Category: 4QM Teaching

College Board Code

I’m teaching an AP course this year: AP World History. (I reverse the title so that I can call it “WHAP” in all my materials.) It’s been some years since I’ve been so intimate with the College Board, and this is my first AP course since Gary and I finalized our Four Questions and started been blogging and doing workshops for teachers. The great gift that the Four Question Method gives to teachers and students is intellectual clarity: we know at any given moment what question we are trying to answer. That clarity is what drives 4QM teachers’ decisions about pedagogy, assessment, and evaluation. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the College Board seems to value murkiness in its questioning. An old friend of mine used to have a bumper sticker on his truck that said “Eschew Obfuscation.”  I’m thinking of having a bunch of those stickers made up and sent to College Board Headquarters. They probably wouldn’t think it’s as funny as I do.

Clear As Mud

There’s a much longer article to be written here about the problems with the College Board’s “AP Historical Thinking Skills,”* but for now I’ll limit myself to decoding one of the “Task Verbs Used in Free-Response Questions” given on page 200 of the “AP World History: Modern Course and Exam Description:” What does the College Board mean when it asks students to “Explain?” 

The first tip-off that there’s a problem is that the verb “Explain” is followed by a full paragraph of clarification. “Explain” apparently requires a lot of explanation. Here’s the full text:

Explain: Provide information about how or why a relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome occurs, using evidence and/or reasoning. Explain ‘how’ typically requires analyzing the relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome, whereas explain ‘why’ typically requires analysis of motivations or reasons for the relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome.”

This paragraph seems designed more to defend against a possible lawsuit than to actually give students guidance in thinking like historians. There’s the long list of things that could be “analyzed” (whatever that means), which is preceded by the ultimate weasel word, “typically.” This amounts to a nearly incomprehensible definition that still leaves the door open for test makers to use “explain how” and “explain why” in some manner not covered by their definition. How teachers are supposed to prepare students for a question that uses “Explain how” or “Explain why” in an atypical fashion is beyond me.

College Board Code

Here’s what I think they’re really after. I told my students that“Explain how” is College Board Code for Question One: It means, “Tell the story of something that happened.” And I think “Explain why” is College Board Code for Question Two: It means, “Say what someone important in the story was thinking.” I suspect that part of the reason the College Board doesn’t write its essay questions in 4QM style is because they think simple questions are perceived as easy. But as anyone who’s tried to get students to give an accurate and clear answer to any of the Four Questions knows, simple questions can be very difficult to answer. If your whole brand is based on “college level” academics and you need to appear rigorous at all costs, then I guess asking students to “provide information about how or why a relationship, process, pattern, position, situation, or outcome occurs, using evidence and/or reasoning” makes you look more demanding than if you simply asked them to tell you a clear and true story.

The point here for teachers is that the Four Question Method can help you to figure out exactly what it is you want your students to be thinking about when they’re answering an essay question. And if you know that, you can write clear questions. And if you do that, when you grade your students’ papers you’re actually evaluating their abilities to think like historians – not to decode your muddy questions. 


*”Skill 1” is actually two plural nouns: “Developments and Processes.” It’s like saying that skill 1 for driving a car is “wheels and engines.”

Student-Centered Storytelling

Students can’t intuit history. They can’t know what happened in other times and places unless someone shares that information with them. Once they’ve learned enough history, they can begin to make educated guesses. But even then, they need to check reliable sources in order to confirm or, more likely, correct their guesses. In any case, most of our students will remain apprentices during their time with us.

So what does it mean to run a student-centered classroom when you’re committed, as Jon and I are, to a “story-first” approach to history education? If you believe, as we do, that higher-level inquiry and argument must follow and not precede historical knowledge, must you be committed to starting all units and learning cycles with teacher-directed lecture, reading, or video?  

Yes and no. In order to prepare our students for semi-independent inquiry, we need to equip them with enough narrative knowledge both to inspire curiosity and to facilitate reasonable interpretations, explanations, and judgments. And in order to equip them that way, we need, at least, to select and curate materials that will give them the story. 

But that hardly means that you need to precede every attempt to answer Question Two (What were they thinking?) with a lecture that narrates an answer to Question One, What happened? It’s fine to lecture, by the way, when your students are up for it. We live in the great age of Ted Talks and podcasts. People love hearing stories. The students in your class can love them, too. 

On the other hand, Ted Talks and podcasts require substantial resources to produce. And most of the audience for them is not 15 and compelled to listen. 

Activate The Inherent Drama

The key to making your story-first teaching as student-centered as it can be is to recognize that stories are inherently dramatic. That’s why storyboarding works so well in History class. The logic that makes storyboarding an excellent way to capture both sequential and episodic narratives — human action, chunked into events and richly visualized — can be a template for a pedagogical technique that engages students while it informs them about things they don’t yet know. 

Imagine your classroom as a dramaturgical space. What students need in order to enter into a dramatic story is a sense of setting, character, and conflict or tension. That’s something that you, the teacher, simply have to provide. We did a summer workshop a year ago in which teachers practiced setting the hook for their unit stories. It was terrific fun. Setting the hook, selling the contrast between where the story begins and where and how it ends, is like loading a spring. Set your trap, catch some students. 

