information — that show students precisely how good writers do things like, “Introducing Quotations,” “Explaining Quotations,” and “Disagreeing, With Reasons.” Their chapters explain how to use the templates to create powerful academic essays. It’s a great book.

Interestingly enough, the book’s preface makes it clear that not everyone shares my opinion. There’s a whole section called, “OK – But Templates?” that opens with the acknowledgment that “some instructors may have reservations about templates” (xix). But the authors respond with this explanation: 

The trouble is that many students will never learn on their own to make the key intellectual moves that our templates represent. While seasoned writers pick up these moves unconsciously through their reading, many students do not. Consequently, we believe, students need to see these moves represented in the explicit ways that templates provide. (xix)

This passage resonated strongly with me for two reasons. First, as a veteran history teacher who spent years in wealthy suburban district schools before returning to urban education in 2018, I am constantly reminded of how many intellectual moves middle class kids learn unconsciously that less privileged students need to be taught explicitly. Second, explicit instruction in intellectual moves — through templates — is precisely what we offer in our own book, From Story to Judgment

Make The Implicit Explicit

Most social studies teachers and students are only unconsciously aware of the questions that define our discipline. Consequently, most of us don’t think explicitly and carefully about the intellectual moves required to answer them responsibly. I know I didn’t, until developing the Four Question Method with Gary and writing a book about it forced me to. The goal of our book is to allow everybody in the social studies classroom — those who pick up the intellectual moves of history unconsciously through their reading and those who do not — to have an equal shot at understanding and success. We’ve seen the Four Question Method improve teaching and learning in all types of schools, from wealthy to high-poverty. While the leverage is greatest for students who face great disadvantages, it turns out that everyone benefits from more intellectual clarity in the social studies classroom.

That goal, and our use of intellectual templates to achieve it, means that From Story to Judgment shares a world-view with They Say, I Say. I’ve written before about other books that have this same outlook, most notably  Reading Reconsidered and The Writing Revolution. Like the authors of these books, Gary and I believe that complex cognitive tasks like reading, writing, and thinking about history can be “x-rayed” and explained in ways that are comprehensible to everyone. And we believe that social justice demands that all students be given explicit access to this knowledge and these skills. We hope that our book will join these others in helping to achieve that goal.




Books Are Not Enough

It’s official. Our book, From Story to Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning History, is out in the world. Judge for yourself! 

Whatever happens with the book — whoever reads it and whatever they get from it — writing it did a ton for us. Having to explain the Four Questions patiently in print certainly made us clearer about our method and the thinking skills it aims at. In the book, we work through specific examples of how to answer each of the questions in a skillful way. Creating those demonstrations, knowing that we’d have to share our work with an adult audience of professionals, forced us to practice what we’ve been preaching in a sobering and edifying way. The book has already made us smarter, better teachers.  

We hope that reading our book does the same for you. We think the odds are good. If you’re reading this blog post, you’re already an unusual teacher. You’re looking for things to read and do beyond what you’ve already figured out on your own and with colleagues. You’re hungry enough about your craft to seek more stimulation, more advice, more engagement about how to engage students in thinking about the human world in your classrooms. It’s safe to say that you are more likely than the average teacher to read a book like ours. You’re also more likely to implement whatever you learn from it independently in a way that improves your teaching practice. 

Most teachers don’t do that. That’s not meant to be a knock on “most teachers.” Lord knows that our field is challenging enough as it is without adding independent professional learning to the mix. Math majors who become teachers start their careers pretty much knowing all the math they’ll ever need. History and the social sciences produce no undergraduate experts. Even if you’ve got a masters or doctorate in one of our disciplines, what you don’t know vastly exceeds what you do. And history keeps piling up, to say nothing of fresh discoveries and interpretations of our past. That should keep us all plenty busy. 

But the reality is, a book on how to teach and learn social studies will help primarily those with the drive and discipline to make changes on their own. That’s a minority in any field; ours is no exception. So, I’m thrilled the book is out and available. And I believe that *you* will profit from it, without any supplements. 

But there’s a lot even a spectacular book, let alone one by first-time book authors, simply cannot accomplish.

Our book is an expression of our consulting practice. We’ve done lots of workshops with teachers from lots of different kinds of schools. We learned a ton doing that. Eventually we wrote it down, and now our learning is out in the world as a book. Fortunately, writing a book is only one way to share what you’ve learned with a larger community. 

And so, on to the next 4QM project. We’ve discovered, again through our consulting practice, that designing workshops around 4QM-aligned curriculum materials is a tremendously effective way to train teachers in the techniques that have improved our own pedagogy. For example, we recently wrote a unit on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic for a client. We then built workshops around that curriculum, working through each of the Four Questions as we went. The workshops were productive and the teachers, both veterans in the topic and those new to it, appeared to profit. And the teachers got to leave the workshop with the curriculum ready to go for their classes. 

We used that same curriculum again with groups of teachers from another district. Again, the value of teaching an open hand of model, 4QM-aligned curriculum was clear. We’re under no illusions about that second workshop. It demonstrated a method for teaching students to tell a great story, take it apart, and practice thinking skills along the way. But for those who aren’t going to teach ancient Rome, they need one more step: bona fide 4QM curriculum for the courses they actually teach. 

