Category: 4QM Teaching

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.


The Danger Of Overstuffing: Why You Should Teach Less Content

Earlier this year I committed a very common history teacher error: I overstuffed a lesson. I was teaching my French Revolution unit, and I had assigned students to look for evidence of Locke and Rousseau’s ideas in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. I figured I’d just “go over it quickly” before moving on to the next activity. Because I wanted to move quickly, I found myself telling students what I wanted them to notice in the document instead of coaching them to do their own noticing, and the telling took longer than I had imagined it would. As a result, the lesson ended up feeling both rushed and boring. I talked a lot, and the students dutifully tried to look like they understood what I was talking about.

The whole point of the Four Question Method is to give students repeated practice at the historical thinking skills of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. Overstuffing units and lessons makes it impossible for us to give students real practice at these skills, because real student thinking takes real classroom time. If we overstuff our lessons and units with too much content or too many ideas the content crowds out the skills. And it always ends up being a bad bargain, because when the unit is overstuffed most kids can’t actually learn all the content we’re “teaching.” Unfortunately, we history teachers often overstuff our units and lesson. We tend to do it because of two basic impulses: Love and Fear.

Overstuffing from Love

Sometimes we overstuff a unit or a lesson because we just love this stuff! We have read so much, learned so much, and gotten so excited by a topic that we feel an overpowering need to share our deep love of it with students. In college I was really interested in early feudalism and the Carolingians, and I’ve got a half dozen books on my shelf about the Frankish kingdoms of the fourth through sixth centuries. How much of that belongs in my ninth grade world history course? Pretty much none of it. Breaks my heart, but my granular knowledge of Charlemagne’s family tree is just not very important to teaching a lean and coherent ninth-grade narrative of the middle ages. Adding it in is just overstuffing. I once had a colleague who for a few years seemed incapable of reading an article about anything he was teaching without immediately running off copies of it for his classes. He set a school record for photocopies because he just loved history so much that he felt compelled to share all of it with his students.

Another way teacher love of content leads to overstuffing is with ever-further backwards stepping explanations: we know so much background about a topic that we keep pushing back the start of the unit. For example, we think that “you can’t really understand government in the American colonies without understanding government in England, and you can’t understand government in England without understanding the Glorious Revolution, and you can’t understand the Glorious Revolution without understanding the English Civil War…” Pretty soon you’re back at the Magna Carta or the neolithic revolution, and you’ve convinced yourself that your students need to know all of it if they’re really going to understand the unit.

Overstuffing From Fear

Sometimes we overstuff a unit or a lesson because of fear: we’re afraid to leave out something important. That’s what happened to me with my French Revolution unit. I was not originally planning to assign students to read the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but then I read somewhere on the internet that it’s considered one of the most important statements of human rights ever created, and I figured, “Golly – if it’s really that important I should have them read it!” I was frightened into assigning it.

New teachers are often afraid to leave something out because they simply don’t know yet what content really is important, and they fear being caught out by an assessment, an administrator, or an angry student or parent: “You mean you skipped [insert allegedly crucial content here]?!?”

Don’t Overstuff!

Of course overstuffing for whatever reason ends up harming student learning. Our rush to “cover” all the content or concepts we’ve jammed into the lesson leaves students without time for real thinking and real learning. My plan to “quickly go over” the Declaration of the Rights of Man, for example, sent students the message that I don’t really want them to read challenging documents. If we want students to really grapple with a text like that, we need to give it the time it deserves. In any given unit there’s a finite number of times we can do that — so we have to choose our challenging documents wisely. In any given unit there’s a finite amount of narrative students can comprehend — so we have to choose our story wisely.

The right thing to do, of course, is to craft a lean story of the unit and commit to teaching what we do choose well. We need to include only enough content for the story of the unit to make sense, while also building in time for students to regularly practice narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment.

My original idea was in fact the correct one: I should have skipped the Declaration of the Rights of Man. I had other hard documents that I wanted kids to interpret that were more important to my unit story. I let my fear get the best of me that time, and the result was entirely predictable. If we are able to keep both our love of history and our fear of leaving out important material in check, some of our students might actually come to love this stuff as much as we do.


The High Stakes Of Getting The Question Right

Ms. R came to me with a problem. She teaches Social Studies in an alternative program at my school. Her students are an extraordinarily diverse group, but all have this in common: they’ve traveled a complicated road to get to her program.

