Category: 4QM Teaching

Writing Clear Essay Questions

One huge benefit of the Four Question Method is the clarity it provides to teachers and students about what intellectual task is on the table at any given time. When teachers plan and teach with the 4QM, everyone in the classroom knows whether they are narrating, interpreting, explaining, or judging. Recently I’ve been experimenting with designing my summative essay questions explicitly around the Four Questions as well. Writing my essay questions this way means breaking them down into sections and identifying clearly which  of the Four Questions is being asked in each section. Here’s an example: a sophomore essay question about the Versailles Treaty. I’ve learned to letter the parts of the assignment, not number them, in order to avoid confusion with the question numbers. Part A is a Question One, part B is a Question Two, and part C is a Question Four:


As you know, the Versailles Treaty which ended The Great War (WWI) was very controversial. For this essay you will be asked to describe some key elements of the treaty, consider what the leaders of the major signatories to the treaty were thinking when they signed it, and then to make your own judgment about the treaty.

Write an essay in which you do the following:

A. Describe the main provisions of the Versailles Treaty related to Germany: the “war guilt clause,” the loss of territory, reparations payments, and limits on the German military. [Q1]

B. Say what the leaders of Britain, France, and Germany thought about these provisions at the time the treaty was signed.  [Q2]

C. Say if you think these provisions of the treaty were fair or not, and explain the reasoning behind your judgment with specific reference to events we have studied in this unit. [Q4]

Benefits Of This Question Format

Breaking the essay question down this way has a number of benefits. First of all, it helps me to avoid writing ambiguous questions (here’s a recent blog post about that challenge). Since I know I’ll have multiple sections of the prompt, I don’t get caught up in writing one big question that tries to do too much. And since I know each part of the prompt has to be only one of the Four Questions, I’m much more clear in my own thinking about what I want students to do.

This format is also a huge help to students who struggle with organization. I sometimes coach these students to think of the assignment as three separate essays — with one student this year I actually had him make three separate files on his computer, one for each part of the question — so that they can concentrate on one thing at a time. When they’ve answered parts A, B, and C separately we stack them together and write an introduction and conclusion for the whole stack — voila! A finished essay!

This format also makes it easier for me to provide feedback and coaching to students who need it. When  the prompt is written in this fashion it’s easy to see who has problems of organization (they’re putting their judgment of the treaty in part A, for example), who has problems of substance (they’re not providing specifics to support their judgment in part C, for example), and who has both. Students’ clarity or confusion is often evident in their topic sentences, since each topic sentence should answer one part of the prompt. Consider these strong examples, one from part A and one from part C of two different student papers:

“The main provisions of the Versailles treaty took back German territory, weakened German military forces, created a demilitarized zone, and demanded that Germany pay all reparations for the cost of the war.”

“The treaty of Versailles was unfair to Germany because they did not cause the war by themselves.”

Is It Too Easy?

Some readers might think that writing essay questions like this does too much for students, and that by giving them such an explicit structure for their essays we’re making their task too easy. I can see that argument, especially for advanced students. But as teachers we need to consider what it is we want our students to focus their intellectual energy on. Do we want them to think about their answers to the history questions we’re asking? Or do we want them to have to figure out which history questions we’re asking, and then think about their answers to those questions? Clear questions mean that students’ energies go into actually doing history, and my energy goes into coaching them on the skills required to do history well. Most of the time that’s where I want our energies spent.

So try pulling your next essay question apart, and revising it 4QM-style, and let us know how it goes. I invite readers to email us some sample questions at, and we’ll make them the subject of an upcoming blog post.


How to Tell a (True) Story

Our mantra at 4QM Teaching is Story First! Students who rush off to make arguments about things they can’t yet narrate make a mess of things. If you want your students’ oral arguments and written essays to make sense and represent real thinking, first things first: make them answer Question One, What Happened?

Stories Take Time

Teaching students to tell good, true stories takes classroom time — time that’s well worth the investment. I’ve heard teachers worry that spending class time training students to “just” get the story down will undermine their attempts to teach students to think and write rigorously. If you apply high expectations to storytelling, you’ll actually see that narration requires rigor as well. And if your students learn to narrate well, their arguments are much more likely to be real and persuasive.

Telling a good, true story starts with reading, listening, or both. And what we read and hear must be recorded accurately in order for our thoughtful narration to remain non-fiction. Reading, listening, note taking — they’re all part of the skillful package that make answering Question One possible. The same is true, for that matter, for selecting reliable sources.

At any rate, once you know what you’re talking about, a well-crafted response to “What happened?” then requires the use of a variety of skillful storytelling techniques. Students should master them, which means that we should teach them.

Storytelling Instructions

Once my students have read and listened and taken accurate, durable, and hierarchical notes — raw lists not permitted! — then they’re ready to follow my storytelling instructions, the same ones I use myself when I plan my units and narrative lectures:

  • Frame your story by describing the main contrast or difference between the beginning and end of the story. Something important changed over time. Start by saying what changed, and if the change was surprising, say why. Build suspense: how did that happen?!?
  • Name the protagonists in the story and locate them in time and space. Describe who did what, and when and where they did it. Use active verbs!
  • Name and locate the events. Define events selectively and chunk them evenly. Include only actions that directly contribute to the main change over time you’re narrating.
  • Connect the actions of people in your story to the actions of other people in your story, or to the overall change your story is about. Do that by supplying an account of each actor’s motivations.
  • Conclude your story. You’ve just narrated an important historical change. Remind the reader or listener what you just taught them: what happened!