Workshops, books, and demonstrations are all terrific. For teachers with the drive and time and gumption to work things out for themselves, that’s all you really need. But there’s no good reason that a quality curriculum has to be fashioned teacher by teacher, classroom by classroom. We’re not interested in scripting daily lessons. Only teachers know who they and their students are in the classroom, and so only teachers are well equipped to make pedagogical decisions at that granular level. But we are very keen on providing teachers with the resources they need to build daily lessons for their own students that harness the power of story and lead them, step by step, from story to judgment, giving them practice in core thinking skills along the way. 

Meanwhile, a new school year is underway. Once the dust settles, we’ll get going on our next project, writing 4QM curriculum materials. Meanwhile, you hard-core folks should buy the book. I’m quite confident you’ll know what to do with it. 


Primates Like Puzzles!

We’ve known for a long time that primates like puzzles. In this post Jon explains how the Four Question Method leverages that reality for social studies classes, using examples from the 4QM Teaching book, From Story To Judgment.

Reading About Monkeys

As part  of this year’s back-to-school professional development at the school where I teach tenth grade world history we read about a well-known study of motivation in monkeys. In 1949 some University of Wisconsin psychologists put some mechanical puzzles into monkey cages, and were surprised to find that the monkeys put a lot of effort into solving the puzzles, even though they got no extrinsic rewards for doing so. They seemed to enjoy the puzzle solving just for the fun of it.

The point of the professional development reading was clear: if we can harness intrinsic motivation of our students by giving them fun puzzles to solve, we can motivate learning more effectively than we can by setting up a transactional relationship between work and grades. At 4QM Teaching we agree completely. One of the main advantages of the Four Question Method is that it gives history and social studies teachers a practical tool to turn history/social studies lessons into puzzles. Humans are the most sophisticated primates, and primates like puzzles.

4QM = Puzzle Building

Gary and I joke that if we had 4QM bumper stickers they would say “Story First!” Question One is, “What Happened?”, and 4QM trained teachers coach their students to answer it by telling a true historical story. At first glance it may seem that this question doesn’t offer much opportunity for puzzle-building. It’s true that Question One relies on another powerful feature of human brains in addition to our interest in puzzles: the fact that we really like stories. But when teachers launch a 4QM history unit, we set up the story of the unit as a puzzle. Here’s a common example from U.S. History:

In 1763 the thirteen British colonies in North America were happy and proud to be British, and had just defeated France in a major war. Only twenty years later they had declared their independence and allied with France to defeat Britain in a war to secure that independence. What happened?!? 

It may seem counterintuitive to tell students the ending of the unit story on the first day, but it’s the contrast between the story’s setting and outcome that sparks our puzzle-solving curiosity. For curious students, the story of the American Revolution then becomes much more than a list of names, dates, and “key terms.” It becomes the solution to the puzzle of how such a dramatic change happened in such a short time.

Question Two is, “What Were They Thinking?” Once we’ve established our story, we introduce students to some of the interesting people in that story. Some of these people will do things that we find dramatic, or significant, or confusing — which gives us another opportunity for puzzle-building. Here’s another example from U.S. history:

Jane Addams was a wealthy college educated 19th century American woman who decided to live in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago — the kind of place young ladies like here were most definitely advised to keep clear of. What was she thinking?!?

Good Question Two puzzles activate our curiosity, then take us out of our present world and immerse us in the past. Addams had some ideas about helping the poor that we would recognize today, and had others that we would probably find unfamiliar. When we start to understand Jane Addams on her own terms we’re really learning something new.

Question Three is, “Why Then and There?” This Question pulls back from the story and the people who made it happen, and asks about underlying conditions and context. In our book we explore a classic Question Three from world history about the age of imperialism.

In the mid-19th century both China and Japan were forced open to Western trade, and had to reckon with their military and political weakness compared to the industrialized imperial powers. Modernizing reformers existed in both places, but by the early 20th century only Japan had become an industrial power. What factors explain why modernizers failed in China but succeeded in Japan? 

A full Question Three puzzle gives students documents and data that allow them to compare and contrast two different places or two different times, so that they can identify relevant factors and hypothesize about how those factors might explain the different outcomes. (Our answer to this question focuses on the political power of the landowning classes, who tended to oppose modernization and were stronger in China than in Japan.) But you can engage students’ curiosity around Question Three without curating a full document and data set — once they understand how Question Three puzzles work, they can identify them themselves, theorize about possible explanations, and describe the data they’d need to support them. Most students genuinely want to know why wars are lost or won, why some countries are rich and others are poor, why movements succeed or fail. These are all examples of Question Three puzzles.

Once students know a story and have explored the thinking of the people in the story and the context in which they made their decisions, they are ready to answer Question Four: “What Do We Think About That?” Question Fours are puzzles of self-reflection. Students judge someone or something from the story, and have to say if they find them admirable or not — and why. If we’ve set the question up well, the answers aren’t easy, and students will disagree. The point of a Question Four puzzle is not to arrive at “the” answer; it’s to understand ourselves, and to understand how different people might arrive at different judgments from ours. In our book we ask about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, people who had committed political violence during apartheid were offered a kind of bargain: make a full confession for the public record, and be released from any possible prosecution or punishment. This process is known as “restorative justice,” and it contrasts with the most common form of justice in Western societies, which is called “retributive justice.” We ask students,

Was restorative justice a good choice for post-apartheid South Africa?”