Once your story-hook is set, then engage students in a series of near-field puzzles to drive the story forward. Imagine this: Louis XVI called the Estates General, a kind of representative assembly that hasn’t met in over a century. It is thoroughly old world: divided by rank. Louis only calls them because he needs to raise money. Seems straightforward enough. Three years later, his head is in a basket (along with his wife’s), and France has declared itself a republic (of virtue, no less!). What happened?!? 

A traditional way to tell that story is to, well, tell it. Teacher lectures, students take notes. Supplement liberally with reading and video. The alternative is to imagine your class as a theater troupe. Three estates? Assign them. And a king and queen, if you like. Then, direct your drama. At each turning point — at each box in your daily storyboard — ask your students to make a decision-cum-prediction. What will the estates say and do? How will the king and queen react? 

The dramaturgical classroom exploits the power of near-field inferences to keep your students engaged in unraveling a story. Provide short documents and images at intervals, and ask your student-actors to make decisions. Then show them what comes next. 

In order to make classroom dramaturgy work, you probably need to think about note taking as a formative assessment rather than as a means of recording teacher communication. Imagine this: students role-play the story, with your guidance. Then they achieve oral proficiency in telling it. Then, finally, they record it in their notes. Story first, notes last. 

When your students are fully bought in and doing school, they’ll take notes on anything. Feel free to lecture. But for reluctant or struggling students, recording a story they already get can make the whole enterprise of history learning more comprehensible. Notes lock in your learning. (Storyboards along the way don’t hurt, either.)  

There’s no getting around knowledge. But if we think of knowledge not as lists of data but rather as dramatic stories of real humans doing real human things, then maybe we can expand our range of teaching techniques by borrowing from our friends in the theater arts. All the world’s a stage, no?


Why Stories Work

At our workshops, Jon and I typically tease the audience with imaginary swag. We don’t have any — no pens, no mugs, no stickers. If we did, our swag would be T shirts that said “Story First!” on the front, and each workshop participant would get one. Alas, no T shirts either…

So we believe that good history teaching starts with storytelling. We believe that because we’ve observed it and tried it ourselves. Jon cited Natalie Wexler in his blog post last week. She believes it, too, apparently on account of the work of Daniel Willingham. Willingham is a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia who writes about reading and education. After reading Wexler’s book, The Knowledge Gap, I read Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? to see what the fuss was about.

Mid-Range Puzzles Engage The Mind

What’s great about Willingham’s book — and it is great — is that he explains why stories work. What motivates children (and adults) to learn new things is puzzles in the midrange. If your brain has nothing to figure out, it gets bored. And if the puzzle it confronts appears irresolvable, it grows frustrated and avoidant. But get the puzzle in the midrange, where it is challenging enough to stimulate but tractable enough to provide a satisfying resolution, and the brain gets jazzed. 

It turns out not to matter what the puzzle is about. It just isn’t true that “relevant” content will motivate our students. On the contrary, a puzzle-less curriculum on a high-interest topic will be inherently less engaging for students than an appropriately challenging one on a topic completely foreign to them. 

So what do midrange puzzles have to do with storytelling? Willingham’s theory about why stories work — why they’re so engaging and memorable — is that they typically consist of a series of mildly challenging puzzles, all driven by the question: what happens next? A well-told story, with enough information and coherence to make the next action predictable without being completely obvious, will engage and stimulate the brains of our students. 

And, it turns out, the puzzles we think about become the contents of our memory. One of the reasons stories are so memorable — as opposed, say, to lists, arguments, or descriptions — is that they keep us thinking. When we audit a story, we’re constantly anticipating, trying to figure out what comes next, and we’re constantly relating prior events to subsequent ones. That active reckoning during storytelling is preparation for later recall. 

According to Willingham, one of the crucial differences between proficient and struggling readers is that good readers know more, and so understand more of what they read. Likewise, acquiring a critical mass of historical narratives is crucial to historical thinking. The more we have loaded into long-term memory, the less taxed our short-term memory will be. That’s important, because short-term memory is fixed and fragile. The more we can store and chunk — like the events in a story, or a story itself — the more we can actively and effectively think about things. Once you know your story, then you can ask and answer Questions Two through Four. Story first!

Finally, as teachers, we’ve all been encouraged to build on our students’ prior knowledge. New learning sticks to old, like velcro. The challenge for history teachers is that we want to introduce our students to people they don’t yet know, who lived in times and places different from their own, who had ideas about things that frequently seem unusual or even bizarre to us. 

Story Form = Mental Velcro

The most startling idea I found in Willingham’s book is this: telling stories about strange people and times and places actually does build on the background knowledge of our students. It recruits their knowledge of narrative structure. As Willingham explains, stories are “easy to comprehend” (67-68). We all get the format: one thing leads to another. Our students have been hearing and practicing this form since they could make sense in language. If we start from what they know — how stories work — we can then relate the foreign and distant to the local and personal. Those historical people — they’re people like us, doing things with and to each other, just like we do. The story form is the velcro. 