In our planning workshops and in our classes, Jon and I use storyboards to facilitate narrative planning, as he described in his recent blogpost, “The Power of Pictures.” Our six-panel storyboards act as limiting devices, forcing story planners to make efficient choices about which events to include and exclude. A storyboard provides a clear and logical way to record event names and locations, and makes the change over time we’re narrating explicit and visual. (By the way, facility in taking good, two-column narrative notes will make storyboarding much easier.)

Give your students some version of these storytelling instructions and a blank storyboard and see what they can do. Once they’ve drafted a narrative, I recommend having them practice their story by speaking it aloud. Speaking is an excellent test of fluency and mastery, an excellent memory device, and almost impossible to plagiarize. If public speaking is not a routine in your class, you’ll need to keep the stakes low while students practice.

Stories, Not Lists

One of the first things you’ll notice about students who are new to this exercise is that they have a strong compulsion to list events rather than to tell a story. I joke with students that every time I hear them say “And then Event X happened,” I lose another clump of hair from my head. (They know that I have none to spare.) They also know full well that, when narrating events in their own lives, some actual person did whatever thing they’re recounting, and that it didn’t just “happen.” Their real world has human agency; their History world, not yet.

I wonder sometimes if History teachers have mis-trained students to spout lists rather than to narrate actions. Traditional study props like ID sheets and Quizlet too often encourage students to practice recalling brute facts shorn of their narrative, human context. An “event,” after all, is just a handy label we give to an interaction between and among real people doing things with and to each other. Our students don’t intuitively grasp that, at least not in History classes. Teaching them to tell true stories can help (or force) them to see that what’s true in their lives is true in life in general: people do things to and with each other. That’s one of the things we mean by “history.”

So insist that students lead with WHO did WHAT to WHOM. And I hope it’s now clear that doing so is emphatically not a mechanical skill. On the contrary: it represents the beginning of awareness that “events” don’t “happen”; rather, people do things. Likewise, listening to students try to connect events, to say how someone’s actions led to someone else’s, will reveal for both of you what they understand and what remains opaque for them. In other words, it’s an awesome formative assessment.

Stories Raise Questions

Most important, a well-told story always raises questions for whoever is really listening. As our students narrate, they will be called upon to answer questions on the fly that we can highlight, extract from the story, and turn into inquiry questions. In fact, all Four Questions are typically embedded in a coherent narration of new and notable events in the human world. When the protagonists in your students’ stories do things, they will be doing them for reasons, provisionally supplied by your student narrators. Seven Southern states declared secession. Lincoln decided that he would not allow the Union to be destroyed, and so he fought to keep them in the United States.

What was he thinking? Why was that his choice? If that question doesn’t give you pause and make you wonder, then you’re not really listening to the story, and so will have a hard time taking this classic Question Two seriously. Storytelling is in fact the beginning of historical thinking. Inquiry projects are almost always attempts to take apart a story and then put it back together at a higher level of transparency and thoughtfulness.

When my students write their independent research essays, they start with a story they learn and narrate themselves. Then they identify the question-begging elements, and then begin their inquiry. When we frame unit questions with teachers in our workshops, we use exactly the same procedure: make your storyboard and tell your story, and then we’ll figure out which questions we need to answer in order to satisfy genuine curiosity and skepticism.

So storytelling is a form of historical thinking in its own right, and the gateway to all the other forms we rightly want our students to grapple with. Teachers, like students, need to practice not getting ahead of themselves. Start with Question One, and watch (and listen to) what happens…


A Classic Bad History Question

We history teachers often ask bad questions, and this blog post is about a particular type of bad question that is very common in our field — I used to ask them myself with alarming frequency. Here’s an example:

“Were the causes of the American Revolution primarily political or primarily economic?”

Questions like this are bad for two reasons. First of all, they’re ambiguous. Are we asking what most supporters of the American Revolution were thinking? Then we’re asking Question Two (“What were they thinking?”), and we should say so: “Were most revolutionaries motivated primarily by a political defense of their natural rights, or an economic desire to preserve their wealth?”

Or are we asking what underlying political and economic conditions made the revolution more likely in that time and place? In that case we’re asking Question Three (“Why then and there?”), and we should say so: “What political and economic conditions in the thirteen colonies made revolution more likely by the 1770s?”

The second reason why these types of questions are bad is because they’re impossible to answer honestly. Gary has a great analogy that illustrates this problem. “Were the causes of the American Revolution primarily political or primarily economic?” is like asking, “Is the primary biological system in the body the respiratory system or the circulatory system?” Of course both the respiratory system and the circulatory system work together to keep you alive; neither one is “primary.” Complex historical events are similar: the American Revolution had political and economic motivations and causes that worked together, and pretending that students can separate them and declare one of them “primary” is silly. Students can interpret documents and events to determine what some revolutionaries were thinking, and students can build social science models that include different explanatory factors. Teaching them to do both of those things is the heart of our mission.

So take a look at the essay questions you have asked your students so far this year. If you’re like me you’ve probably got at least one or two that fit this type. Do yourself and your students a favor and revise them so that they’re both clear and honest. They’ll appreciate your efforts to engage them in an intellectual task they can both comprehend and complete, and you’ll appreciate how much easier it is to evaluate their work. Both results will be primarily great.

