Category: 4QM Teaching

4QM Featured in “The American Historian”

The November 2018 edition of The American Historian, a publication of the Organization of American Historians, features an article titled “What’s The Question? Naming and Teaching Thinking Skills in Secondary History Classrooms.” Normally you’d have to be an OAH member to access it, but because you are on our blog page you can read it here!

The “MAIN” Causes of WWI Aren’t

Many world history teachers are familiar with a handy acronym for teaching the causes of World War One: “MAIN.” Its letters stand for Militarism, Alliances, Imperialism, Nationalism. But unfortunately for history teachers and students, the MAIN causes of World War One really aren’t: none of those things actually caused the war. We can demonstrate this with a little bit of 4QM Question Three thinking. Question Three asks, “Why then and there?,” and in answering it we learn to think like social scientists, who apply the scientific method to human affairs. The essence of the scientific method is the distinction between constants and variables: we try to isolate a single variable to see what effect it has on the outcome of our experiment. In social science we can’t run very many true experiments (pesky ethics considerations!), but we can make use of what natural experiments the world hands us. And World War One gives us a pretty good one.

Constants and Variables in 1914

The first challenge when working with Question Three is to define the “explicandum” (yes, that’s a real word!): the outcome that you wish to explain. In this case, we want to know why a minor spat between European neighbors who had been tiffing for decades (Austria-Hungary and Serbia) blew up into a global conflict in the summer of 1914. After all, since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 Europe had experienced innumerable diplomatic crises like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, along with a few minor wars and some attempted revolutions. But nothing had led to the global conflagration that developed so rapidly after the assassination of  the Archduke. Why then and there?

Once you’ve defined your explicandum, the next step in answering Question Three is to start thinking scientifically. We teach students to approach Question Three with this formula: “Explain a change with a change, and a difference with a difference.” Let’s consider the European peace since 1815 as a long equilibrium, a steady pattern that held for a long period. Equilibrium doesn’t change by itself. There must have been some new variable injected into that steady state to cause it to change — we’re looking for a new factor or condition that explains why this minor Balkan dispute became a world war. When we think about it this way, it’s fairly easy to see why none of the “MAIN” things caused World War: neither Militarism, nor Alliances, nor Imperialism, nor Nationalism were new in 1914. Consider:

Militarism as a cultural phenomenon was present in Europe well before 1914. Popular and political culture in Napoleonic France was frankly militaristic, British popular culture during the Empire celebrated the military exploits of the British Tommy, and the conquistadors of Spain were national heroes. If militarism caused world wars, it should have done so well before 1914.

“Alliances” is the easiest element of the acronym to debunk. Alliances have been a constant presence in Europe throughout its history. In particular, the Congress of Vienna created a balance of power system within which shifting alliances kept peace in Europe for nearly an entire century before World War One. We should also note that not every European country that was in an alliance in 1914 honored their commitments (I’m looking at you, Italy). Clearly, “alliances” explain little or nothing about why this particular conflict went global.  

Similarly, if imperialism caused world wars, Europe should have been drawn into several before 1914. The Portuguese and Spanish established their imperial empires in the fifteenth century. Britain conquered India in the early and mid nineteenth century. The French, British, and Russians all had a series of imperial conflicts throughout the nineteenth century. If imperialism was a cause of world war, why did it wait until 1914 to manifest itself?

And nationalism had existed as a motivating force in England for centuries before 1914, in France since at least the eighteenth century, and in other European countries for similar time periods. Yet no world war resulted until 1914. Nationalism can’t be a cause of World War One.

So if all the “MAIN” causes of World War One are actually constants that were present for significant periods when there was not a world war, what variable does explain why the events of 1914 led to global conflict? What new condition made that outcome much more likely in 1914 than it had been even a decade or two earlier?

Strong Germany and the Thucydides Trap

The answer is strong Germany. The balance of power system established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was designed for a Europe without the nations of Germany or Italy. Germany, unified under Bismarck in the 1860s, was a new nation that began a rapid commercial, industrial, military, and imperial rise. (Italy was unified at about the same time, but it did not have Germany’s size, population, political strength, or economic power.) Europe had never had a strong Germany, and now it did. When in the late 1800s this new strong Germany began to demand its “place in the sun,” it came into repeated conflict with the established global power of that time, Britain. This conflict led to a situation that political scientists call the “Thucydides Trap:”  when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result. This new conflict between Britain and Germany provided the underlying context that made it much more likely that the assassination of an Austrian nobleman would lead to global conflagration.

Question Three thinking is difficult, and it takes practice. But the more accurate understanding of the human world it achieves is worth the effort, even if we have to abandon some misleading acronyms along the way.