Willingham adds a bit of advice for storytellers in all disciplines: don’t give away too much or too little. Since storytelling is essentially a puzzle exercise, it’s important to omit enough information so that the listener or reader has to do some mental exertion to fill in the gaps, to infer what’s missing. (Relentless inclusion of detail is a good way to put your audience to sleep.) But it’s also important to include enough information so that the listener will be successful in making those inferences. When you ask a listener, implicitly or explicitly, to make an inference about what happened next, make sure to give them enough information to make a reasonable one. 

Notoriously, we all suffer confirmation bias. We latch onto evidence that supports our assumptions and beliefs and discount evidence that contradicts them. So maybe I like Willingham because his argument about narrative fits ours. On the other hand, Willingham has lots of experimental data to support his conclusions. Likewise, Jon and I have lots of years of practice and revision in the classroom under our belts. Anyway, if you do manage to convince us that storytelling isn’t the foundation of successful history teaching, we promise to change the slogan on our T shirts…


Natalie Wexler Says, “Story First!”

“The fact is, history is a series of stories. And kids love stories” (Wexler 28).


At the end of the summer Gary told me I should read Natalie Wexler’s book The Knowledge Gap, and since Gary gives very good advice, I did. Wexler writes about the failure of American schools to teach reading effectively, and her basic argument is that we fail because we don’t recognize that “reading comprehension” is not a discrete skill that can be taught, but a reflection of the reader’s background knowledge. She cites numerous studies that demonstrate that “the gap in comprehension [isn’t] a gap in skills. It [is] a gap in knowledge” (30). The solution she proposes is straightforward: use phonics to teach kids how to decode written words, and teach them a knowledge-rich curriculum that will allow them to understand much more of what they read. 

If you’re old enough to remember E.D. Hirsch’s blockbuster The Schools We Need you’ll hear the echoes loud and clear, and you can get a short version of Wexler’s argument in her recent article published in the Atlantic Monthly. But the full length book is a good read, and I highly recommend it. 

History Knowledge Matters

Wexler makes two crucial points that are relevant to this blog. The first is that a misguided focus on skills-based “reading comprehension” instruction has squeezed history out of the curriculum in the early grades. And it turns out that knowledge of history is crucial background content for understanding a broad range of texts, especially the ones we expect students to work with in high school history classrooms. When students don’t know basic geography, don’t know the difference between a continent and a country, and are unfamiliar with the differences between monarchies and republics, we history teachers have an almost impossible hole to fill before we can expect students to read even a short excerpt from something like The Federalist Papers successfully. You may think this is over-stating the problem. But this fall 4QM Teaching is working with a Boston public middle school that gives students no history instruction at all. In a telling confirmation of Wexler’s argument, we were contacted by a pair of ELA teachers who found that their students could not comprehend the historical novels they were reading for English class, because they lacked even the most rudimentary understanding of American  history.

Stories Come First, and Are Fun!

A second point Wexler makes is that, “history is a series of stories. And kids love stories” (28). If you’re a regular reader of this blog or have heard us speak, you know we always say that the key to the Four Question Method is “Story First!” Kids need to know some history before they can practice thinking about it. And Wexler reminds us that teaching historical content can be really fun: “kids love stories.” 

So this year we encourage you tell some good and important historical stories, and use them to activate student curiosity about what the people in them were thinking, why the story happened then and there, and what they think about those people and events. Natalie Wexler would say that when you do that you’re not just teaching history: you’re actually teaching reading too. 

Welcome back to school, and have a great 2019-2020!


China, Japan, and Explanatory Turtles

About a month ago I wrote a post about China and Japan’s different responses to Western imperialism, and how that made a perfect Question Three puzzle. (You can read that post here.) Today I’m circling back to that topic because I recently had a conference about it with student, and I think the conference was helpful in illustrating a fun and interesting phenomenon about Question Three.

Explanatory Turtles

Francis Fukuyama is one of my favorite authors (I know, I know, you think he’s wrong about The End of History, but we can talk about that later), in part because he has a wry sense of humor. In his book The Origins of Political Order he attempts to explain why human societies have developed as they have, and at one point he recounts the apocryphal story of a cosmologist who is giving a lecture on the structure of the universe. As she is describing the orbits of the planets around the sun she is interrupted by a man in the audience who tells her that she is wrong, and that the earth is in fact balanced on the back of a giant turtle. Without missing a beat, the cosmologist replies, “Ah yes, sir. But what is that turtle standing on?” The man replies, “It’s no use, professor! It’s turtles, all the way down!”

Fukuyama recounts this tale to illustrate the problem of social scientists trying to explain things. I asked my students to explain why China and Japan reacted differently to Western imperialism, for example, and got some plausible explanations. But as Fukuyama notes, “the turtle one chooses as an explanatory factor is always resting on another turtle farther down.” How do we know when to stop explaining? Fukuyama goes all the way back to human biology in his search for “a Grund-Schildkröte (base turtle) on which subsequent turtles can be placed” (438). We don’t usually have to go that far in our high school history classes, but we do need to go far enough in our search for base turtles to get past Questions One and Two.

