Category: 4QM Teaching

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.


Sequential & Episodic Narratives

In a recent post in this blog, I wrote about how curriculum planning is a team sport. Developing the Four Question Method has been the ultimate curriculum planning project, and it is certainly a team sport. Gary and I argue constantly about how to teach history to young people, and our arguments are a key part of what had led us to these Four Questions and the method we’re still building around them. The other key parts are actually teaching and observing teachers (we like to say that we didn’t invent this idea, we observed it). Teaching and observing provide real-world data and keep us grounded, and the arguments make our ideas better and more clear.

A few weeks ago Gary wrote a blog post about the two types of stories we tell when we teach history, and after it was up on the web we argued about it. He called the two story types “cause-and-effect stories” and “continuity and change stories.” I didn’t like those names. I argued that every story we tell in history class contains cause and effect and describes continuity and change, so these labels don’t help us to distinguish stories from each other. By the end of the argument (about an hour of conversation, spread out over several days), we had come up with names that we think better describe these two story types, and a working hypothesis about what makes them different.

Sequential Narratives

Instead of “cause-and-effect-stories” we’re now calling them “sequential narratives.” Sequential narratives are chains of events that have clear cause-and-effect relationships, and culminate in something new and notable in the world. Let’s take the American Revolution as an example. In 1763, the thirteen American colonies were happy and loyal members of the British Empire. In 1776 the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, and seven years after that Britain acknowledged that independence in the Treaty of Paris. The story of how we got from colonies to independent nation reads like a break-up narrative that our students might tell: “So first he he said, and then she said, and then that made him even madder, so he goes…” If you’ve been to one of our workshops you know that we start the unit planning process by making a six-box storyboard that forces us to select the key elements of the story and put them into “chapters,” one chapter per box. In sequential narratives those chapters are almost always strictly chronological: the events of each box directly precede the events of the next one. The boxes don’t need to cover the same period of time — for example, in this American Revolution storyboard the Stamp Act crisis gets a box all to itself — but the boxes go in order and the relationships between them are causal. As Gary noted in his original post, these kinds of stories are conceptually easy to tell. The challenge for teachers is to “prune the story down to its core essentials” so that students can access it without being overwhelmed with facts and details.

Episodic Narratives

We’re now calling the other type of stories “episodic narratives.” Episodic narratives are different from sequential narratives. They are broader, in both time and space, and describe large overall changes, rather and recounting a strictly causal narrative. As Gary noted, these stories are less focused on describing precisely how something changed; instead they describe broad and significant changes over time, illustrating how much something has changed. The Industrial Revolution unit I’ve taught for the last few years is a good example of an episodic narrative.The narrative covers a nearly two hundred year period, from 1700 to 1890. Box number two focuses on the textile industry in Great Britain, but box number three is a general description of the spread of industrialization. Both those boxes have wide date ranges: “1700s” and “1800s.” Chronology is violated directly in box number four, “Responses” [to industrialization], since Adam Smith’s work actually preceded the industrial revolution. Smith’s ideas were used by nineteenth century thinkers to justify laissez-faire policies, but he was not in fact responding to industrialization. This box title is more accurately applied to Karl Marx, who was, but the fact that we’re putting both these authors in the same box is an indication that we’re telling a different kind of story than the one we told with the American Revolution. Box number five is broad is both time and space, describing reforms carried out by different means (labor unions, legislation) and in different places (Britain and the European continent). The causal links between these six boxes are not nearly so tight and clear as in a sequential narrative, and in some cases may not exist at all. It would be a stretch to say that Smith and Marx caused Parliament to pass the factory acts, for example.

Planning with both types of narratives requires teachers to select the key elements in the story and to leave lots of things out. But with episodic narratives the challenge is somewhat different, because there are so many possible specific cases that illustrate the changes we’re studying that it can be harder to decide what to leave out. Some readers might notice that although my industrial revolution storyboard ends in 1890, it makes no mention of the “second industrial revolution.” And I mostly ignore industrialization outside of Britain, except for a brief mention of German state socialism in box number five. The storyboard is an especially helpful limiting tool for episodic narratives, because it forces us to choose our episodes thoughtfully, and helps us to avoid forcing an episodic story to become an overcrowded and inaccurate sequential one. If we know we’re writing an episodic narrative, the pressure to include anything and everything that might be relevant to the story falls away.

Fifty Years?

Having argued our way to new names for the two kinds of stories, Gary and I are now arguing about a working hypothesis about what might indicate to teachers that they are best served by explicitly choosing one or the other. I’ve suggested that a fifty year span between the setting and outcome may be the breakpoint between sequential and episodic stories. Shorter than that and you’re probably teaching a sequential narrative: think about units on the world wars, or the new deal. Fifty years or longer and you’re probably teaching an episodic narrative: think about units on the rise of modern China, or the spread of Islam.