In answering this Question students need to understand the history of South Africa, but they also need to develop an understanding of their own beliefs and values, and to begin to articulate some general principles that they would be willing to stand by in their own lives in the present day. Good Question Four classes become examples of civil and civic discourse, something that seems to be sorely lacking in our current climate.

Grades and Puzzles

In whatever format they are given, grades are an important tool for communicating whether students are mastering the knowledge and skills we want them to learn, and as such they can be a positive motivator. But if the intellectual tasks that lead to mastery of knowledge and skills are set up like puzzles (and stories), our students are much more likely to find enjoyment in the work that leads to mastery. After all, primates like puzzles.


Click Here to Order From Story To Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies

4QM In Grade Five

Gary and I are high school teachers, but as we’ve been expanding our 4QM work we’ve been doing more with the middle and elementary grades. This post describes some great 4QM curriculum written by Alex Hoyt, an award-winning fifth grade teacher in Hudson, Massachusetts. Read on to see how the Four Questions can make the American Revolution come alive for ten and eleven year olds, and to get links to Alex’s materials!

“The Swiss Army Knife of History Teaching”

Hudson is an economically diverse suburb west of Boston that has embraced 4QM training for its social studies department. Alex describes the Four Question Method this way: 

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.”

Not surprisingly, we love this quotation. We especially like the metaphor of “cutting through all the red tape” around planning. Alex explained that planning lessons can feel treacherous, especially when you’re new, because you feel your responsibilities deeply — and you have a lot of them. You’re supposed to address your state content standards, and one or more lists of “historical thinking skills.” And don’t forget to emphasize civics (very hot these days!), and make sure you design lessons that are student-centered and engaging. In Alex’s experience, the Four Question Method allows him to meet all his responsibilities without having to overthink. If you plan your unit around the Four Questions, you’ll be teaching historical thinking skills. If you design lessons in which students do the intellectual work of actually answering the questions, your lessons will be student-centered and engaging. If you have them discuss their answers with each other while reflecting and debating, you’ll be teaching civic dispositions. And of course you’ll address your state content standards, because 4QM teaching always starts with a story.

What Was King George Thinking?

This spring Alex created a 4QM style unit on the lead-up to the American Revolution. He decided to tell the story of the events between the French and Indian War, which the British won in 1763, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, the first major military engagement of the revolutionary war. His clever hook for the unit was to put the students in the position of British King George III. In each lesson he would teach them a little bit of the story (each called “the situation” in the attached materials), and then ask what they would have done if they had been King George III. He then taught them what the King actually did, and asked them to consider Question Two: What was King George thinking?

The summative activities for the unit included activities for Questions One, Two, and Four. For Question One, Alex had students retell the story they had learned using a storyboard. He gave them a choice of words or pictures for their storyboard boxes, and introduced a fun new twist for this assignment: he would roll a die to determine how many boxes each student got to tell the story. The minimum allowable number was three, so he simply rerolled if the die came up one or two. 

The Question Two activity was a writing assignment that asked students to sum up what they had determined about what the King was thinking at the start of the conflict, and then after the Battle of Bunker Hill. And the Question Four activity was a class discussion about the question, “Did King George do anything wrong?”, followed by individual writing in response to the question. Check out Alex’s materials here.

4QM In Grade Five

Alex took about a week to teach this unit; three days for the situations and King George’s responses, and two days for the storyboards. He reported that “It was fun, and according to the products kids made, effective as well!” This is a great example of how the Four Question Method can help teachers and students in the elementary grades make social studies memorable and meaningful. Over the next year, we’re planning to produce more 4QM teaching and learning materials, focusing on grades four through eight. Hopefully we’ll see more from Mr. Hoyt!



From Story To Judgment

We’re in the process of collecting blurbs for our upcoming book about the Four Question Method. (Blurbs are those little quotations you see on the back cover or inside the front pages, where people who are not the author tell you how great the book is so that you’ll decide to buy it.) It’s been really gratifying — people besides our moms actually have some very nice things to say about our work. One of our favorites so far includes this line:  

“The Four Question Method brings the ‘both and’ approach that all good teaching requires by balancing learning the narrative and facts with developing deep, historical thinking skills that are essential for our students.” 

The writer of this blurb has been a history teacher and school principal, and is now an ed school dean. He identifies something that we think makes the Four Question Method unusual: in the debate between the importance of teaching knowledge and the importance of teaching skills, we’re honestly on both sides.

Story First! (With Two Caveats)

Admittedly, we believe that knowledge comes first. Teaching and learning in our field always starts with a story, because you need to know what happened in the past before you can do any kind of thinking about it. That’s why Question One is “What happened?” (We joke that if we had Four Question Method T-shirts or bumper stickers they’d say “Story First!”) But our emphasis on knowledge acquisition comes with two important caveats. First off, no matter how they learn it, your students need to retell the story themselves. It turns out that narrating an accurate historical story is a cognitively demanding skill. Students can tell the story by drawing pictures on a four-box storyboard, writing four-sentence stories or “because-but-so” sentences, or presenting orally. The process of telling the story forces them to make decisions about what to include and exclude, where to chunk or chapterize the story, and how to ensure that the narrative events connect clearly to each other. All those decisions require both knowledge and skill.