J. B.

A Killer Week of 4QM History Lessons

Up until last Friday, the rhythm of my units worked like this: opening days are for Question One: What happened? Story first! Then, maybe a couple of days in, when we get to an interesting interpretive puzzle, we dig in and answer Question Two: What were they thinking? Then, after some close reading, back to the story. And so we go, toggling back and forth between narration and interpretation. Near the end of the unit, typically after a couple of weeks, we step back and answer Questions Three (Why then and there?) and Four (What do *we* think about that?). Then, a summative assessment — plenty of formative assessment along the way, of course — and that’s a unit.

That’s a great structure if you want your year chunked into three or four-week segments. But there are other ways to teach 4QM-style. A veteran teacher in my department likes a two-day model. He gives his 9th graders a daily lesson and a homework assignment with guided reading. On Day Two, he puts them in groups and tells them: “4QM the Crusades.” And they do! They use the Four Questions to make sense of what they’ve read and learned. Groups write answers to all four questions and compare the results.

A Meeting of Minds

What I learned last Friday was that the midrange between the three or four-week unit and the two-day activity might be the best of all: the Killer Week of 4QM History Lessons.

Jon and I went to Newark, NJ, to work with a team of middle and high school curriculum writers for the Uncommon Schools charter network. These are some serious folks. Most of them are full-time classroom teachers who, in addition to driving hard every day with their students, sit down every week and plan lessons for their colleagues. Besides working hard, they’re ridiculously well educated and thoughtful about what they teach.

The Uncommon folks plan units, naturally. But they define cycles within units. They want their students to practice a range of literacy and historical thinking skills regularly and frequently. So they plan cycles that work students through a sequence of lesson types that exercise those skills. A unit could last a few weeks. A cycle is about one week, four to six lessons.

Uncommon planners think that students need to know some history before they can think productively or skillfully about it. They’re “Story First!” people, too. What they call a Build Knowledge lesson, which is always Day One of an Uncommon cycle, is for us a day dedicated to Question One. But they want their students working on documents early and often. So what follows a Build Knowledge lesson for them is a short series of inquiry and skills lessons.

We had a productive meeting of the minds. Our storyboards? A perfect template for the Build Knowledge lesson. A framing lecture needs narrative structure. The storyboard forces you to make that explicit, in a way that’s easy to share with students. Then, the questions we 4QM types generate from our stories — the interpretive, explanatory, and judgment puzzles that drive our other questions — become the prompts for inquiry in the succeeding lessons of the cycle.

My Killer Week

Our conversation got me thinking about my own teaching. My students could use more inquiry and skills practice, too. And shorter, front-loaded stories might be easier for them to track. I’ll have to funnel and spiral a lot — help them to connect earlier parts of the story to later ones — but that’s always the case anyway.

So I came home and planned this, my Killer Week of 4QM Lessons:

Day One:In 1850, Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas brokered a legislative compromise over slavery, the latest in a series dating back to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. By 1860, a candidate from a new political party, dedicated to exclusion of slavery from all western territories, won the Presidential Election, and seven Southern states had seceded by his Inauguration. What happened? My “Road to Civil War” storyboard is my lecture template. I tell a lean story, with images to mark each major event. Homework readings before and after anticipate and reinforce.

Day Two: What were they thinking? There are lots of puzzling actors and decisions in this cycle, but I definitely want politicians on center stage: Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. Both are complicated, in good ways. Stephen Douglas claimed that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would ease tensions over slavery. What was he thinking!?! And Lincoln is susceptible to mythologizing. Students need to hear his voice, in all its ambiguity. We’ll read excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates and from Lincoln’s speech to the Republican Convention (the “house divided” section), with a brief introductory lecture on context. For homework, students will write from their markups and responses to text questions.

Day Three: 1787, 1820, and 1850: three times the US negotiated political compromises over slavery. And if you add the VA and KY Resolutions and the Nullification Crisis, the early republic managed to survive the threat of permanent rupture repeatedly until 1860. Why then and there? What was different about the US by 1860? I’ll give students data on economic and demographic changes: production charts by sector and immigration and population statistics. Maps will show territorial changes over time, including the inexorably diminishing political prospects for slave states. (After California enters as a free state in 1850, it looks pretty clear that, without more of Mexico or Cuba, the Southern “slave-ocracy” will become a permanent minority in the Senate.) This is a DBQ day. For homework, we read about the Election of 1860.

Day Four: Regional parties. A polarized electorate. What do we think about that? I’ll operationalize Question Four by asking my students to justify a vote in the 1860 Election. The choice: Do you vote for Lincoln or not? My students will fancy themselves Abolitionists, naturally. But the choice in 1860 is both about the morality of slavery — not an interesting question for us — and the fate of the union — a very interesting one, indeed. Douglas represents the tradition of compromise over slavery — sidestepping the issue for the sake of stable politics. The Republicans are something new: a party that puts slavery, or at least its extension, at the center of its platform. We’ll debate, vote, debrief, and then write.

This cycle generates some mark-ups and writing samples, and I could probably squeeze in a multiple choice quiz, too. Or maybe I’ll wait and test after one more cycle. In any case, this quick series of lessons feels like a complete thought. Next cycle, we’ll practice these skills again. Repetition at close range will let students act on feedback and watch their own progress.