Of course there may be a spatial variable as well, and maybe the fifty years idea is just wrong and there’s some better way to distinguish between these story types. Since this post was drafted, Gary and I have had even more productive argument about it — watch this space for further developments!


Taking Questions Seriously

History teaching is hard to do well. But it’s relatively easy to describe: teach your students to tell true stories and make reasonable arguments about the human world. You can do that by teaching them to ask and answer the Four Questions. Teach them this method, and how to recognize when others are doing so. Do that, and they’ll get smarter.

Jon and I didn’t make this up. We observed it. We saw that successful teachers and classes posed clear and interesting questions that students were equipped to answer. We witnessed the results: students engaged in telling stories and making arguments about things that mattered. Classes built around no particular questions or around boring or ambiguous ones left no residue other than confusion. We gathered up and sorted the questions that worked and named and numbered them. That’s about it.

Of course, if teaching and learning were as simple as describing a method, all of our students would become proficient scientists and mathematicians by age 14. Thinking techniques aren’t algorithms. On the contrary: mechanical application of a technique is an efficient way to avoid thinking rather than practice it. If you’ve ever given instructions for an essay, you know exactly how this works. Our writing instructions to our students can be super clear, and our students’ writing will still turn out muddled. It’s the same with any complex thinking task. Proficiency in thinking takes disciplined practice, and a lot of it. There is no royal road to geometry, or any other subject mastery.

This warning applies to professionals, too. We’ve described bad questions in this blog space repeatedly. The College Board and SHEG ask ambiguous questions all the time. Most essential questions aren’t essential, and some aren’t even questions. Jon and I pose lousy questions or give lousy answers all the time. Thinking well is hard work. Our brains were designed for quick thinking, not for rigorous consistency.

So beyond learning to recognize, ask, and answer the Four Questions that animate our field, we and our students have one more important task: to develop the habit of taking our questions seriously. That’s the only way we’ll ever get good at answering them.

We have to go first. If teachers are not taking their questions seriously, it’s highly unlikely their students will. If you have your students practice answering bad questions or answering questions badly, you’re training them to be bad thinkers. Shooting at the basket and missing every time is practice for losing.

Build Lessons Around Good Questions

So what should you do to develop the habit of taking your questions seriously? For starters, build every lesson around a clear and explicit question. Ditch the SWBAT and get right to the point: what question(s) will your lesson equip students to answer? And what kind of question(s) is it (or are they): narrative, interpretive, explanatory, or evaluative? At the end of every day, take stock. Your lesson question is your exit ticket. That’s the question we were working on. How did we do?

Framing every lesson with questions makes every day an opportunity for disciplined practice. Assessments should be aligned with your questions, too. That’s what shows your students that you want them to take your questions seriously. If you’ve done our introductory unit planning workshop, you know that our student-facing unit guides always contain unit questions, sorted by type. Those questions are our guides for planning, and our students’ guide to assessment. They’ll have mastered the unit when they can answer those questions well. Don’t wait till the summative assessment to practice, either. Formative assessment is another form of disciplined practice.

Answer Your Own Questions

In addition to framing lessons and assessments with questions, it’s crucial that teachers answer their own questions. I confess: I’ve assigned essays to students that I haven’t attempted to write myself. That often ends badly. The point isn’t that you should give students your answer, or expect yours and none other in response to your essay prompt. The point is that we teachers need to know what our students need to know to answer our questions. We can’t be prepared to help students with a task we’ve never tried. And, fundamentally, asking questions you haven’t grappled with is how you end up asking bad ones. Take your questions seriously by answering them yourself.

One more recommendation, though it has nothing (obvious) to do with teaching. I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation on and off for the past ten years. (I can hear the chastising words of an imaginary blog post in my head: “Take Meditation Seriously”…) Even my somewhat haphazard practice has yielded benefits. I can slow myself down and increase my awareness just by breathing and paying attention to my thoughts, rather than getting swept up in them. The vast majority of the time, I’m swept up. But it’s nice to know there’s an alternative.

A classic mindfulness meditation technique is to bring awareness to the breath. As you sit and your mind wanders, draw it gently back to what’s always there, just outside of consciousness: your breathing. It occurred to me several months ago that, by asking myself two simple questions, I could enter that condition of awareness I found by drawing my attention back to my breath in sitting meditation. But this this alternative technique only worked if I took those two questions seriously. Here they are:

  • Where are you?
  • What are you doing?

These are ridiculously simple and obvious questions. (Just like, say, What happened…?) That’s the point. Asking and answering, Where are you?, required me to return to my body and take stock of, well, where I was. Right now, for example, I’m sitting at a desk in my study, facing my computer screen, a window to my left and another behind me. I’m bathed in sunlight, and the glow of the screen. What am I doing? I’m typing, writing, thinking. Communicating, I hope.