Question Two Is Not Your Base Turtle

A common error in answering Question Three is to actually answer Question Two, which was what my student had done on his summative assessment. Answering Question Two is never a good base turtle – it’s  simply restating the explicandum, or the outcome we seek to explain when we ask Question Three. This photo of the board after my student conference shows the levels of thinking involved in a good Question Three puzzle, and the common mistake of stopping at Question Two.

On the top left is the Question Three: Why did Japan and China react differently [to Western imperialism?]. That’s the equivalent of the earth I drew on the top right: the circle on top of the turtles. This is the explicandum, the outcome we seek to explain.

Then below that is my student’s first answer to the question: “Japan and China reacted differently because they thought differently.” I put a Q2 in brackets next to that answer, because it’s not an answer to Question Three, but rather to Question Two, “What were they thinking?” This is the equivalent of the first turtle that I drew underneath the earth on the right. It seems like an explanation, but if you think about it for a moment you’ll see that it’s just a restatement of the explicandum. Obviously the Japanese and Chinese leaders thought differently — if they thought the same way, they would have acted the same way. Question Three asks us, “Why did the leaders think differently? What difference(s) between Japan and China made it more likely that their leaders would think differently in the ways that they did?” Question Three is the cosmologist saying, “Ah yes, sir. But what is that turtle standing on?”

On the bottom left is my student’s “base turtle:” a geographic explanation for why the leaders of Japan and China responded as they did. The student has identified a plausibly relevant difference between Japan and China, and has described a mechanism that links that difference to different ways of leadership thinking. Japan is small, and perhaps that led its leaders to feel vulnerable when confronted by the West, thus more willing to make significant changes in order to avoid being dominated and exploited. China is big, and perhaps that led its leaders to feel arrogance towards the West, and thus less willing to make significant changes in response to Western aggression. I’ve got an extra turtle in the diagram on the right, but the point is clear: when you’re dealing with Question Three, you’ve got to get down to a base turtle, or you don’t really have an explanation. The Question Two turtle needs to be standing on something else.

See You This Fall!

This will be our last blog post of this school year. We’re thinking of trying a podcast this summer, but in any case we’ll be back in this space in August. Fee free to email us with ideas for posts, suggestions for guest bloggers, or questions about anything you read. Thanks for reading!



What Are Final Exams For?

Our school gives collegiate-style final exams. At the end of June, when regular classes are done for the year, we schedule students for 90 minute exam blocks in each of the major academic subjects. All students, even the 9th graders, come in just for exams and otherwise study or sleep or wander where they will.

That’s our official arrangement, anyway. On account of state-wide testing, Physics, our 9th Science requirement, gives an in-class final at the end of May. The Physics final has become a formative assessment to get students prepared for MCAS, the state exam. World Language has long gone its own way, with a multipart final that includes speaking and listening exercises as well as reading and writing prompts. Since the exam takes longer than 90 minutes to administer, they also test earlier.

This year Math defected from the collegiate final system, too. The Math faculty decided they wanted to end the year with a project unit, something applied, engaging, and collaborative. It made no sense to haul kids back after that for a traditional exam, so they decided to administer their last exam in classes in early June, before starting project work.

That leaves, for 9th graders, at least, just Social Studies and English participating in the old, end-of-year system. And that, in turn, has forced us all to think again about why we give final exams in the first place. Maybe the practice is obsolete. Maybe we should just ditch the whole thing and end every course with a project.

Articulating Key Course Content

I’m not yet persuaded. Here’s why: a good final exam (and midterm, too) compels teachers to boil down what they expect students to know and think at the end of the year. For those of us teaching core history courses, it forces us to prepare to forget.

I taught some US History to my students this year, though less than I’d hoped. They learned some small portion of what I aspired to teach them. Much of that they’ve already forgotten. As I prepared myself to prepare them for our final exam, I did something predictable and reassuring for all of us: I made a storyboard.

To be honest, my first time through the US curriculum, I strung stories together until I got to the end. The units made sense — each one had a storyboard and 4QM-style unit questions — but my course really didn’t. At least, it didn’t tell a story I could articulate clearly. And so I couldn’t, in the end, ask my students to tell a version of that story back. My first time through, my final looked a lot like a jumbo unit test.  

I’ve got a better sense of the story I want to tell about US History now. The result is that I’m better able to sum up what I want students to take away from the course once it’s over. What I want is for my students to turn a complicated set of stories into a simpler and more memorable one.

My course storyboard — the ones my students will use as a template to help them study for the final exam — tells the story of Americans arguing over time about the answers to two big sets of questions:

  • What should government do for people, and what should people (and groups) do for themselves?
  • Who is included in “the people”? Who does the American government represent? What does it actually mean to be an American?

There are lots more things my US History course could have been about. These aren’t the only questions that matter to or illuminate US History. And there are lots of different ways to tell a story focused on just these questions. Like all teachers, I’ve had to accommodate limitations, my own and those of the time I’ve been allotted with my students. And so I’ve made choices about how to make my course coherent, about something worth trying to remember.

Telling A U.S. History Story

The six boxes in my final exam storyboard represent my choices. Each box, from “Founding” through “Republican Realignment,” represents a chunk of the American story. Each can be told as a story about how public debate over government and membership changed over time. Using the prompts I’ve given them — the titles and contents of the boxes — my students will prepare themselves to tell those stories on the final exam.