Our second warning about starting with knowledge acquisition is that your students certainly should not stop there. Knowledge alone is not enough. In order to really understand the past, in order to actually learn from it, students need to use their knowledge as the starting point for interpretation, explanation, and judgment. Every important story about the past is full of interesting people who did interesting things, so we pause our narrative from time to time to ask Question Two, “What were they thinking?” To answer this question students practice the thinking skill of interpretation. We study documents, artifacts, and patterns of behavior in order to get into their heads, to try to understand the reasons for their choices and decisions. Those choices and decisions only seem important to us if we know the story first. So knowledge serves as a springboard to new questions and new thinking.

The same is true for Question Three, “Why then and there?” Question Three asks us to step back and look at the story in context as a way of explaining it. Every story takes place in conditions particular to a specific time and place. How did those conditions make this story more likely in this time and place? How were conditions changed from before, or different from conditions in other places? How did those changes or differences influence the story? Question Three is best approached through comparative puzzles that present data about different times and places and ask students to notice patterns. We’ve started writing a series of these puzzles about world history Question Threes, like, “Why did World War One break out in 1914 and not earlier?” And, “Why did industrialization start in Britain and not China?” These questions inspire natural curiosity, but only after students know what World War One or the industrial revolution was – they need the story if they’re going to get curious about explaining it. 

Question Four asks, “What do we think about that?” and gives students a chance to practice the thinking skill of judgment. Once students have worked on the first three questions, they naturally move to judgment: they admire certain people in the story and disparage others, they think a certain decision was good or bad, right or wrong. A well structured Question Four lesson makes that kind of thinking the focus of the class, and teaches students to slow down and take their own judgments (and those of their classmates) seriously. Responsible judgment only comes after students have gained knowledge of the story, the ideas of key people in the story, and the context with which they were operating. Like the other thinking skills, judgment takes practice. It is perhaps the most important of them all, since it directly relates to the responsibilities of citizenship. After all, what is citizenship in a democratic republic but a series of judgments about good, bad, right and wrong? 

The title of our upcoming book is From Story To Judgment. That’s because good teaching and learning in our field always starts with a story, but should demand all four thinking skills. At a recent workshop for teachers where we had just completed a Question Four exercise, a participant said that “Making a judgment really helps me to know the story, and thinking through my judgment makes me know I’m going to remember it better too.” That’s what the Four Question Method is designed to do. We start with knowledge. But it’s only through truly engaging with that knowledge and grappling with important questions about it that we give it meaning.



We Wrote A Book!

We did it. We wrote a book! About a month ago we sent the final chapter off to the publisher (John Catt USA). A round of copy edits, some decisions about cover and layout, and then we’re done with it. Feels like it did when my kids moved out. We did what we could. Now it’s up to them, and it.  

That’s an illusion, of course, on both scores. Parenting continues, and from what I hear, gets more complicated, not less. And the book may be written, but we still have to figure out how to convince teachers to read it after it hits bookstores at the end of the summer. What’s amazing and wonderful is that, despite having spent the year writing it, I still believe that they should. The book is actually pretty good! It says things about teaching and learning social studies that I wish I’d known when I started out. For that matter, it says things that will make me a better teacher next fall.  

If you’ve attended our workshops, there’s a bunch you’ll recognize. Our basic argument is the same: teaching and learning social studies both go well when the teacher asks and answers the four questions (that’s planning) and then coaches students to do the same thing (that’s teaching and learning). And the logic of the four questions is still the same. Start with a story in response to Question One: What Happened? Then dig in and figure out what some of the protagonists in that story were thinking (Question Two: What were they thinking?). Then step back and figure out how changes and differences in context may account for why the story happened when and where it did (Question Three: Why then and there?). Then, having done all that, figure out what all this means to us, here and now (Question Four: What do we think about that?).

New Clarity On Student Work

What’s new and for me, personally, a game changer is the clarity and precision of the method we’ve now articulated for planning, teaching, and assessing student work. We’ve always said that students don’t just need to learn stories. They need to learn to tell them. That’s how they achieve proficiency in the thinking skill we call narration. Same with interpretation, explanation, and judgment, the thinking skills associated with the other questions. They need a teacher to show them how to do those things well. Then they need to try it themselves. 

In the book, we’ve nailed down inquiry methods for all the questions with step-by-step instructions, templates, and examples. And we’ve provided rubrics keyed to the instructions and templates so that assessing student performance in any of the four thinking skills is straightforward for teachers and useful for students. The instructions for teaching students to tell true stories (Q1) and interpret meaning artifacts (Q2) are clearer and more detailed than they’ve ever been. Despite the crazy conditions this year, Jon tested the changes on his students. The rubrics were particularly effective at getting them to see how to make their work better. 

The real game changers are Question Three and Question Four, explanation and judgment. Those were always the hard questions for teachers to plan and students to execute. In the book, we call them generalizing questions. For example, a story is a particular account of what happened. Question Three generalizes in response to that story: under what conditions does a story like this one happen? In order to answer that question well, you need to know a lot about context and conditions. That’s the first challenge. The second challenge is knowing what to do with the knowledge you’ve got so that it can inform an explanation that makes sense. 