When we first talked to the Uncommon planners about their cycles, I was concerned that the story would go by too quickly for my students. But in addition to daily retrieval practice to start each lesson, I think that the 4QM version of inquiry lessons will reinforce the story effectively. Each day’s inquiry question will force students back to the story and require them to use it in a new way. For the practicum in judgment at the end, they’ll use the story as a resource to justify a choice. That should bring the story home for them and make it personal. And at pace, my weekly stories will link and resonate, so long as I build them right.

At any rate, I now see a new, modular way to plan using 4QM, one that I can’t wait to try. I think it will be killer.


The Power Of Pictures

People who study memory know that drawing a picture is one of the best ways to remember something. But how often do history teachers use this powerful memory tool with their students? Most of us don’t do it often enough. An intentional use of student-generated images can help students to remember important historical events much more effectively than more common techniques, such as study guides, review sheets, or organizers that list “key terms” or “identifications.” Drawing pictures can also be a lot of fun for teachers and students.

A recent New York Times article about memory explained that “the three-act technique of picturing something in your mind, putting pen to paper to draw it, then looking at your drawing is a powerful memory trick that outperforms other ‘strong’ mnemonic strategies.” In an earlier blog post I wrote about the website “Sketchy Medical,” which uses funny cartoon mnemonics to help medical students learn and remember the information they’ll need to pass their licensing exams. Clearly, a lot of smart people have discovered that drawing pictures helps us to remember important things.

History teachers and students can make use of this insight by combining pictures with another ancient and effective memory technique: story-telling. If you’ve ever attended one of our 4QM workshops, or if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that we believe that good history teaching and learning starts with a story. We lay out our unit-level stories on a six-box storyboard when we’re planning, and we often use four-box storyboards for formative assessments with students. Here’s how it works. After the kids have learned what happened in an important event, you ask them to make an illustrated storyboard of it. You can give them the start and end dates or make them pick their own, and tell students that each box of their storyboard has to have a title, a date range, and a picture that effectively symbolizes that portion of the story. (Reassure your students that the artistic merit of their illustration is irrelevant to its power as a learning tool and memory aide.) I typically have students work in small groups on this; the group talks together about the titles and date ranges, striving for consensus. Then everyone makes their own storyboard and draws their own pictures. You can take it one step further and have a few students use their storyboards to tell the story of the event to the class in brief oral presentations.

Here are a couple of recent storyboards of World War One from my tenth grade modern world history class. (You may have to increase the size of your browser window to see them well – I apologize for not knowing how to make them the right size, or how to crop the blue seat out of the picture on the right. Sigh.)

Notice how these students made different choices about how to chapterize the story, and included different specific facts in each box. In addition to assessing student understanding of the narrative, storyboards can also be springboards into discussion of these kind of historian’s decisions. Why did the second student decide to include trench warfare in the box number one, while the first student included it as one example of “industrial warfare” in box number two? Why did the second student include Russia’s collapse, but the first student omitted it? Storyboards enable conversation about what how and why different narrators choose to tell the story differently.

We live in the twenty-first century, so of course there’s an online storyboarding tool that allows you to make digital storyboards; here’s a link to their homepage: StoryboardThat. I doubt that making a digital storyboard is as good an aide to learning and memory as drawing your own pictures, but some students might find the online version more engaging than working with a pencil.

Drawing pictures is a powerful memory tool that’s fun and easy to use. History teachers and students should use it regularly to leverage the power of pictures.


What’s The Question, Reader?

When I was a brand new high school teacher — at age 39 — a colleague gave me some excellent survival advice. It had two parts. First, kids love moral dilemmas. Whenever you get a chance to introduce one into a lesson, do it. Second, the textbook is your friend. When you’re not sure what to do, assign some of it and teach from it.

That advice, plus rampant fear and enthusiasm, powered me through my first year of teaching. Now, closing in on the end of the second decade of trying my luck, I’ve got a more focused and productive way to plan: the Four Question Method (4QM). That first piece of advice is still there, incorporated in the method. Question Four: “What do we think about that?” is the payoff question, where we grapple in the classroom with moral dilemmas, and with lessons from history about how to be good citizens and good people.

I’m less keen on the second part of my erstwhile colleague’s advice these days. What was and is true about that advice is that reading is the spine of our courses. Our students must read, or “read” (in the 21st century, let’s allow that “texts” include digital and audio formats). It is not possible to intuit what happened or is happening in the human world. You need to learn about it from a source. If you, the teacher, speaking in class, lecturing and showing slides, are the only source of information for your students, you’re doing them a disservice. One day, you won’t be around to tell them things. They need to practice learning from a variety of sources that are widely accessible. They should do that while you’re around to coach and guide them.

The fact is, literacy is the great seismic undercurrent of schooling. How well students do in school mostly reflects how well they read. That’s especially true in Social Studies and English, obviously. So we need to attend to our students’ reading in order to facilitate their overall learning, in our subject and others. That requires that we make two important decisions well: what to read, and how to read it.

What to Read

Textbooks are boring, by design. They need to be. After all, they are tertiary sources. Secondary sources give an account of historical (or sociological, economic, or political) events and patterns from the point of view of a particular author, typically a scholar, whose personal reputation as a source of information and insight is wagered on each publication. Tertiary sources, like reference books, encyclopedias, and textbooks, wager a reputation, too. But they tend not to want that reputation to hang on the validity of an argument or of a distinctive or “original” account of something. On the contrary: tertiary sources aspiring to be consensus documents, reliable and uncontroversial. They want to be boring, and usually succeed.