These are good questions for increasing awareness, just as the Four Questions are good for thinking about history. Taking these questions seriously, asking and answering them regularly and with discipline, is good practice. Where are you? What are you doing? Take those seriously, and you’ll know where you are and what you’re doing. And you’ll realize how unusual it is to be aware of such simple things. That, in turn, may make you wonder where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing all this time. In the classroom, ask and answer these questions: What happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? Take them seriously, and you’ll start to wonder what you were teaching before you started asking then.


Curriculum Planning Is A Team Sport

This year Gary and I have been working with the history lesson planners for the Uncommon Schools network, a charter network that operates over fifty schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. We’ve introduced them to the Four Question Method, and we’re helping them to revise courses, units, and lessons so that they are organized around clear stories and good questions. On our most recent visit to their home office in New Jersey we worked mostly with middle school teachers, reorganizing several different grade level courses to reflect new content mandates. As we were walking back to Newark’s Penn Station (which is a beautiful McKim, Mead & White art deco building, by the way) at the end of the day, we noticed something that may seem obvious, but is worth emphasizing: the teachers who collaborated with colleagues on their curriculum plans were much more effective and efficient than those who were working alone. Curriculum planning is a team sport.

4QM Thinking Is Hard!

This is true in large part because 4QM thinking is hard. This is not always immediately apparent, because the questions themselves are so straightforward. But if you take the questions seriously, answering any one of them is actually quite challenging. Consider the first step in 4QM curriculum planning: establishing your answer to Question One (“What Happened?”). What people, events, and ideas are you going to include in your course or in your unit? What are you going to leave out? What order do the story elements go in? Why? What story are you going to teach this year? These are hard questions to answer well.

One of the most powerful things we did with the Uncommon Schools crew was to work with fifth grade teachers to storyboard a new world history course. There were four of us talking through the story of the course. We started with the outcome box on the course storyboard: when would the course end? We considered several different options before settling on 1490 CE. The course had to begin with the neolithic revolution, so that became our setting box (box number one), but what would come next? We thought maybe China, but then bumped that to box number three, deciding to do the story of Egypt and Judaism before China. Hammurabi’s Code was in, then out, then in again. We talked a lot about where we wanted to put India. For about fifteen minutes it too was out (!), before we decided it should become part of an “India and China” section of the course.

Every one of these decisions was thoughtfully made, because the conversation made everyone articulate out loud why they wanted to include or exclude given content, and why they thought a particular sequence made sense or not. Ideas were floated, rejected, revived, considered, and reconsidered. In the end we all knew what the course would look like and why.

By contrast, there was one teacher working on her own on a seventh grade American history course. Without the feedback generated by talking through the course and its units with other teachers, this solo thinker had trouble sharpening her unit stories and unit questions. Of course Gary and I were happy to help, and during a ten minute conversation about the military history of the Revolutionary War the three of us were able to hone a Question One, create a clear Question Two, and decide to abandon a badly worded Question Three and an incorrectly placed Question Four. Collaboration made the unit better.


The Uncommon Schools folks have a name for this kind of conversation: they call it “sparring.” For those of you unfamiliar with pugilism, “sparring” is the training boxers do when they practice fighting in the ring. It’s like a real boxing match, only safer: the fighters wear padded headgear, and anyone can stop the fight any time. At Uncommon, sparring is when teachers argue about a plan for teaching and learning, or perhaps an individual assignment, pushing each other with honest feedback and serious questions. During our course planning conversation with the fifth grade teachers, for example, one of them suggested that the story of the course could be about the changing relationship between religion and culture. The group was enthusiastic and seemed about to move on when one member said, “I see why the idea is attractive, but I’m not sure it’s right.” We then discussed the relationship between religion and culture for a few minutes before deciding that the original suggestion did in fact make sense as an organizing theme. The conversation was lively and energetic: knowledgeable people who care about history were arguing about how best to teach it. Sparring makes boxers better because it’s practice for the real fight. Sparring makes curriculum planners better for the same reason: being pushed to think through, defend, and explain our curriculum decisions is practice for when we’re going to push our students to think through that same curriculum.

Make Planning A Team Sport

If you’re lucky enough to have a community of curriculum planning colleagues where you work, take advantage of them by sparring whenever you can. If you can create a professional culture in which people are open to feedback and willing to hear questions as critique and not criticism, everyone’s students will benefit. If you don’t have such a community in your real world, perhaps a virtual community can help — you only need one or two other people to hear your ideas and give honest feedback. You can always email Gary and me at  or tweet at us @4qmteaching — we love talking about teaching history. Good boxers need sparring partners. So do good teachers.



Two Types Of Stories

Some stories are easy to tell. An identifiable person or group of people does something overt and instigating, which triggers other people to react. One manifest action leads to another, and before you know it, something New and Notable has happened in the world. King Louis XVI called the Estates General. Before you know it, Napoleon is conquering Europe!

Our core curriculum is full of stories like that. They’re the easiest for us to teach our students. The challenge for teachers is pruning the story down to its core essentials. We at 4QM use storyboards to coach teachers in planning clear, concise narratives of this sort. We use storyboards with students, too, to help them sift through details and identify major turning points in the narrative.