When Jon tried out our new, step-by-step procedures for answering Question Three with his students, the results were extraordinary. He used the exact case study we present in the book, comparing Chinese and Japanese responses to western imperialism in the 19th century. His students worked through each step of the process, from identifying similarities and differences in context and conditions to describing mechanisms to testing hypotheses. They understood what they were doing and had results in the end to show for their efforts. And they sounded like social scientists doing it! 

The results were similar for our new Question Four procedures. Unlike explanation, students are used to hearing and talking about judgment questions. Most of them have had years of practice responding to some version of, What do we think about that? What’s much rarer is being held accountable for giving a skillful answer. In the book, we show how to teach and assess judgment in a way that elevates student discourse. 

The Question Four case study in the book, and the one Jon recently tested with his students, is about restorative justice and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In the classroom, students first learned the history of apartheid-era South Africa and the transition to democracy. Jon then asked them to make a judgment about the amnesty provision of the TRC, which granted immunity from prosecution to perpetrators of human rights violations who gave full, honest, public testimony about their actions. Students were able to work their way through the case, step by step, first articulating their own reactions, then identifying the assumptions that drove those reactions, and then defining the values and principles that supported them. They even tested their principles for consistency. The conversation ripped — and it led somewhere. Students were practicing a kind of thinking they can apply to other cases and to their own lives. They were learning to judge like engaged citizens. That’s the point, right? 

We’ve always believed that social studies teaching and learning, our own and in general, could be so much better. Figuring out what questions drove deep learning and clear thinking were in the classroom got us a long way down the road. Writing the book has forced us to work through the details in a way we’d never quite managed before. We’re clearer on how our own thinking works and about how to share that thinking with students. I, for one, am excited to get back to the classroom in the fall equipped with the new tools we’ve devised. 

But first, how about a summer break…? 


“Why Are We Doing This?”

One of my favorite moments in any class is when a student interrupts the lesson (always politely) and asks, “Mr, Bassett, why are we doing this?”

In social studies there is a pretty broad consensus that students should do certain things. At the top of the list, if not the very top, is “read primary sources.” Unfortunately, it seems like most people who want students to read primary sources don’t have a very good idea of why they want that. And when we plan lessons around an activity rather than a clear learning goal, we end up with disjointed lessons that have a pretty weak answer to the student’s question of why we’re doing this.

We recently got an example of this kind of lesson planning in the 4QM Teaching email in-box, from a curriculum organization we subscribe to. There was a google slide deck dedicated to “Planning With Primary Sources,” which guided teachers through the steps to planning a lesson that uses a primary source document. The first step in the process is to find a “compelling question.” They included a helpful list that you can browse; examples include “To what extent should there be limits on the powers of leaders?” and “Who is responsible for securing world peace?” Once you’ve chosen your compelling question, the next step was to go to a standards document to choose a “content specification.” The slide after that offered some specific primary sources a teacher could choose to use in the lesson; there were about thirty or so, including Hammurabi’s Code and the Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III of 1793. Then, at slide number six, the teacher is asked to decide why students will read the primary source: to answer a compelling question, or to practice for a state examination. What follows are fifty more slides about how students could go about reading the primary source. 

This whole exercise struck me as a compelling example (pun intended) of backward thinking about lesson planning. It starts with questions that cannot be answered outside of a specific time and place (“Who is responsible for securing world peace?”), offers a list of primary sources that seem to have been chosen for their link-ability and lack of copyright protection, and devotes most of its energy to an enormous infrastructure around how to use them in class. I can hear it now: “Mr. Bassett, why are we doing this?”

At 4QM Teaching, we believe that learning goals should dictate pedagogy, not the other way around. We also believe that there are four possible learning goals in history/social studies classes. Students are always trying to find out what happened (Question One), what someone was thinking (Question Two), why something happened when and where it did (Question Three), or what we think about that (Question Four). And our mantra is “Story First!”, because kids don’t get interested in Questions Two, Three, or Four until they’ve answered Question One. 

Here’s how we might arrive at the choice to use one of the  primary sources mentioned above in a lesson: The Qianlong Emperor’s letter to George III. We’d start with a story. In the 1700s Great Britain became the world’s first industrial power, and built a massive navy that they used to project their economic might around the globe. They were especially interested in selling their manufactured products in China, which was then as now an enormous market and very tempting. They repeatedly asked for the right to trade freely in China, and were repeatedly refused. Eventually the British began selling opium (a highly addictive drug) in China, and in the early 1800s fought several wars to force the country open to foreign trade. Thus began the time period that the Chinese government today calls “the century of humiliation” — China’s one hundred years of domination by foreign powers. 

Part of this story is the Qianlong Emperor’s refusal to allow the British to trade in his Empire, which refusal was delivered in a letter to the British King George III in 1793. We know how the story ended, and it looks to us like the Emperor may have made a catastrophic blunder — wouldn’t he have been better off allowing the British to trade, and thus avoiding the opium wars that came almost fifty years later? We’re now primed and ready to dive into a Question Two: What was he thinking??