Textbooks served a purpose once. They provided an economical and reliable way for students to read what happened. Today we have alternatives. In fact, in the Internet Age, we have more tertiary sources than we know what to do with, literally. Between Google and Wikipedia, our students have moved beyond textbooks, digital or otherwise. To act as if that isn’t true is to make yourself thoroughly anachronistic and a bit ridiculous. If you don’t permit your students use Wikipedia, you’re in denial. If you don’t make them corroborate what they find there — and show them the “Talk” and “View History” tabs — you’re being irresponsible.

The main advantage of modern forms of reference is that they are much more modular than traditional textbooks. I can and do use ABC-Clio and Gale to find reference articles on exactly the actors and events I want my students to learn about. And I show them how I find these sources, so that they can do it, too. I can put together a packet of tertiary readings that suits our needs much better than the textbook chapters I’d taken to carving up and editing. And I get the apparatus these publishers and aggregators provide to boot — links to related sources, cool pictures, maps, and videos, support facilities like dictionaries, and a digital voice that will read to you. “Reading” in the twenty-first century often means reading something other than a traditional textbook.

How to Read

For purpose, obviously. But what purpose? I’ve heard teachers say — and heard myself say, once upon a time — that students should read for “main points,” “key ideas and understandings,” “major ideas and supporting details,” and so forth. Let’s let these expressions go the way of the old essential question. They are placeholders for conceptions you haven’t worked out yet. Work them out.

When I assign homework and independent reading, most often I want students to get a chunk of my unit story. For sure, when I assign a tertiary source, I do it because I want students to get an answer to Question One: What happened? Unlike journalists, my students don’t have to gather the primary evidence for that story. More like keen news readers, they need to achieve fluency, accuracy, and comprehension in the story they’re being told. Once they do that, we can get to work with questioning, which by now should be a familiar operation: take any of our four questions seriously and you’ve got a real inquiry going. All of them, at any rate, start with the story.

I assign other kinds of sources besides the tertiary sort when I have other purposes for their reading — other questions I’d like my students to answer. For Question Two, we almost always read some primary sources. A manageable selection from an interpretive scholar may help with Question Two as well. The same is true for Question Three. We share excerpts from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel so that students can see how a smart person tries to answer a classic explanatory puzzle. And Op-Eds are classic sources for modeling answers to Question Four: What do we think about that?  

4QM Reading

The major premise of the 4QM is that questions drive curiosity, and that curiosity motivates people to learn. Find the right questions and the kids in our classes will light up. The minor premise is that you can teach students explicitly to identify, ask, and answer the kinds of questions that show up routinely when people talk and write about history, politics, society, and the everything else Social Studies people and active citizens care about.

If our fundamental wager is correct — that people engaged in understanding the human world are asking and answering one, several, or all of the Four Questions — then when we read a document, article, book, or other literary artifact by such a person, we should read with those four questions in mind. When students (and others) know what the pros are doing, what questions historians and social scientists and journalists are working on and what techniques they’re using to answer them, they’ll be in league with those authors. Reading them, then, will be way more fun and productive, and way less frustrating and intimidating. One day, our students may even choose to do it on their own.


How To Learn History In A Hurry

We coach history teachers who use the Four Question Method for unit planning to start by defining the “story of the unit:” decide what actual content you will include in the unit, and in what order. (If the 4QM were reduced to a bumper sticker it would say, “Story First!”) But this imperative poses a real challenge for teachers who are new, or just new to a course: What if you don’t know much about the unit you’re supposed to be teaching? This happens to history teachers, even experienced history teachers, all the time. Unlike high school math or language teachers, who if they have a BA in their subject area already know all the content they’ll ever teach, most history teachers can’t possibly know all the content they will be responsible for teaching. Even setting aside the reality that there’s more history being made every day, the breadth of content that secondary history teachers can be called on to teach in any given year is staggering. In Massachusetts, for example, the state’s high school history curriculum standards cover world history from the middle ages to the present, and American history from the founding era to the present. It takes years of reading to gain solid knowledge of so much content, and the task is never complete. So if you’re a history teacher you’re inevitably going to have to teach units you don’t know. How can you do it?

The answer is that you can’t. You simply have to know a rudimentary “story of the unit” before you can teach it. But there are some ways to learn those stories quickly, and well enough to get by until you can build your understanding through more serious study. In this post I’ll share three techniques for learning the story of the unit in a hurry, presented in ascending order of time demands.


Gary and I are old enough to remember when Wikipedia was new and unreliable. But now it’s actually pretty good, and is a quick-and-dirty way to get an acceptable narrative about any historical topic. Entries are usually well organized, with timelines and periodizations readily apparent, and citations for sources at the end. The entry for the progressive era in the U.S. is typical: it opens with a tight introduction that summarizes the era clearly, then gives an easy-to-read table of contents that shows you the main time periods and topics. The entry closes with references and suggestions for further reading. Gotta learn the story of the unit in twenty minutes? Wikipedia works in a pinch.

College Level Textbooks

You should have a good college level textbook for the course(s) you’re teaching. Often you can get one free from the publisher if you contact them and ask for an “exam copy.” Or you can buy a used one cheap off the internet. Ask your administration to buy one for you, or at least save your receipt and write it off on your taxes — it’s a professional expense.  However you obtain your copy, a college level text is a great tool for staying ahead of your students and getting a deep enough understanding of the material to teach it your first time through. When you’re scrambling to plan your next unit and only have an hour and a half to devote to learning the story, you should read the college level textbook first, then read your students’ textbook, then construct the story of the unit.