Classic, “Cause-and-Effect” Stories

Let’s call these cause-and-effect stories, since that’s what most historical thinking skills documents seem to mean by this category: a story in which people interact, and in which that interaction culminates in a new and notable state of affairs.

No matter what we narrate in history class, we’re interested in some kind of change over time. In other words, narratives are always answers to Question One, What happened? And there are always humans involved, of course. The classic cause-and-effect story glosses Question One as asking, in effect, How did that happen? It seeks to satisfy our curiosity-craving for an account of how one thing led to another that led to… Napoleon!

A Different Type of Story

Some of the stories we want our students to learn, however, take a different shape. Some of our answers to “What happened?” focus not on how something happened, but on how much. For example, our 8th-grade team teaches a unit on the long Civil Rights movement. Their storyboard has boxes for Abolitionism and the Civil War, for Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and for the Civil Rights movement. They tell a story about each episode, but make no attempt to narrate the actions that led from one episode to another. That’s not the point. The point is to show, in each case, how Americans struggled over race and equality, and to compare and contrast the results over time. Continuity and change, not cause and effect.

Likewise, we now have American Studies courses at our high school in both Social Studies and English. Student must take both conjointly, and the teachers plan together. Not only do they tell the same stories in both courses, but “the stories we tell ourselves as Americans” is the explicit theme of the course. Like the 8th-grade team, the Social Studies Am. Stud. teacher tells episodic stories on themes like migration, money, and race and identity. The goal is to reveal how Americans’ thinking about these topics changed over time. What happened? Some ideas changed — in some cases dramatically. Others remained remarkably consistent. Continuity and change.

Many of our unit stories, even the classical cause-and-effect ones, contain ellipses. We skip connecting tissue in a linear narrative sometimes because, after all, we’re more interested in the outcome than in every step of how we got there. In other words, the classical story and the thematic one — the one that narrates linear cause and effect and the one that reveals changes and continuity over time — are ideal types. Some units, like the typical industrialization unit, seem to split right down the middle. We narrate in linear fashion from invention to entrepreneurship to factories and cities. Then we contrast ideas and politics at discrete periods, from the beginning and end of the process, say. We post-hole Adam Smith at the beginning and end with socialism and the origins of the welfare state. The point is simply to show how deeply industrialization transformed politics and ideas, not to describe how it did so. (That is, in any case, a Question Three enterprise.)

Thematic “Story First!”

Although some of our stories are hybrids, distinguishing between these two types of narrative is still crucial, for several reasons. First and most obvious, we tell both types, and should know what we’re doing, especially if we’re going to teach our students to do so, too. Second, schools that offer thematic courses in history often struggle to organize their units in a way that makes sense to their students. We have repeatedly heard from teachers of such thematic courses that their students express frustration and confusion. Without a story as an anchor, both students and teachers struggle to keep track of what they’re learning.

The answer, as always, is Story first! In this case, teachers need to tell a clear thematic story. They need to select episodes for their unit storyboard that reveal change over time, typically in ideas. The point of the “theme” is to identify the ideas in question, the ones we want our story to reveal and illuminate. That means that the heavy lifting in constructing such a narrative is getting clear about what each episode reveals. Contrast that with the heavy lifting intrinsic to classical cause-and-effect: telling the leanest version of action and reaction that gets us from onset to outcome.

This distinction between classic and thematic, or between cause-and-effect and continuity-and-change storytelling, also helps us to see what the received wisdom about historical thinking skills is really about, and how to use that wisdom, improbably, in actual classrooms. Cause-and-effect and continuity-and-change are the names of two kinds of narrative. If you adopt our strategy of putting the story first in planning and teaching, you can then teach students both, in an organic way that generates genuine curiosity.

Finally, teaching thematic stories well gives us another way to foreground ideas in our teaching. We’re building a new 9th-grade course around themes of power, status, community, and identity. Our units will have base narratives, of course. Stories are how we learn and remember, and even Big Ideas have human histories. Moreover, by allowing ourselves to focus on how much ideas changed, rather than tying ourselves to the mast of how they changed, we’re better able to compare our own. Ideas and judgment are always a part of 4QM teaching, and all good History teaching, 4QM or otherwise. Thematic stories — narratives of continuity and change — are great ways to highlight them.


“Every Primary Source Is Biased”

If you’ve been teaching secondary school history for a while you’ve probably encountered students who tell you that “every primary source is biased.” Some kids really like this phrase, and the idea it represents, because they think it makes them seem sophisticated. As in, “When I was in grade school I believed everything I read. But now I’m older and I know that I should be suspicious of everything I read.” But far from making our students into sophisticates, I believe this idea is profoundly misleading, and actually inhibits them from thinking well about Question Two. In this post I’ll try to explain why I think we should retire the phrase “every primary source is biased,” and I’ll suggest an alternative that I think is much more helpful to our teaching goals.

