I recently had the pleasure of giving a workshop with our friend and colleague Art Worrell, the history curriculum leader for the Uncommon Schools network and co-author of a new book on secondary school history teaching. We were working with a group of social studies teachers in Indianapolis, and we opened the day with a lesson simulation that took the participants through all four questions of the Four Question Method as though they were students. Art is a master teacher, and he designed a really engaging lesson about the Stono Rebellion of 1739. You may not have heard of it, but it was one of the most important rebellions of enslaved people in the thirteen colonies. It happened in Stono, South Carolina, which is near the coast (today it’s actually part of Charleston) and was about 150 miles from Spanish Florida.
Art told the story of the rebellion, so our “students” could answer Question One, “What happened?” After establishing the story, we interpreted a primary source to try to answer Question Two, “What were they thinking?” about the insurrectionists. Then we identified things that were different about South Carolina in 1739 so we could answer Question Three, “Why then and there?”
TWO QUESTION FOURS: SPECIFIC AND GENERAL
After we’d done all that, we asked two versions of Question Four, “What do we think about that?” The first version was specific to the Stono Rebellion: “Did the Stono insurrectionists do the right thing?” The second version was general: “When is it right to rebel?”
The Question Four discussions were really fun, and they illuminated a key distinction that is very helpful to keep in mind when teaching Question Four. When considering if a decision or action is “the right thing” or not, it’s helpful to guide students to think about two different questions: is the decision or action just? (as in fair or ethical), and is it effective?
SLAVE REBELLION IS JUSTIFIED…
At the outset of our conversation about the specific Question Four, did the Stono insurrectionists do the right thing, everyone in the room said yes. That’s because they were all thinking about justice. We all quickly came to consensus that enslaved people are justified in rebellion, and even violent rebellion. So in that sense, the Stono insurrectionists did the right thing.
BUT IS IT EFFECTIVE?
But our conversation didn’t end with ethics. Art pointed out that while a revolt of enslaved people might be ethical, it might not actually be advisable. We had a much more lively conversation about whether the Stono Rebellion was a good idea from a practical standpoint. Was it effective?
Of course we know, with hindsight, that in this case the answer was “no.” The rebels did not achieve freedom, and were all executed. South Carolina then passed much more restrictive laws regulating slavery, in order to prevent future revolts. But of course, the people at the time could not know this outcome in advance. When leading students through a question four discussion, teachers have to emphasize this reality and ask students to put themselves in the position of the people we’re studying. Given what they knew at the time, was rebellion worth the risk?
This question produced a very lively discussion, and also demonstrated why it’s crucial to teach “story first.” One participant in our workshop used her knowledge of the story to argue that the particular circumstances of Stono made this revolt a good idea. The Spanish authorities in Florida had promised freedom to any enslaved people who crossed into Florida, and word had reached Stono that several former slaves had in fact made it to freedom in Florida. In addition, the enslaved population dramatically outnumbered the free (white) population in South Carolina at the time. She argued that these particular conditions improved the odds of success to the point where rebellion was a good idea.
Other participants were not so sure. They pointed out that it’s one thing for a few individuals to flee to Florida, and another thing for a mass rebellion to succeed. Maybe the idea was misconceived from the beginning.
UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS…
This conversation was the bridge from our specific question four (“Did the Stono insurrectionists do the right thing?”) to our general question: “When is it right to rebel?” At this stage of a Question Four discussion, the teacher is guiding students to try to create a general statement of principles that can apply across specific cases. This was also a lively conversation. All agreed that the first necessary condition for a rightful rebellion was ethical justification: you can rebel when your fundamental rights are being violated. After that things got messy, in a good way. Does the chance of success matter in the calculus? Most of our participants said yes, but not all. Perhaps martyrdom (death in fighting for a just cause) is a good outcome. If you do believe that rebellion is only right when you have a chance of success, then you get into a conversation about how one might know that, how much of a chance, and so on. It’s a rich conversation, and unfortunately one that we had to cut short in our workshop due to time constraints.
THE QUESTION FOUR PAYOFF
In our book we devote a whole chapter to planning and teaching Question Four. Question Four is the payoff for good history/social studies teaching: lively conversations about big questions that matter. And Art’s lesson on Stono was a great example of how to do it well. Start with a story, provide a specific and a general version of Question Four, and guide students to consider both justice and effectiveness in answering it. Try it yourself, and let us know how it goes!