Good Synoptic Secondary Sources

If you have a little more time there are some excellent short secondary sources that pack a lot of history into a few pages. I particularly recommend the New Oxford World History series. This is a recently published series of books that integrate political and social history in under 200 pages each. The series features a wide variety of titles, including China In World History and The World From 1450 – 1700. Each volume ends with a timeline, suggestions for further reading, and a list of relevant websites. You can get your brief but comprehensive synopsis from the text itself, and then explore the suggested readings more deeply when you have more time.

Long Term: Keep Reading!

Of course your long term goal is to eventually develop a strong knowledge of everything you have to teach, and perhaps even to have a field or topic that you read deeply in. This will happen naturally over time if you try to always have a book going, without worrying too much about how it relates to what you teach. Popular scholarship, of the sort written by David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, is fun to read and builds knowledge effectively. You can find more demanding books that are also well written by consulting the list of Pulitzer Prize winners in U.S. history and the Bentley Book Prize winners in world history.

A history teacher’s content learning is never done — but if you don’t enjoy reading history in at least some of your free time you should probably consider changing professions. In the meantime, remember that you don’t need to have a PhD level understanding of a topic in order to teach it well — you just need to have done enough reading to know a responsible and coherent story of the unit. And with the right reading plan the work of learning those stories can be both efficient and fun. Happy learning!


What Are We Arguing About? Using “C-E-R” In Social Studies Classrooms

My school is creating a 9th-grade Academy, of necessity. We’re shipping our freshmen to an annex next year while we do construction on our main building. We’ve decided to think of this as a crisis-opportunity: the annex is old and musty, and we’re already complaining about going there, but we also know that this is a chance to devise some common supports for 9th graders that we’ve talked about for years but never actually implemented.

During a series of faculty meetings recently, teachers from the main academic departments agreed that they would begin using common language to describe the structure of arguments to all 9th graders. Right now, Science teachers typically ask students to write CER paragraphs: Claim-Evidence-Reasoning. In Social Studies, we’ve typically gone with TEA: Topic Sentence-Evidence-Analysis, or sometimes, Thesis-Evidence-Analysis. In part on account of that ambiguity — which ‘T’ do you mean? — all 9th graders will learn that, to build a paragraph that makes and defends an argument, you’ll need CER structure: a claim, some evidence, and some reasoning to show how the evidence supports the claim.

Overall, I’m happy about this agreement. Consistent nomenclature will help students to see what’s common about what we’re asking them to do with their minds. Mostly. In Math, we discovered, the formula is actually CR. (The poor geometry teacher in my team had an awkward, charming moment: “we don’t actually have evidence…”) That observation is good to share with students. Adopting the common CER formula will help them to see how mathematical thinking is both similar and different to other kinds of thinking. Although geometry, our 9th-grade course, has reasoning but no evidence, it does rely upon clear claims supported by non-contradictory inferences, like all worthy arguments. That’s a lesson that bears repeating.

This CER conversation helped me to understand a confusion in Social Studies that I see fairly regularly. Social Studies teachers, like their colleagues in other departments, want their students to make arguments, and they want those arguments to conform to CER. Fair enough. The problem is that we ourselves aren’t consistent or rigorous in our application of the CER standard. And for good reason: we often aren’t clear on the question we’re asking.

Jon and I worked out the Four Question Method in part in response to the concern we and our colleagues had about writing good essay prompts. Knowing what kinds of questions work for our students to think and write about is essential. We now think we know: there are exactly four kinds of questions we can contest, and therefore argue, in Social Studies.

What Happened?

We can, in principle, argue about Question One: What happened? Professional historians argue about this one all the time. For journalists, it’s bread and butter. But though we may set up samples of the activity for our students, we don’t typically engage them in argument about what happened. We tell them what happened, or give them sources that do. In other words, we typically answer Question One by reading authors and sources we trust. We get the story from others. As we’ve argued elsewhere, getting the story right, even when we derive it entirely from secondary and tertiary (or reference) sources, is no mean feat for students, or even teachers. But it is not, in fact, argument. Narrative doesn’t fit CER.

What Were They Thinking?

We can, and frequently do, argue about Question Two: What were they thinking? These arguments are the most tractable ones for us. Once we’ve situated an historical actor in a narrative, we can and do ask students to use an actor’s utterances and decisions, as recorded in reliable documents, to make a defensible claim about what the actor had in mind. What was Napoleon thinking? Was he spreading the Enlightenment, making himself World Emperor, or something else entirely? Lincoln said a bunch of different things about why he was fighting the Civil War. What was he actually thinking? What’s great about these questions is that they get students to take both people and ideas seriously. And they rely upon evidence that is accessible to students: narratives and documents that we can curate for them.

Why Then And There?