Question Two: “What Were They Thinking?”

When we teach with the Four Question Method, we start by answering Question One (“What Happened?), and establishing a historical story that we want our students to understand more deeply. Of course that story is full of interesting people, and our curiosity about them cues our students to work on Question Two. We pick a few of the key people in the story and dive into their heads, trying  to figure out, “What were they thinking?” In answering Question Two we try to build “historical empathy:” we try to understand the people of the past on their own terms, and see the world as they saw it. It is important to note that historical empathy is not the same thing as sympathy: we often don’t agree with the people in the past who we attempt to understand. But answering Question Two responsibly requires us to enter into the minds of people who think very differently than we do. We have to set aside our current notions about how the world works, what we value and condemn, and try to understand everything differently. That’s why we say that historical empathy is the opposite of presentism.

And most of the time we use primary source documents to explore Question Two. In order to understand what people in the past were thinking, we look at what they wrote or said, and practice the thinking skill of interpretation. There’s a lot to be said about how to do that; some has been said by Gary in a previous blog post, some has been said by Doug Lemov and his co-authors in the excellent book Reading Reconsidered, and some of it is said by Gary and me at our 4QM workshops. And there are, of course, many other teachers and thinkers with good resources and ideas on using primary source documents in the classroom. But in this post I’m less interested in technique, and more interested in the attitudes that students bring to their work with primary sources.

Students As Cynics

The problem with teaching students that “every primary source is biased” is that it turns them all into cynics, and short-circuits their ability to build historical empathy. It turns them into cynics by teaching them that no document can be taken sincerely, at face value, as an honest record of someone’s thoughts. Columbus had to please the King and Queen who funded his voyage, so he must have exaggerated the richness of the Caribbean islands: his letter to the Spanish monarchs is “biased.” George Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun were slave owners, so their their lengthy treatises arguing that slavery was in fact good for enslaved people are “biased.” The signers of the Declaration of Independence were writing to justify their revolution, so their description of the conflict between the colonies and the crown is “biased.” And once students have discovered or declared the “bias” in a primary source, they feel entitled to dismiss it or feel smugly superior to it. At its worst, this cynical search for bias in all sources can lead students to give up on the idea of understanding the past at all, deciding that since every source is biased there’s no way to determine what happened, what people were thinking, or why things happened as they did.

Of course there’s a kernel of truth at the bottom of this idea of pervasive bias. Marx was right that most of the time where we stand on political issues is correlated with where we sit in the social structure, and of course people sometimes lie in documents. But the problem with making these observations into universals is that it relieves students of the hard work of understanding people who think differently from themselves. As Bruce Lesh has noted in his book about teaching historical thinking skills, “students equate ‘bias’ with either lying or ignorance” (123). The vast majority of the documents we read in history class are not lies, and the vast majority of their authors were not ignorant. What makes people like Columbus, Calhoun, and the signers of the Declaration interesting is precisely that they were smart, engaged people who were sincere in their beliefs. How could that be? What were they thinking?

Assume Sincerity

The first step in answering that question responsibly is to approach our primary sources with an attitude compatible with learning: Assume sincerity. Absent specific evidence to the contrary, we should assume that the authors of the primary documents we study were sincere when they wrote them. When we approach these documents we have to start fresh. We have to set aside anything we think we know about the people we’re studying, set aside our present-day assumptions about them and the society they inhabited, and give them the intellectual courtesy of assuming that they meant what they said.

Actually doing this can be a revelation. At a recent 4QM workshop Gary and I were working with a small group of teachers reading a short excerpt from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. (We picked it deliberately because it’s extremely challenging, and we wanted these adult teachers to feel like our young students typically do when we assign them to read primary documents.) There was a teacher in our group who assumed that because he wrote in the seventeenth century Hobbes would describe a religious basis for political authority, and another who assumed that because he was on the side of the Royalists in the English Civil War Hobbes was in favor of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. But when we actually did a close reading of the source, everyone was able to see that neither assumption is actually supported in the text, and in fact, both assumptions are wrong. (Hobbes was a social contract theorist, not an advocate of a divine political order, and he had no particular preference for heredity as a system of selecting a head of state.) Actually understanding Hobbes required us to assume his sincerity, then to read him under that assumption, and then to interpret his words. We should teach our students the same approach to primary sources.

“Every Source Has A Point Of View”

In the introduction to this post I said I’d suggest an alternative to “every source is biased,” and here it is. Try teaching your students that “every source has a point of view.” Here’s an analogy that you might use to distinguish the difference. Imagine a basketball game between the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors. The game is in Boston, and there’s a team of three refs on the floor calling the game. Two refs are calling the game honestly, as they see it. They will both miss some calls, because they can’t see everything all the time. Depending on where they are on the floor and what’s happening in front of them they might not see one of the Celtics players commit a foul, and the game will go on with no call. The Warriors might then feel aggrieved: they deserved that foul call and they didn’t get it. But those two refs aren’t biased. They just couldn’t see the foul from their point of view. They might also have honest points of view about the style of play or the tempo of the game, but their opinions on those matters would not constitute bias, even though they might disagree with each other and/or with other observers of the same game. The third ref is actually biased. He wants the Celtics to win, and he calls fouls on the Warriors for things that he also sees Boston players do, but chooses not to call. He calls the Warriors coach for a technical for coming onto the floor, but deliberately ignores it when the Celtics coach does the same thing.