For example, they’ll tell a brief story about Democratic realignment as a result of the New Deal, and the way FDR’s administration changed debate about the role of government. They’ll do that again for Reagan and the Republican realignment of the 1980s. Likewise, they’ll tell stories about immigration politics one hundred years ago and today, and about the Civil Rights movement in between — stories about inclusion and equality, the terms of membership in the American polity. I’ll ask them, finally, to offer hypotheses about why, right now, American politics is more about membership than about the proper role of government.

Preparing for and giving our final exam each year has helped to prod me into something approaching narrative coherence about my curriculum. Preparing for and taking that final will force my students to connect the pieces of our course to a bigger, more enduring story. If your final is just a unit test with more questions, then it’s probably not worth doing. If it helps your students to get some perspective on what they learned, and helps you to design your course better to achieve that aim, then it’s essential.


Making Data Visualization Accessible And Fun

If you’re a serious student of history and the social sciences you know that data presentations can be very powerful. (Think of national debt curves, or social class pyramids, just to name two.) But knowing that data presentations are powerful, and knowing how to actually make the kind of tables, charts, and graphs that make up a compelling data presentation are two different things. And knowing how to teach your students to make them is another thing entirely. This spring Gary and I have gotten a chance to meet and work with Richard Donnelly of Bedford High School in Bedford Massachusetts. Rich is a whiz at data visualization for teachers and students, and in this blog post we’re going to let Rich share some of his techniques and give you access to the web pages he maintains for learning and practicing them. Thanks, Rich!

Three Basic Data Visuals

One of Rich’s big insights is that you (and your students) only really need to know how to make three types of data visuals: line graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts. As Rich says, when it comes to data presentations “simple is better than complex.” This link will take you to Rich’s web page that has the slides from a conference presentation he gave on data visualization, a PDF guide to making basic data visualizations, and some great data sets on world history topics.

Google Drawing and Infographics

Rich has also worked on using Google Drawing to make infographics: visual presentations that combine different kinds of visuals to present information or arguments. As Rich describes them, “Infographics are basically visual essays.” This link will take you to Rich’s web page that has a presentation on teaching visual literacy to students, some simple instructions on using Google Drawing to make infographics, and some assignments he’s used with students along with grading rubrics.

Using Data To Answer Questions

Data presentations are great tools for working with the Four Question Method. As Rich says, “I think data can provide a good support to answering Q1 questions about the reality of a unit story. Data can reveal a larger story and the visualization make it easier to see that story. Specifically, I think data can be really good at putting substance to concepts. For example, two big important concepts with the Industrial Revolution are increased productivity and scale of production. These are tough concepts for students and text description does not have a lot of impact. Historic data makes the points clear.”

And data sets can also be helpful in answering Question Three: “Learning to work with and think about data involves learning about how to see trends and how to consider the way data can be a proxy to a larger understanding about what was happening in an event. Answering Q3 involves being able to see beyond the specifics of a historic event and make comparisons to other historical events. These are related thinking skills. The second way gets more to how statistics are useful for showing the significance of factors in historical events. In answering a Q3 question, it is important to figure out what factors were necessary and sufficient to make something happen. Answering why something happened at one point and not another involves identifying the factors that were necessary to making the event happen and separating them out from factors that were not sufficient to cause the change.”

Thanks again to Rich Donnelly for all his excellent work on this important topic! All readers are welcome to let us know if you’ve got suggestions or ideas for future blog posts. We can be reached at any time.

Taking Claims Seriously

We’re taking our 9th graders to a new building next year. It’s an old building, actually, but it’ll be new to them, and to the faculty team who will teach there for the next two years while our main campus undergoes renovations. We’re taking this opportunity to launch some new common practices. During a series of meetings this fall, we came up with the outline of our plan. In all of our 9th-grade classes, across the curriculum, we’re going to share practices designed to get all 9th graders to do the three things we identified as crucial to their long-term success in high school and beyond. Our shorthand designation for these goals: GYST, Collaboration, and CER.

GYST stands for Get Yourself Together. (Among the adults, we preferred “Get Your Sh*t Together.” Gallows humor.) In coordination with our new Advisory program, classroom teachers will teach and model organizational and goal-setting practices that will help our students to manage the complex demands of high school and to ask for the help they need when they need it. Collaboration is what it sounds like. We’re going to teach students, using common rubrics and assessments, how to participate effectively in teams.

CER stands for Claim-Evidence-Reasoning. We didn’t invent the formula, obviously, nor is it new to any of our 9th-grade teachers, all of whom have been teaching the logic of argument all along. What’s new is our commitment to use common language and some common instructional techniques to get students to use the formula correctly and consistently.

I noticed during our planning meetings that, of the three packages of skills and habits we’ve committed ourselves to, CER is the one about which teachers seem to have the most confidence. Everyone does it already, even if they call it Thesis-Evidence-Analysis, or some other variation on the theme. And everyone agrees that evidence-based reasoning, for which CER is our shorthand formula, is a skill we all consider a top priority. In fact, CER is the agreement that worries me most.

I worry about CER because, deployed badly, it encourages students to make and teachers to accept bad arguments. Here’s what I mean.