At the end of a unit on the American Civil War, Ms. R gave her students an essay question: “What’s the most important cause of the American Civil War?” Along with the question, she gave them an article that described five “causes” of the war. She told them to pick one and defend it as an answer to the essay question.

The task sounded straightforward enough, but the results were alarming. None of Ms. R.’s students was writing. In the past, there were students who resisted writing. But this time, *all* of them were stuck, even the high flyers.

Ms. R is a savant about kids and their emotions. She’d thought through the social and psychological aspects of their resistance. She was stuck.

Ambiguous Questions Mean Puzzled Students

I had a hypothesis. Jon and I do sometimes do an “Ambiguous Questions” activity at our workshops. First we explain the logic of the Four Question Method, and our basic argument: there only four questions we ask and answer in History classes. Things go well when teacher and students know which of these four questions they are asking and trying to answer.

In our Ambiguous Questions activity, we show participants a collection of classic, confused questions — questions that are a mashup of several or all of the Four Questions — and ask them to identify the various questions embedded in each one.

I did the Ambiguous Questions activity with Ms. R. She saw the first problem with her essay question immediately. Like most “What caused X?” questions (where X is a major historical event), her question conflated a bunch of different thinking tasks. Sorting them out looks like this:

  1. What were the major events that led to the American Civil War? (Narrate!)
  2. What were the protagonists thinking on the eve of the War? (Interpret!)
  3. What changes in economics, politics, and demography made a violent constitutional crisis more likely in the middle of the 19th century than early or later? (Explain!)
  4. Who is to blame for the American Civil War? (Judge!)

The beauty of sorting the questions is that you can then begin to answer them coherently. The injunctions in the parentheses tell you, and more importantly, your students, what thinking technique is appropriate for answering each type of question.

Ms. R’s source document contained some “causes” that were part of the story of the Civil War — Lincoln’s election, for example. Some were descriptions of what people were thinking, though the list included both a change (Abolitionism) and a constant (States’ Rights). (Jon wrote about this error in last week’s blog post.) And though the list of “causes” referred to the history of territorial compromises, from Missouri through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, there was in fact no cause called “Territorial Expansion.”

Beyond ordinary conflation of questions, Ms. R’s essay prompt had a second problem as well. In pursuit of what felt like argumentative rigor, Ms. R had required her students not only to compare “causes” but to rank them. If Ms. R were a biology teacher, she’d never ask, “Which system in the human body is most important: the respiratory system, the circulatory system, or the digestive system?” But that’s essentially what Ms. R asked her students to do with their “explanation” of the Civil War: to rank order the factors.

Any student who took Ms. R’s essay prompt seriously would need to complete a number of challenging intellectual tasks. They would need to distinguish narration and interpretation from causal explanation. Then they would need to compare factors. Then they’d have to rank them in order of importance. The first two tasks are quite difficult. The third is impossible.

My hypothesis was that Ms. R’s students couldn’t write because their brains froze. They literally did not know what to do. So they stopped.

Clear Questions Mean Engaged Students

By the time we were done with our Ambiguous Questions discussion, Ms. R knew what to do. She went back to her class the next day and told them that she’d gotten the question wrong. She told them that they would now answer a different question: Pick a “cause” and say how it contributed to increasing tension between North and South.

The solution wasn’t perfect. Students basically had to write a narrative about how, say, the Abolitionist movement made Southerners increasingly nervous. Not perfect, but coherent and comprehensible. And it worked. Students started writing. The Ambiguous Question had been removed from their path.

Because the task made no sense to them, Ms. R’s students got stuck. The puzzling thing, however, is that we history teachers get away with ambiguous essay prompts all the time. Why do we get away with it? And why didn’t Ms. R get away with it this time? I suspect that more robust and confident students react the way all of us do when confronted by complexity and ambiguity: they use the substitution heuristic: “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution” (Kahneman, 2011).

When we ask ambiguous questions of the “What caused X?” type, our students typically recapitulate a story. If it’s a good story — a proficient narrative — we may give them a good grade. If not, we tell them they need to make an argument. If they do, it’s typically not a great one, or even a coherent one. But since our “causes of X” prompts don’t compute for us either, we’re likely to substitute right back. Not having answered the question doesn’t mean you can’t get an ‘A’.

Our most vulnerable students don’t have the wherewithal to forge through our muddle. That’s what Ms. R and I learned from her experience. Take your questions seriously. If you can’t tell which of the Four Questions you’re asking, assume you’re not clear yet. Whatever question you ask, try answering it yourself, conscientiously, before you ask your students to try it. The stakes are high.