Now I can already hear the psychology teachers and postmodern theorists sharpening their pens to tell me that the third ref is likely to believe himself to be honest, and that his lack of awareness doesn’t make him any less biased. That’s an argument for another day. My point here is that most of the people we read in history class are like the first two refs. Most of our primary sources are not deliberately written to deceive anyone, and achieving true understanding of their authors is only possible if we take them at their word. This is much harder than taking the cynical approach that “every source is biased.” But if we are to truly teach our students to truly grapple with hard ideas that they disagree with, we have to invest in understanding them first.


A Meeting Of Minds: Interpreting Sources For Question Two

I argued in this space, back on 1/21/19, that our students will read better if we teach them what question (or questions) they’re trying to answer when they read. That’s the right way, it seems to me, for us to think about “purpose” in reading. In History class, we read to scratch an itch called curiosity. Name the question that captures the curiosity, find sources that address the question, and then start reading for the purpose of answering that question.

That advice is radically insufficient, of course. The debate about whether or not Social Studies teachers are responsible for literacy instruction is, fortunately, over and done. We teach reading. The debate about how we should teach reading, on the other hand, is in full swing. Jon has been busy recommending Doug Lemov’s Reading Reconsidered to anyone who will listen, and rightly so. Meanwhile, the go-to source on reading advice for people who teach middle and high school history is Sam Wineburg’s Stanford History Education Group.

For those of you who haven’t seen or used the SHEG site, its centerpiece is its “Reading Like a Historian” section, and the centerpiece of that section is its articulation of four Historical Reading Skills associated with reading and interpreting documents: sourcing, contextualization, corroboration, and close reading. For each of those skills, SHEG provides questions for students designed to illustrate the skill and to prompt students to exercise it. (The site also has history lessons and assessments and now a section on civics and media literacy. You have to create an account to access materials, but it’s free.)

SHEG Aims at Question One

The problem is that SHEG has lots to say about how to read, but too little about why. If these are the rules for reading like a historian, what question or questions does the historian hope to answer, exactly? You know our questions: they’re what we’re all about at 4QM. Our purpose, when we read, is to answer some content-specific versions of our Four Questions. So what exactly does SHEG aim at?

If you look carefully at SHEG’s reading categories and questions, you’ll see that the majority of the sub-questions, and the entire “corroboration” category, are about using documents to establish a reliable account of some historical event. In other words, the implicit question drives SHEG reading skills is our Question One: What happened? SHEG’s early blockbuster lesson sample, on establishing what actually happened at Lexington Green in April 1775, corroborates (!) my hunch that “doing” primary history — establishing a reliable account of what happened — is what SHEG takes as the purpose of reading in history class.

That’s fair enough, if you’re training researchers or journalists. But in elementary and secondary school, most of our learning about what happened, both for teachers and students, comes from tertiary and, less often, secondary sources. There are good reading strategies for tackling those texts, but they don’t look much like what SHEG recommends. In any case, though it can be a cool one-off activity to show students how History Professors do their work, that’s hardly the main point of what we do. It’s downright weird to presume that the purpose of reading in schools is to train kids for work in the archives. (What we do is way more important that what professional researchers do, though I’ll reserve judgment about professional journalists.)

SHEG wants our students to read primary sources. Fair enough; so do we. But since SHEG’s reading protocols are so driven by Question One — establishing what happened — they often amount to an exercise in what Paul Ricoeur called the hermeneutics of suspicion. They want kids to be wary of getting duped by tendentious testimony or ideology. The result is palpable in classrooms that hew closely to the SHEG model. The upshot of most SHEG reading lessons is that authors have perspectives and biases. Yes, they do. In fact, we don’t even need to read to know that. Heck, if that were the main point I got from the reading in a class I were taking, I’d save myself the trouble.

Read Primary Sources For Question Two

Here’s another, better possibility: we read primary sources in order to answer Question Two: What were they thinking? We do that not because we’re at pains to get an accurate account of an event, but precisely because we want to see the world from someone else’s point of view.

In our classes, and in the vast majority of the many history classes we’ve observed in our own and other schools, that’s in fact what teachers and students are doing. We use documents to try to figure out what actors from other times and places had in mind when they expressed themselves in ways we can retrieve and curate for students. We read to meet other minds.