CER and Spurious Correlations

Timmy was slow to develop. His parents had him tested. He had indicators of autism. He had also recently had an MMR vaccination. His parents googled around on the internet, put two and two together, and decided that he was likely a victim of thimerosal poisoning. (Thimerosal is the preservative used in vaccinations.) They had a claim: thimerosal causes autism. They had evidence: Timmy got the shot, then got autism. They had reasoning: the mercury in the preservative caused damage to Timmy, similar to damage reported by other parents on social media. CER.  

What went wrong was spurious correlation. Timmy’s parents connected thimerosal and Timmy’s diagnosis — which, to make this true story even more interesting, was probably inaccurate — in a way that conforms to CER protocols but amounts to terrible thinking. This particular correlation has now been debunked, though not eradicated.

Our problem as 9th-grade teachers, particularly in Social Studies, is that CER alone doesn’t prevent us from encouraging our students to make the same kinds of spurious correlations in what we allow to pass for reasonable arguments. On the contrary, we’ve been doing it for years.

Consider this claim: Augustus Caesar was a successful ruler because he mustered a large army, built roads (or had them built), and instituted an imperial cult. That sounds like a high school history thesis, right? (I can provide evidence, if you’re interested.) In the examples I’ve seen, each of the three elements of Caesar’s rule — roads, armies, cult — is the claim in a body paragraph. In each paragraph, the student author cites as evidence reliable testimony to the effect that Caesar did these things. And then, our student author supplies the reasoning: roads made military transport efficient and facilitated trade, thereby providing positive and negative incentives for compliance with imperial rule. The armies are obvious enough, and the cult is a model of political propaganda.

That’s all perfectly reasonable. Unfortunately, our student author has given us no evidence-based reasons to believe that any part of it is true. Let’s accept that Caesar built roads, a claim for which our student author has indeed provided evidence. (The fact that that evidence is second hand, mediated by scholars, is a consideration but not a concern. Let’s take the facts as established.) And let’s assume, further, that Caesar was indeed successful. The reasoning in this case, about the likely effects of roadbuilding, amounts to a plausible hypothesis. It could be so, that road building strengthened imperial rule, and so contributed to Caesar’s success. But our student has supplied no evidence that that claim is true. All we know is that Caesar built roads and was successful. Just like Timmy was exposed to thimerosal and had symptoms of autism.  

CER and Hypothesis Testing

Did Caesar’s road-building projects actually strengthen the empire? That’s an awesome question. In order to answer it for real, we need to do something more important and more challenging than the mechanical application of a CER structure to an argument. We need to do some hypothesis testing. We could do that in a number of ways. We could look for evidence of cases where newly-built Roman roads led to military victories or increased trade. That would give us a tighter correlation, and some reason to believe that there’s a causal connection between the two. That’s the narrative approach — what a traditional historian would do. Or we could treat our hypothesis as an answer to a proper Question Three and look for comparative cases that confirm or disconfirm our hunch that successful empires engage in road building and unsuccessful ones don’t, all else equal.

As you can see, real CER — real explanation, that is — is pretty daunting. It requires not just the application of a formula, but real thinking. The point, especially in a high school history class, is not to provide definitive answers to any of the explanatory questions we pose to our students or that we encourage them to ask for themselves. As CER training promises, our goal is to teach students how to answer questions well, and how to judge whether a purported answer is any good.  

“CER” is a formalism. It’s not wrong. On the contrary. It reminds us that we can’t just assert claims and expect to be believed. If we make claims about how the world works, we need to respect our audience enough to give them reasons to think so, too. The problem with CER as a teaching mnemonic is that it encourages teachers and students to check for form but not content. If it looks like an argument, it must be one.

There are genuine techniques for historical and sociological thinking, which can be done more or less skillfully. Our Four Questions are designed to make those techniques clearer and more accessible. CER is supposed to do that, too. If you teach that formula alongside the 4QM, and take your questions and claims seriously, your students will learn to test hypotheses and exhibit a healthy skepticism about arguments in general. If you just check the CER boxes in a mechanical way, you’re like to come down with a case of thimerosal poisoning. Trust me.


China, Japan & The West: A Q3 Puzzle

Question Three (“Why Then And There?”) is the most difficult of the Four Questions. It’s the most abstract, and the thinking it requires is generally unfamiliar to those of us not rigorously trained in one of the social sciences. (As a history major, I know this struggle personally.) It helps to remember that Question Three is inherently comparative. Answering it requires us to compare the story of a particular time and place with another story: either a story of the same place at a different time, or the story of a different place, or both. We’re looking for underlying factors that explains why the story changed, or why the stories of two places turned out differently. The formula we teach to students is, “explain a change with a change or a difference with a difference.”

This year I’m teaching modern world history, and the stories of China and Japan’s responses to Western imperialism offer a golden opportunity to practice Question Three thinking. These two stories create a kind of natural experiment. Consider: we have two Asian countries, both largely isolated from the outside world, and both initially contemptuous of Western culture and products. Both are forced open to international trade by Western military power, and leaders in both countries debate policy options: Should they resist Western domination by strengthening their traditional institutions and culture? Or should they try to strengthen themselves by dramatically changing their institutions and cultures to be more like the West? As most readers probably know, the traditionalists won the debate in China, and that country was largely dominated by the Western powers for approximately a century, from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. But the revolutionaries won the debate in Japan, which modernized and industrialized quickly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Japan was soon able to stand up to the West, ultimately establishing an Asian empire that lasted until Japan’s defeat in what the West calls “World War Two.”