When we set up a lesson this way, students have a reason to care about the primary source we’ll give them to interpret. Maybe the Emperor’s “blunder” won’t seem so foolish once we understand the thinking behind it, or maybe it will seem even worse than we thought. Either way, we’ll have a much better understanding of events once we’ve taken the time to dig into the source and develop some historical empathy for the Emperor — once we’ve tried to see the world as he saw it in 1793. 

Primary source interpretation is our go-to pedagogy for answering Question Two. The documents and artifacts historical figures leave behind them are rich mines of data, and we’ve got a straightforward and effective way to lead students through the kind of thinking they need to do when they interpret them. 

The other three Questions have good pedagogy matches as well, although we like to emphasize that we’re pedagogical pragmatists, not rigid ideologues — teachers should use techniques that match their learning goals and their students. But wherever we end up in our planning, we should start by defining our Question. And remember, Story First! If you follow those rules, we’re much more likely to be ready when someone interrupts to ask, “Why are we doing this?”



Classroom Debates: For and Against

I think I’ve finally reconciled myself to debate. I came by my skepticism honestly. Way back as a TA in grad school I remember reading a paper by a student in a political theory class that was chock full of arguments, good, bad, and indifferent. The sheer density of claims, with a half-hearted defense tacked on to each one, struck me as wildly counterproductive. Even the good arguments sound bad when they arrive in a swarm of weak ones. 

That student, it turns out, was a skilled debater. Apparently the volume approach was standard practice at his competitions. For me, it became a hazard to warn against. 

When I first started out as a high school teacher, I ran debates often enough. I did whatever lessons I was given or could scrounge up. I would not describe what I did as “excellent debate lessons,” but I do remember animated sessions with occasionally illuminating moments. Debate really does work to get students talking, arguing, and collaborating. Good-natured competition encourages focus and team spirit. 

The latter, the team spirit, is what worried me. When we debriefed after a debate, I noticed that students were overwhelmingly convinced by the arguments on their side, whatever views they held beforehand and, frankly, whichever reasons seemed most compelling to me. I worried, and still do, that team spirit was transforming into calcified groupthink. 

I should have overcome my antipathy to debate much earlier than now. As a supervisor, I’ve observed excellent debate lessons numerous times, in a variety of styles. I’ve watched students prepare for and execute very compelling Oxford-style debates on important topics in world history. I’ve heard, in their debriefings, a thoughtfulness I often struggled to achieve in the ones I ran. 

I’ve also seen students debate in clever formats designed to thwart the problem I had with mine, premature entrenchment in a view. For example, in “Murphy pods” — called that, affectionately, by students of a teacher in my department — students have short, repeated arguments against changing opponents, switching positions as they go. I particularly like that format because it requires exploration. When you hear someone contradict your claim in a forceful way, you remember it. That argument is now available to you in the next round. A few rounds later, and the better arguments have typically gotten elaborated and the worse ones attenuated. 

Debate Is Not The Same As Judgement

What finally brought me around, though, wasn’t teaching or observing. It was drafting the chapter of our 4QM book on judgment, Question Four (What do we think about that?). What I figured out about judgment as I sat patiently and mulled slowly is that the skillful thinking we call judgment requires exactly that — patient, slow thinking. Debate is quick, hot, and noisy. Ultimately, figuring out consistent core values and general principles has to be slow, quiet, and reflective (like writing a book in semi-quarantine). 

That doesn’t mean that debate is a bad idea. On the contrary, I now see that debate is an awesome brainstorming technique for judgment thinking. Debate generates claims — lots of them. Without that activation, you can’t really think through a real-life decision or dilemma. Part of the exercise of good judgment is canvassing your options thoroughly. Failure to do that accounts for a lot of my own poor judgment to date.

But that’s just stage one. After you consider the problem broadly and creatively (and noisily), then you need to slow down and get quiet. This, too, requires a structured activity, a parallel to debate. This is what I was missing when I started out. I’d run a noisy activity and then be surprised that students were stuck wherever they stopped. We didn’t have the follow-on activity that would have compelled them to sort through their findings and say which can be fixed to values and principles that they can articulate, apply, and ultimately live with. I missed the pedagogy of the reflective generalization stage.

Interestingly, I once knew this, sort of. My first year as a high school teacher was pretty miserable, mostly because I was so bad at it. At the end of the year, my boss (now my 4QM partner, Jon) told me he’d give me a senior Ethics elective to teach the following year. He could see I needed a course a bit more in my wheelhouse so that I could rebuild my confidence. 

In any case, Ethics worked for me. It wasn’t a history class, but we did always start with a case study or a scenario. And we always worked from our reactions to that scenario to general principles, which, at the time, I taught directly: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, and so on. 

Question Four is, in a way, the translation of that enterprise into the history curriculum. Our case studies and scenarios are now drawn from true stories. And our instruction in principled ethical thinking is more inductive. Still, Question Four is a lot like the course that might have saved me for high school teaching almost two decades ago. We work from cases to principles and back again. 

Interestingly, I don’t recall that we ever debated in that Ethics class. We just talked. They were seniors who’d opted in, and running a philosophical discussion was one of my very few classroom competencies. So just talking turned out to be enough. 