We sometimes, though rarely with success, invite students to argue about Question Three: Why then and there? That we ask explanatory questions at all I attribute to the fact that most of the teachers who ask them don’t realize what they’re actually asking students to do. Question Three is the one most likely to generate Kahneman’s Substitution Effect, where, when confronted with a difficult question, we answer a simpler one and pretend we’ve answered the hard one. Why did the Roman Empire fall? Why did Christianity succeed? Why did Buddhism spread in the east and dissipate in India? And our perennial favorite, why was there a global war in 1914? To argue in response to any of these questions — that is, to *prove* an answer using CER logic — requires that we identify the general phenomenon we want to explain, find changes in background conditions that co-vary with the changes we see in the general phenomenon, and then posit a mechanism that establishes a causal link between the two. (Our catch-phrases for answering Question Three — “Factors, not Actors,” and “Explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference,” are meant to codify and simplify this procedure.) In any case, the logic is familiar enough to social scientists, and we’re now employing it successfully in our Human Geography classes, along with the kind of quantitative data that makes explanatory inferences visual and tractable for students. It is not generally familiar to most History teachers, however. The fact is, when teachers ask what purport to be explanatory questions of their students, they are frequently and misleadingly issuing narrative injunctions: tell me the story of the fall of Rome, the spread of Christianity or Buddhism, the outbreak of the Great War. Question Three in history classes is, more often than not, a Question One masquerading as an argument.

What Do We Think About That?

Finally, we sometimes invite our students to argue about Question Four: What do we think about that? Interestingly, when we make the kinds of judgments Question Four demands, we often do what the geometers do: we make CR arguments. Though a judgment question can be a terrific activator early in a unit, Jon and I typically insist that our students learn adequate responses to Questions One, Two, and Three before we entertain their views on Question Four. If we agree on what happened, what the key actors were thinking, and why the pattern of events played out the way they did, and not differently, we are often left with disagreements about first principles. When we argue about Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs in Japan in 1945, for example, we typically begin with a common understanding of the story of the Pacific War, the elements of Truman’s thinking, and the geo-strategic situation facing the US and the world at the end of World War II. What we typically disagree about is whether or not civilians are fair targets in modern warfare. For deontologists and pacificists, at least, what matters are the claims and the reasoning. What evidence would change their views about dropping bombs on children?

Using “C-E-R” In Social Studies Classrooms

So, what’s the right way to use CER argumentation in Social Studies classes? If you’d like to stage an historian’s discovery activity, like the one SHEG curates on the Battle of Lexington, go crazy. Odds are, however, that the successful argumentative essays you assign in your Social Studies classes will be a Question Two. That’s as it should be. Our students are equipped to interpret the historical actors we introduce them to in our courses. They have skills from English class they can bring to bear in the exercise. At any rate, they will have to make consistent, logical inferences from specific textual and narrative evidence in support of clear claims in order to argue for their interpretation. If they can do that with proficiency, good for them, and for you.


“Those Were Different Times”

“Ridin’ in a Stutz Bearcat, Jim

Those were different times”

-“Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed

The public reaction to the death of President George Herbert Walker Bush two weeks ago got me thinking about the phrase, “those were different times.” Bush 41 was the last of his generation to serve as president. He was a World War Two navy pilot, and he was in office when the Berlin wall came down and the cold war ended. He was an establishment WASP, a preppy, the kind of New England country club Republican who is all but extinct today. Much that was written immediately after his death emphasized his basic decency, and the relative civility with which politics was carried out in his day. As I read through the obituaries and tributes, I found myself thinking that “those were different times” indeed.

But what do we mean by that phrase? Its plain meaning is utterly banal: of course those were different times — they were before the time we’re living in right now. We obviously mean something more significant than that. I reflected that we only use the phrase when we’re referring to a time when there were important differences between the way people thought or did things then and the ways we think and act today. That got me to thinking in terms of the Four Question Method, because that’s how I think about pretty much anything historical now, and I came to the conclusion that “those were different times” has meaning for us in terms of Question Two (“What were they thinking?”) and Question Three (“Why then and there?). Here’s my reasoning:

“Those Were Different Times” and Q2

When we say “those were different times” one of the things we mean is that people thought differently than we do today in important ways. This is, I think, why the phrase initially came to mind when I was reading about Bush 41. Many commentators contrasted the bitter and angry partisanship of American politics today with the relative respect and bi-partisanship of his era. Politicians and voters both thought differently then: members of the opposing party were generally treated like a loyal opposition, rather than as real or potential traitors to the country’s ideals, Republicans and Democrats often thought of each other as friends, and the parties regularly cooperated on major legislation. One of the reasons Trump’s 2016 victory shocked the pundits is that they had not realized how dramatically “the times had changed.” Voters and politicians in 2016 think very differently than they did in Bush 41’s time.

“Those Were Different Times” and Q3

After I’d figured out that I was thinking about Question Two when I thought, “those were different times,” I started wondering about Question Three, “Why then and there?” Why did people think differently about politics in Bush 41’s time? What explains the different mindset of the people in that era?

The logic of Question Three is the logic of social science. We use social science categories like “political,” “social,” “economic,” and we seek to “explain a change with a change or a difference with a difference.” Our first step in doing so is to identify the change or difference we seek to explain. There’s actually a cool word for that thing: it’s called the “explicandum.” (Look it up!) There are lots of contrasts between America today and the America of Bush 41, but my answers to Question Two focused on bipartisanship and civility in national politics. So my explicandum, the change I wish to explain, is the change from civil and bipartisan politics to bitterly partisan politics.