This is a classic Question Three puzzle. We have two places that share many similarities, who encounter the same problem in the same era. Yet they react very differently, with starkly different results. Why did China stick with tradition, while Japan opted for revolution? On my unit sheet the Question Three is phrased like this: “What explains why Japan responded to contact with the West so differently from China?”  

Working in their small groups, my students did a great job thinking through this puzzle this year. Here’s how they did it.

Step One: Define The Explicandum

We started out by reviewing our answers to Questions One (“What Happened?”) and Two (“What Were They Thinking?”) for China and Japan in the nineteenth century. Answering these questions had been the focus of our unit so far, so this quick review took only a few minutes. We then re-read the Question Three, and I reminded the students of the formula, “Explain a change with a change or a difference with a difference.” In this case, we were seeking to explain a difference between China and Japan’s responses to the West. So I had them turn to their groups and gave them ten minutes to see if they could identify any differences between China and Japan that might plausibly explain why the countries responded so differently to contact with the West.

In my first circuit around the room I heard several students making a very common error: they tried to answer Question Three by narrating the story, or stating what leaders in each country were thinking. These students said things like, “The Japanese responded differently because they were more open to Western ideas.” This is not an answer to Question Three, it is a re-statement of the explicandum — the thing we seek to explain. (Social scientists would call this the “dependent variable.”) We already know that the Japanese leaders were more open to Western ideas than the Chinese leaders. Question Three asks why that is. I was able to help these students see their mistake quickly; in every case there were other students in the group who had also seen the error for what it was and they chimed in to help. Good Question Three thinking starts with clearly defining your explicandum.

Step Two: Identify A Plausibly Relevant Change Or Difference

Once you’ve identified your explicandum, the next step is to identify a change or difference that could plausibly be related to it. In this case, my students quickly identifed two differences between China and Japan that they thought might be related to their different responses to the West. First, they suggested that while both countries were nominally isolated from the West, China had maintained and managed a subservient Western presence in their country for centuries. As Commissioner Lin’s 1839 letter to the English monarch notes, Western traders had always been “submissive” to Chinese demands for tribute and had acquiesced to Chinese regulations. My students had no evidence of a similar Western presence in Japan, and our sources had emphasized that the Japanese were astonished by the power of Commodore Perry’s warships when they arrived in the capital city in 1853. Their reaction suggests that the Japanese had not had significant contact with the West for a long time. And second, they noted that China is an enormous country, while Japan is a relatively small island nation.

Step Three: Describe A Mechanism That Shows How The Change Or Difference Works

The next step in the Question Three thinking process is to explain how the change or difference you’ve identified actually works to produce the outcome you’re curious about. What’s the connection between the underlying factor(s) and the explicandum? The photo below shows my students’ answers to that question for size and contact with the West. They posited that China’s history of contact with the West might have bred a complacent sense of superiority that was difficult to overcome, even when Western powers demonstrated their military prowess. By contrast, a sudden introduction to Western gunboats might have impressed Japanese leaders with a sense of inferiority that made them more open to change. And they hypothesized that the size of China might have also contributed to an unwarranted feeling of power among the leadership: after all, the country would obviously be difficult to conquer. By contrast, Japan’s small size may have led its leadership to feel vulnerable.

In talking through these two differences my students noticed a third difference: Japan had the example of China to learn from. When Japanese leaders visited China in the late 1800s they were shocked to see the once-dominant regional power weakened and exploited by foreigners. Perhaps this example of what not to do helped to inspire support for the Japanese revolutionaries who urged their countrymen to embrace Westernization.

Process, Not Answers

I emphasized to my students, and I now emphasize to readers, that I don’t really know the answer to this Question Three. The answers provided by my students seem plausible to me (although a quick internet search while I was writing this post turned up at least one article that suggests the “more contact / less contact” difference is entirely incorrect, and the mechanism exactly backwards!). I especially like the “example of China” explanation, and I have some other ideas about contrasting social structures in China and Japan and the importance of the Samurai Class, but I don’t know enough about this history to have a settled opinion. I’m blogging about this lesson because it was a great example of tenth graders demonstrating Question Three thinking, not because I’m sure they’re right about their answers. (If readers have ideas on this, I’d love to hear them; email us at

Question Three is challenging. But with practice, and with clear coaching on the three steps in thinking described above, even high school students can think like social scientists!


Explaining Things

In my first or second year of high school teaching — my memory is hazy on timing — I had an exceptional sophomore named Anna. Anna was a political radical, or so she said. She was an articulate critic and, for an unskilled teacher, kind of a pain. She wasn’t loud or disruptive, but she was better read than all of my other students, and talked past most of them. I was a lousy translator.

I did better with her one on one. Anna was keenly interested in Latin America. She told me that she wanted to write her research paper on the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Anna was going to explain why the Cubans revolted, she said. I asked her what her hunch was, her working hypothesis. She said that the Cubans revolted because they were poor and oppressed.