Now I know: debate is great. It’s the generative stage of practice for the thinking skill we call judgment. It helps us to answer Question Four by forcing us to think through a wide range of claims and possibilities. So make noise and raise the temperature. Then, slow down, get cool and quiet, and reflect. Which of these warm-to-the-touch choices of action in a real-life situation are consistent with the core values and consistent principles we will use to guide our future choices? When the din dies down and the teams dissolve, where does our judgment settle? That’s the part we take home.


Student Judgment in the Classroom

Social studies teachers love a lively student discussion: “The kids were really into that discussion about whether or not we should have school uniforms!” But I suspect that most of us don’t do a great job of letting students know if their lively discussion was actually backed with clear and rigorous thinking. Too often we let an exciting activity be an end in itself, rather than a practice session for historical thinking skills. 

In the Four Question Method, exciting discussions are often focused on Question Four, “What do we think about that?” With this question we are explicitly asking students for their own judgments about something from the past, usually a decision that someone (or some group of people) made. Did President Truman do the right thing when he ordered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Was Martin Luther King’s non-violent Christian movement the best way to achieve racial justice? But if we’re going to teach students to give us more than “hot takes,” we need to define the thinking skills that make up responsible judgments and teach students how to demonstrate them.

Last week Gary wrote a blog post that identifies two elements of responsible judgment: articulateness and application. “Articulateness” means that students can clearly explain their reasons for their judgments, and “Application” means that students can consistently apply their principles to a different case. As it happens, I led two discussions today about a classic judgment question, and I’d like to use my experience to illustrate how these two thinking skills can be applied in the classroom.

Today’s class was about the Versailles Treaty, and the judgment question I asked students was, “Was the war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty fair?” The Versailles Treaty was the peace treaty that ended World War One, and the “war guilt clause” was the part of the treaty that stated that Germany was solely responsible for causing the war, and thus would be held responsible for paying damages (“reparations”) to Britain and France. My students knew the story of the pre-war era, the war itself, and the story of the treaty negotiations. They had studied, in other words, Question One (“What happened?”), and Question Two (“What were they thinking?”) for all the key players of the story. We had also done a Question Three (“Why then and there?”) puzzle about the start of the war. They were ready to render their judgments.


In my first class, the majority of students started out by saying that the war guilt clause was not fair. “Articulateness” requires them to be able to explain their reasons, and they did pretty well. The student leaders of this position argued that first, the real cause of the war was the unwillingness of Britain and her allies to face the reality of growing German power. From here they argued that Britain and her allies were being unreasonable in their opposition to Germany, since the Kaiser’s demands for empire and an increased share of world trade were entirely in line with his country’s size and economic might. They saw the specifics of the outbreak of war in summer 1914 as less relevant than this underlying conflict, and thus considered placing all the blame on Germany to be unjust. There were several students who said that in fact Britain bore primary responsibility for the war, because she did not accommodate Germany’s rise peacefully.

The opposing side in that first class was more strongly represented in my second class of the day: there the majority started out by saying that the war guilt clause was fair. These students argued that Germany had been unreasonably aggressive in its rise, and that it was perfectly reasonable to expect Great Britain to try to prevent Germany from threatening its top spot in the world economy and geopolitical balance. These students emphasized the German invasion of France (through neutral Belgium!) as evidence of Germany’s untoward aggression, and thus considered placing all of the blame on Germany to be just. There was even one student who argued that Britain’s major error had been in not attacking Germany first and earlier, before she got so strong!

There were proponents of both positions in both classes, so the discussion was lively. And there were also students who articulated a position based almost entirely on the events of the summer of 1914; these students cared less about the contextual conflict between Britain and Germany, and more about the fact that Germany had invaded France without provocation. They saw the war guilt clause as fair.


In the last few minutes of each class I pressed students to apply the principles they had articulated to a different case. I suggested that the United States today is similar to Britain in 1914, a dominant economic and military power, and that China is similar to Germany, as a rising economic and military power. Would the students who suggested that Britain should have accommodated Germany’s rise agree that the U.S. should accommodate China? And would those who suggested that Germany was unduly aggressive and had earned a harsh response from Britain and her allies feel the same way about China and the U.S.?

Unfortunately I didn’t have the time I needed to play this out very far in either class. But the student who had suggested that Britain should have attacked Germany earlier did actually say that he would not support war against China today, and he saw immediately that this was a contradiction to his earlier position. He then publicly changed his mind and said that he was now going to have to reconsider his entire position on the war guilt clause. 

I praised that student for doing what we hope all of our students will do every day: thinking. Knowing the two elements of judgment thinking made it easier for me to plan a discussion class that pushed students to do both. 


Components of Judgment (Defining Question Four Thinking)

In our introductory 4QM workshops, we say that every unit in history class is a practicum in judgment. Question Four, our judgment question — “What do we think about that?” — is the ultimate payoff for all the hard work we do when we teach and learn Questions One, Two, and Three. Our students will inherit the world (of trouble) we ourselves inherited and contributed to. They’ll have to figure out what they think of it and then what to do about it. The goal of Question Four in particular, and of social studies in general, is to get them ready for that awesome and daunting task. 

You’d think, after all that build-up, we’d have had more to say about Question Four in this blog space. I’ve found two posts that make more-than-passing references to it, one from Jon and one from me. We’ve had plenty to say about the other questions. Question Four, not so much. 