Jon and I have developed our own framework for reading primary sources. Ours is designed explicitly for the purpose of answering Question Two. For what it’s worth, we think that it suits what real teachers and their students do with texts much better than the SHEG framework does. First, locate the document in the narrative of the unit and lesson. Story first! We’re reading Lincoln speeches because we’re learning the story of the Civil War. In the course of learning that story, Lincoln’s choices, in action and in speech, gave us an itch we need to scratch. We’re reading anti-immigrant speeches by union leaders in California because we’re learning the story of immigration in the Gilded Age, and we want to know the minds of the children of immigrants who saw other immigrants as a threat. So, step one is to put the document in the context that allows us to define our purpose in reading it. (On our document analysis sheet, we call this step Identify and Contextualize. Consistent terminology is good for students. The idea is more important: story first!).

Second, paraphrase or summarize the text, or describe the artifact. You can’t interpret a document you haven’t read carefully. This technique is uncontroversial in principle, but not always honored in practice. If you want to have a discussion about general ideas, you can do that without a text. If you want to meet another mind, read something carefully first. And before you try to interpret it, check to make sure you know what it says. Story first; second, pay attention! By the way, SHEG “close reading” questions are good about calling attention to structural and rhetorical features of texts.

Third, we interpret. There are many ways to generate inferences from text to author, but no algorithm or mechanism for guaranteeing good results. There is no royal road to geometry or interpretive insight. There are, however, questions that will remind us as readers to attend to various features of an author’s expression. We routinely model and then ask our students to answer these questions:

  • What is the author’s purpose or goal?
  • What is their motivation for pursuing that purpose or goal?
  • What notable assumptions must the author be making for them to harbor these goals and motivations?

Again, interpretation is a thinking skill, not a mechanical habit. Students (and teachers) will need to practice it a lot to get good at it.

Reading for the purpose of meeting other minds — of answering Question Two — affects not just the advice we give our student about how to read, but what we choose for them to read in the first place. My advice: read complex and interesting ones. A few rich documents by complicated and thoughtful people are better than lots of indifferent artifacts. Match your documents to the interpretive puzzles in your story. Give your students a chance to think with another person, to see a situation, as best they can, from the inside. Meeting another mind is a good way to exercise your own.


Why Essential Questions So Often Aren’t

My “expanded second edition” of Understanding by Design, the classic guide to unit and lesson planning by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, is copyrighted 2005. Today the major premise of the book, that teachers should decide what learning goals we want students to achieve, design assessments to determine student mastery of those goals, and then plan learning activities “backwards” from there, has become so widely known and accepted that it is often described with the insider’s shorthand “UbD.” As in, “My district administrators are totally into UbD.”

It’s hard to argue with the common sense of the UbD approach. But there’s another key idea from the book that has not translated so well into the real world of teaching and learning, at least in history classes: essential questions. It’s not that Wiggins and McTighe’s gospel of “essential questions” has been ignored — quite the contrary. In our work with schools and districts Gary and I see lots of curriculum documents that have “essential questions” – they’re pretty much ubiquitous, and when teachers and administrators talk with us about their history courses they are often quick to reassure us, “We have essential questions!” But when we actually look at specific questions in the documents and ask people how they shape teaching and learning, we usually get confessions like, “We don’t really use that one.” Or, “We kinda just added those on, and no one really asks kids to answer them.” So the dirty little secret about most of the “essential questions” in history curriculum documents is this: they’re pretty much the exact opposite of “essential.” Most teachers and students ignore them — they make no difference at all to classroom teaching and learning.


So why don’t history teachers use their “essential questions” in teaching their units and lesson? There’s a much longer article to be written here about epistemology and the teaching and learning of history, but for the purposes of this blog post I’m going to suggest that most history teachers don’t use their essential questions because they are not actually written to guide instruction. According to the doctrine of UbD, teachers are supposed to use “overarching” essential questions to guide planning on the course level. We are then supposed to plan units and lessons that connect directly to those overarching questions and their “enduring understandings.” But the essential questions that are found in most curriculum documents are not guides to planning or instruction — They’re window dressing added into the documents because someone thinks it’s important to have them. They were almost certainly written after the content of the courses and units were decided.

Some of these “ex post facto” essential questions reveal their nature in their huge and general scope. Consider these three examples, the first from an American Revolution unit, and the other two from a unit on the Constitution:

“How can ideas change the world?”

“How should a government deal with conflicting interests?”

“How are governments created, structured, maintained, and changed?”

These sorts of questions can’t serve as guides to planning or instruction because a reasonable answer always amounts to, “in lots of different ways” or “it depends.” Once the question is shorn away from its specific topic it loses focus, and becomes useless. No wonder teachers ignore them.

There’s another common type of ex post facto essential question that would appear to be the result of curriculum planners getting a bit too cute, or trying to sound especially profound. Consider:

“Can nations truly coexist?”

“Can words lead to war?”

“Can peace lead to war?”

Again, shorn of topical context, the questions cease to be meaningful. Correct answers here amount to “Yes,” “Yes,” and “Yes.” So it’s not surprising that history teachers would choose to ignore “essential” questions like these.