I didn’t know much about managing a heterogeneous group of 10th graders, but I’d just spent close to two decades working alongside political scientists. I’d absorbed from them a very unhealthy skepticism about narrative and storytelling, and a remarkably salutary skepticism about argument. Anna’s was a classic bad argument.

So I asked Anna, what proportion of Latin Americans, in her estimation, were poor and oppressed? Quite a few, she thought. And how many of those poor-and-oppressed Latin Americans actually staged revolutions? Anna got her thinking face on. She sat for a minute, and then said she’d work on it.

During my next one-on-one meeting with Anna, she reported that she’d changed her focus. She was now going to explain why Costa Rica had the best functioning democracy in Central America. She had gotten to this topic by reading more about Cuba, trying to figure out what made Cuba in the ‘50s different from other Latin American countries. Over and over, the sources she was reading kept telling her that Costa Rica was also an outlier. Now that she was on the trail of what, many years later, Jon and I would call Question Three, she wanted to pursue it to a satisfactory conclusion.

Anna was bright and diligent, but more important, she had an intellectual conscience. She discovered something that upset her, and pursued that discovery anyway. Costa Rica, she informed me, was the most ethnically homogeneous country in Central America. It had a vanishingly small indigenous population, unusual for the region. Costa Rica’s indigenous population had been exterminated or driven out. The result, Anna reluctantly concluded, was that it was easier to establish stable electoral institutions.

She was more diligent than I am. I never read enough to know whether her findings were robust or original. The paper was terrific, as I recall, though I no longer have a copy. At any rate, I did learn a ton from Anna. I learned, among other things, that the logic of comparative explanation — Question Three — is neither intuitive nor obvious, even to the very brightest students, or teachers.

Question Three Has No Verbs

You’ll notice that our current Question Three has the oddest syntax of all four questions. It’s the only one of the four that lacks a verb. The original and now-obsolete version of Question Three was, “Why did that happen?,” followed briefly by, “Why did that really happen?” Neither version gave adequate guidance. For people new to thinking like social scientists, the bland “Why did that happen?” didn’t remind them to avoid the trap that Anna first fell into. They thought that describing what people were thinking — that they were being treated unjustly, in the Cubans’ case — was the same as explaining what they did.

The current version of the question, Why then and there? — a brilliant suggestion from a colleague who once heard us muddle through a Question Three workshop — focuses attention on what your brain has to do when it wrestles with a puzzle about the conditions that make the patterns of events around us move and change. It’s worth sacrificing a verb to be reminded that, without comparison, you’re just not explaining things. We’ve even got our own mnemonic now, a chorus worth repeating whenever you ask Question Three: “Explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.” And, for good measure: “Factors, not actors!”

Now that I know that I have to teach Question Three explicitly, and now that I’ve got some techniques for doing so, I don’t have to rely upon geniuses like Anna showing up in my classes in order to get good results. In my current US History class, I 4QM the whole research process. Students tell stories first. They share answers to Question One about their topic with their classmates. Then I encourage them to find a Question Two puzzle to dig into. Pick an important or curious decision made by a person or group in their story. Then find the resources that would help them to say, convincingly, what they were thinking.

My more ambitious and capable students can pursue Question Three puzzles, but they know in advance that those are more challenging. Question Three requires disciplined thinking and comparative case studies (or a trove of quantitative data, if you can find it). And when I get an Anna, as I did last year, the results are now quite remarkable.

Rebecca was interested in Native America politics. Her research narrative was about the Navajo. She was impressed, during her initial research, by how comparatively well developed Navajo political institutions were. She wondered why. So she found out. Along the way, she learned a ton about the history of government relations with Native tribes and about the ecology and economics of reservations — including a surprising amount about sheep herding! The final paper laid out the factors that distinguished the paths of political development of the Navajo and Lakota Sioux, with frequent references to other tribes. The result explained, with impressive clarity and persuasiveness, why Navajo political institutions are so much more robust than those of other tribes.

With my encouragement, Rebecca sent the essay to one of the scholars whose work informed her own. He wrote back — five single-spaced pages — praising her work and engaging her in scholarly conversation about it.

That experience meant something to Rebecca. Next year, she is heading off to Oxford University to study with their Human Sciences faculty. In a note she wrote me to thank me for my letter of support, she mentioned her “passion for social science.” Anna had that passion, too. But I wasn’t clear enough at the time in my own practice to make that way of speaking available to her. Rebecca, on the other hand, knows how to describe her intellectual curiosity, and to pursue it systematically.

We sometimes say, about students like Anna and Rebecca, that they could learn under a rock. In some sense, that’s true. Both of them are way smarter than I am, for sure. It’s possible that most of the classes they attended in high school, mine included, could have been replaced by independent reading time and they’d have been no worse off. But if you’re willing to impose discipline and clarity on your classroom questioning — the difference, for me, between the Anna Era and the Rebecca Era — you might fight that even your smarty-pants students will learn to think with greater discipline and clarity about the human world. As I’m confident Rebecca will prove in the years to come, that’s good for all of us.