I don’t think that’s accidental. Question Four appears more straightforward than it is. Asking students what they think about things — what could be more easy and obvious? The tricky thing about Question Four is that you can make it look like it’s working even when it isn’t. Ask a contentious question, get the kids arguing passionately, and there you have it: an exciting class with engaged students. Success, right? 

Not necessarily. Here’s a quick gut-check to see how wrong that impression can be. Do you assess judgment? If you do, can your students say what judgment skills they’re being asked to demonstrate? Are they learning to exercise those skills better over time? As a classroom teacher, I haven’t always been able to answer yes to all three of those questions. If you can’t now, you’re not teaching judgment — yet. 

Define It To Assess It

The key is to treat judgment like any other thinking skill. Name the skill, practice it purposefully, and assess it regularly. 

The thinking skill of judgment has two key components, articulateness and application. When you answer Question Four skillfully, you need to articulate the reasons that support whatever judgment claim you make. For our purposes, the claim is less important than the reasons. (We assess the reasons, not the claim.) Those reasons will typically take the form of general statements of principles and core values applied to the specifics at hand (established by answering Questions One, Two, and Three) in a coherent, logical way. 

The second component of skillful judgment, application, requires that you apply whatever principles and core values you articulated in considering a particular historical case to a new but related case. That will show whether you know how to apply principles skillfully when the facts vary. It will also reveal whether your principles are robust — that is, whether or not they really are the general principles you claimed them to be, or were really just ad hoc rationalizations for a judgment you made by instinct or intuition. 

An Example: The American Revolution

Consider a classic: The American revolutionaries declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and gave lots of reasons, general and specific, for doing so. Some people, both in the colonies and Britain, agreed with both the claims and the reasons. Some people in both places disagreed. What do we think about that? Were the revolutionaries justified in making that declaration — and in taking up arms in defense of it — or were they disloyal and ungrateful insurrectionists? Was their argument persuasive or not? 

We pose that question so that our students can practice doing what those revolutionaries themselves did: making judgments about real-world issues and dilemmas. This is what we mean by a practicum in judgment. As I said, we care more about our students’ reasons than their claims. The Revolutionaries have already made their decision and acted on it. The results are in and definitive. We’re using this practicum as an opportunity for our students to practice and get feedback on their skills in articulating and applying principles. 

The American Revolution is a good starter practicum, since the people whose actions we’re judging were themselves quite articulate. They actually created a now-famous “Declaration” in which they announced their general principles and took pains to apply them to the specifics of their case. That’s a helpful reminder to our students that we’re looking for principled reasoning from them as well. Once they’ve done that, they should be equipped to answer this general version of our Question Four for themselves: Under what conditions does a group of people have the right to reject the authority of their government and to attempt to establish their own independent one?

Answering that general Question Four is no mean feat. Some students will be attracted to the revolutionaries’ own argument to avoid having to formulate an alternative. Others may find their argument attractive for sentimental reasons. Still others may argue with them for the sake of being contrary. That’s where application comes in. 

For better or worse, history is full of test cases for our students’ revolutionary principles. In US History, our students can try their principles on a range of cases from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, to the Confederacy, to the modern-day Tea Party — to say nothing of the ill-fated attempts of Staten Island, my home borough, to secede from the state of New York. In world history, they can test the application of their principles to anti-colonial independence movements around the globe. That will have the salutary effect, by the way, of introducing them to other kinds of principles than the 18th-century social contract argument of the Americans. 

Students’ judgments regarding the revolutionaries of 1776 need to square with their judgments of these other would-be and successful revolutionaries. That doesn’t mean, of course, that their judgment claims need to be identical. On the contrary, relevant differences between cases may lead us to apply our principles in different ways. Or perhaps we’ll come to see that our principles need to be adjusted or elaborated in light of what we’ve learned about the world. Either way, we want to do our best to avoid putting our thumbs on the scale in favor of people we just happen to like and then removing it when the subjects of our judgment simply aren’t our cup of revolutionary tea. In other words, we want to practice making skillful judgments. 

Generating Heat, Not Light

Sometimes it’s easier to notice a skillful practice by its absence. If the Question Four conversations in your classes generate lots of opinions but very few articulate reasons to support those opinions, then your students are not practicing articulateness, and will certainly not be able to apply and test principles in comparable cases. They’ll generate heat, but not a lot of light. 

For what it’s worth, that’s an endemic hazard in our profession. When my students are animated and engaged, whatever the reason and whatever the product, I am deeply grateful. It sure beats that sullen look, or worse, a blank square on a Zoom screen. Sometimes, that feels like enough for me.

Moreover, assessing — that is, judging — judgment is, ironically, fraught with its own hazards. We want students to believe that our assessments of their work are fair and principled. When we assess their performance at rendering judgments, we strenuously want to avoid the appearance that we’re debating our students on the question at hand. In the absence of articulated standards applied judiciously — communicated through a rubric, say — neither we nor they can be sure that we’re teaching rather than preaching. In that case, it feels safer to avoid the whole issue of assessment and just enjoy the rollicking debate. 

Unfortunately, the judgment tasks we’ve bequeathed our students in the real world don’t really afford us that luxury. They’ve got important work to do when we’re done with them. Whatever your judgment on the issues of the day, you must agree with this one: we ourselves have important work to do in the meantime.