The big insight of the Four Question Method is that there are really only four essential questions in history/social studies. In every unit 4QM teachers ask what happened, what the key people involved in the story were thinking, what underlying factors explain why the story of the unit turned out as it did, and what we think about it. And we help our students to explore those four questions most effectively when we give them a specific story to work with. The questions I presented above are problematic because they are entirely disconnected from the stories that inspired them in the first place. If we reanimate these questions with a specific story, they become useful and engaging:

How did new ideas about “natural rights” contribute to the American Revolution?

The Versailles Treaty was designed to prevent a second world war. Why did it fail to do so?


So if your district administrator is “totally into UbD” and insists that your curriculum documents need “overarching essential questions,” by all means go ahead and write them. But when it’s time for you to write questions that will actually guide your teaching and your students’ learning, we think you’ll find that specific versions of the Four Questions, connected directly to the story of the unit, will be much more useful.



Mastering The Research Essay

We’re entering research season at my high school. Every student in every one of our required classes will write a research essay in the next couple of months. With various degrees of independence, each student will choose a topic, find and read relevant and reliable sources, formulate and defend a thesis, and produce an essay that conforms to scholarly standards for communication and citation. And then we’ll all collapse in a heap.

Writing an independent research essay is the hardest thing you can ask a History student to do. That’s why we require it. The research essay is the common assessment that matters most. If our students can do that successfully, they’re ready to ask and answer questions on their own. They’ll know what it takes to pull off a project that requires stamina and planning. They know how to harness their curiosity and test their presumptions. They’ll be ready to participate in grown-up conversations as philosopher-citizens.

The research essay is hard for teachers, too. Liking writing the essay for students, preparation is everything. Students need plenty of time to practice all the skills involved. That requires teachers to plan well. If students are just learning to find good sources when they start the essay, it’ll be hard to get them much beyond that. The same for citation, note taking, paragraph writing, and so on. The research essay requires students to use a whole range of skills we need to be teaching them continually and repeatedly. If you want your students to get beyond the mechanical and actually think about what they’re writing, you’ll need a scope and sequence for skill development.

“Story First” Is For Research Papers, Too!

About a decade ago, a team of teachers working on the research scope and sequence for my department made an important discovery in the laboratory of their own classes. Students who wrote research reports first, before attempting an argumentative research essay, did better than students who plunged right in and began arguing a thesis. The fact is, many of the latter ended up writing reports anyway, inadvertently. At worst, students who skipped the report stage got paralyzed by the weight of decision. They just couldn’t figure out what they were supposed to prove.

The Number One problem in student research is that the student-author doesn’t know their topic well enough to write about it. When professionals do research, they read and learn a ton before they start to write. They become experts in the topic before they argue about it. Our students need to do the same, on a smaller scale. Requiring students to do a topic report as a preliminary step in the research enterprise makes it much more likely that they’ll develop the expertise they need to ask and answer a reasonable, interesting question.

If you’ve been following our blog or have attended our workshops, this should sound familiar: Story first! We’ve found that what works for students writing research essays is the same advice that works for teachers planning units, and for good reason. You can’t identify the interesting, organic questions until you know something about a topic. The best test of knowledge we’ve discovered is the ability to tell a coherent and convincing story about that topic. The research topic report is that story. It’s an essential step in the research process.

Oral Storytelling Helps Clarify Things

In my last blog post, I recommended that students tell stories orally. That’s a particularly good idea for the research topic report. Some of the teachers in my department have designed a small-group activity in which students narrate to peers, usually with the help of images in a slide presentation. The student auditors then give the narrator feedback about what’s confusing, puzzling, or interesting to them. Together, they generate a list of questions. One of those questions will typically become the Thesis Question, the one whose answer will frame the argument of the essay.

A successful research essay — no surprise — will reflect the thinking process that generated it. The introduction will frame the puzzle or question that the essay will resolve or answer. That requires a short version of the story from which the puzzle or question derives. Story first! The thesis, which resolves the puzzle or answers the question, will typically be an answer to either Question Two or Question Three — an interpretation or an explanation, respectively. Younger, less experienced students have much greater success interpreting than explaining. I now direct such students to Question Two — that is, to defend a claim about what some interesting person or group in their story was thinking. Question Three (Why then and there?) typically requires more knowledge and keener analytical chops than a beginner can muster. Either way, the thesis for the research essay will, in the vast majority of cases, be an answer to one of these two questions. Then, once the argument is made, the student-scholar can conclude by telling us what we learn from these findings — Question Four.

Every year, at the beginning of June, we host an awards ceremony for the winners of our departmental prizes for excellence in writing historical research essays. We select a winner at each grade and level. The winning students bring their parents and siblings and sometimes grandparents. Their teachers give testimonials, and we all celebrate the achievement of our student-scholars — our future philosopher-citizens — with sparkling cider and cookies. It’s my favorite event of the year. Right after that — that’s when we collapse into a heap.