The next step in thinking through Question Three is to look for an underlying change in conditions that might plausibly be connected to my explicandum. People don’t suddenly start thinking differently for no reason; that’s what why we have to “explain a change with a change.” What underlying change might explain why people thought differently about politics in the 1980s? There are a number of possibilities, but here’s one that might work: Bush 41 presided over the end of the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1989, all of American politics took place in the context of the ideological and geopolitical conflict with the Soviet Union. Perhaps the global communist threat had a moderating influence on domestic politics in the U.S. during those years. It seems possible that more Democrats and Republicans were willing to cooperate when there was a powerful ideological and geopolitical foe poised to profit from serious discord between them. And perhaps the disappearance of that threat unleashed a new era of bitter partisanship.

4QM Helps Clarify Our Study Of The Past

This explanation is obviously insufficient, and could be totally wrong. (I’m sure some readers are already noting flaws in the hypothesis.) But the point of this post is not so much to provide an accurate and true explanation for the difference between our times and those of Bush 41 as to illustrate how 4QM thinking can help us understand times that are different from our own. Noticing contrasts between time periods is what drives our entire discipline: if nothing ever changed, why would we study the past? We can use the Four Question Method to make our examination of those contrasts more intentional, and our understanding of them more comprehensive. It works for history teachers and students, and it works for nerdy citizens, too. So maybe you’ll also remember the Four Questions the next time you find yourself thinking about a time when “The poets, they studied the rules of verse / And the ladies, they rolled their eyes.


Reading Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning

We all know the story, and many of us teach it. Hitler, a failed Austrian art student and Great War veteran rose to power in the land of Kant, Goethe, and Beethoven. He and his Nazi Party dismantled German democracy and instigated the Second World War. Under the cover of war, Hitler’s Germany orchestrated the murder of six million Jews and myriad others.

We also know, more or less, what Hitler was thinking. He was an antisemite, an ultranationalist, and an anti-liberal. He was a prophet of bad science and warmongering expansionism.

Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth

Timothy Snyder, Yale Historian, had already written a meticulous and devastating book on Nazi atrocities before Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (2015). That one was called Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010). Snyder, who reads and speaks many languages — he claims eleven, apparently — exhaustively researched the consequences of successive occupations by murderous regimes in central Europe. You didn’t want to live in Ukraine in the 1930s and 1940s.

Black Earth is shorter and less of a landmark than Bloodlands. It is focused on Hitler, Germany, and the Holocaust, not a chronicle and comparison of German and Soviet occupations. What I found particularly powerful about Black Earth, however, was Snyder’s ability to answer two important questions about Hitler and the Holocaust so persuasively and succinctly.

The Four Question Method is, among other things, a reading strategy. Jon and I claim that there are only four questions historians and social scientists ask and answer. Everything else they do is derivative or confused. If you know the 4QM, Snyder’s Black Earth is clear as day.

Snyder’s first argument is an interpretation, an answer to Question Two: What were they thinking? Snyder shows, though careful analysis of Hitler’s writing and speeches, that underlying Hitler’s ambition for lebensraum — “living room” —  was a sense of “ecological panic.” Hitler believed that the struggle for survival between races was conditioned by scarcity. Lebensraum wasn’t just a fantasy of empire and domination. It was, Hitler’s mind, a requirement for survival on an earth that could not sustain us all.

Even Hitler’s antisemitism was colored by this assumption of immutable environmental scarcity. It was a plot by cunning Jews and “Jewish science” to lull the Aryans and other strong races into a sense of environmental complacency. Those Germans who failed to recognize the dire and immediate nature of the struggle for survival were deluded by a Jewish worldview that threatened them with extinction in that winner-take-all struggle.

Snyder’s second argument is an explanation, an answer to Question Three. When and where were Jews most at risk of annihilation? Snyder’s answer to that question echoes his work in Bloodlands, as well as Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, as Snyder acknowledges. The key variable is “state destruction.” In places where civil society, the rule of law, and political institutions survived the Nazi (and Stalinist) onslaught, Jews were much more likely to survive than elsewhere. Nazi genocidal plans bore their greatest fruit in places where the local capacity to resist, enshrined in those institutions, was destroyed. Danish and, ironically, German Jews survived at much higher rates than those of Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, places where killing could be carried on unimpeded by political opposition or bureaucratic encumbrance.

Asking The Right Questions

It’s hard to make an original, persuasive argument about a topic as well researched as the Holocaust. Snyder has made two. He did it by asking two clear and compelling questions and then pursuing them doggedly. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a multilingual savant.

Snyder’s work also shows how our understanding of the world hangs on asking the right questions, and in turn, how giving a new answer to any of those questions compels us to return to the story about the world we thought we knew.

Hitler was an environmental thinker. Not the Green Party kind, obviously, but the kind that, ominously, believed in impending ecological calamity. Hitler thought that immutable scarcity made that calamity inevitable. It’s not. But it is impending. Moreover, the “warning” of Snyder’s subtitle clearly refers to the fragility of the political institutions that sustain peace and civility. When we rage against the state, we endanger the bulwark against bloodlands. Snyder wrote Black Earth in 2015, but the message has ripened since then. (Snyder has repeated this warning in two subsequent books, On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom.)

Thanks to Snyder, we need to answer Questions One (“What happened?”) and Four (“What do we think about that?”) about the Nazis yet again. The story is slightly different now: it’s a story where the perpetrators’ motives included ecological panic and the conditions included state destruction. And what do we learn from that? This, for sure: that our world is more precarious than we thought. Political institutions, under global assault, may be the difference between life and death. And in the face of environmental catastrophe panic, rather than problem-solving, is a reaction we can ill afford.