Multiple Perspectives and the “Single Story”

At our 4QM workshops, we coach teachers on unit planning. We tell them that the first decision they need to make is about what unit story they want to tell. Then we show them our technique for making that decision in a way that allows teachers to plan coherently and students to have lots of opportunities for thinking.

One of the questions we often get — and we got it again last week at a Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies one-day conference — is this: if the teacher decides on a single unit story to tell, then what happens to multiple perspectives? Can we tell a single story and still include multiple perspectives?

Multiple Perspectives and Question Two

The simple answer is, of course! Question Two — What Were They Thinking? — is where we dig in and explore the world from the point of view of the actors in the story we’re telling. We try, where possible, to consult documents that convey the words and ideas of those actors. Always, we strive for historical empathy — to see the world as the actors did, on their own terms.  

In the classroom, I often ask my students to tell a story from the point of view of various actors. For example, my students describe the outcome of the French and Indian War from the point of view of George Washington and then again from the point of view of Pontiac, the Odawa (or Ottawa) leader. They read and interpret the results of the Elections of 1860 and 2016 from the point of view various partisans and interested onlookers. They read selections from Frederick Douglass’s eulogy of Lincoln, a masterful exercise in interpretation in its own right, which never fails to generate passionate deliberation.

In fact, every meaningful story contains multiple perspectives. Question Two is predicated upon the observation that human actors have different points of view, and that ours as interpreters is likely to be different still. Most of narrative history, for teaching purposes, is an account of conflict, and all of it a chronicle of interaction. The parties to the conflict or interaction bring different perspectives to bear on it. Disagreement and mutual misunderstanding make the human world go around. When we ask Question Two, we acknowledge that.

The Single Unit Story

But that’s not what the multiple-perspectives question is really after, I suspect. The question isn’t about the perspectives in the story. It’s about the story itself. The complicated question we have to answer is, Is it safe to tell a single story?

This concern is reflected in the claim made by Chimamanda Adichie in her rightly famous TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” (More than 16 million views, and counting!) Adichie glosses her claim this way: “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Adichie’s college roommate is amazed that an African knows how to work a stove. She assumes that all Africans are the same; that all are poor; that all are unfamiliar with modernity and its devices.

Our students all come to us with their heads filled with stories like this one. They, like us, are ignorant of so many things. But ignorance, if it were a blank mental space, would be easy to cure. Fill the bucket, problem solved. But as educators, most of us have lost faith in the empty-vessel model of the child’s mind. On the contrary, we can see that their heads are filled with simple, or “single” stories and other heuristic devices. There’s so much to explain in the world. Ignorance has never stopped a human brain from trying to explain it.

The danger of a single story is really the danger of a story unexamined, a heuristic device posing as knowledge. The right response to that danger is not to eschew storytelling, of course, or even to abandon the enabling structure of the “unit story.” On the contrary: the number one cause of teaching failure at the unit level is losing track of the story we want our students to learn. (At the lesson level, the number one cause of teaching failure is not knowing what question we’re trying to ask and answer.)

A better response to the problem Adichie warns us about has three parts. First, choose unit stories that disturb and dismantle the stories in your students’ heads. Figure out what they think they know, and tell a unit story that confounds it. We teach the Kingdom of Mali in our 9th-grade class with that in mind. Africans are poor? Not Mansa Musa… After immigration emerged as a wedge issue in the last Presidential Election, I rewrote my Progressivism unit to focus on the debate and the reality around the great wave of immigration in the early 20th century. I wanted my students to see Harvard-educated, New England xenophobes mustering bad science to keep out the immigrant hordes. That’s a complicating narrative in my home district. The main point: to the extent you can, pick stories that provoke, that cut against the grain of what your students think they know, or didn’t didn’t even know they were thinking.

Second, when we build a unit story, we have choices to make about how to narrate the change over time we’re interested in revealing. In particular, we choose both the actors and the events that drive our story. We can’t do so willy nilly. We can’t force a story to conform with our wishes. But we can simplify — a necessity in narration — in a way that includes portraits of actors that disturb stereotypes. Native Americans fought on both sides in the American Revolution. So did African Americans. That can be part of our unit story of the American Revolution. Including those actors in this way shows them as people thinking through complex choices. As they were, and as it should be.

Finally, we need to reveal codes. We don’t include all possible actors and events in the stories we choose to tell, naturally. And we can’t tell all possible stories. But we can share our choices with our students, and teach them to make their own. We can tell and show our students, for example, who some of our unit stories were told in the past. We can tell and show them how and why our choices are different. We can share controversy rather than ignoring or avoiding it. Most important, we can show students how starting with a straightforward narrative and then taking it apart with Questions Two, Three, and Four can lead to a richer, more thoughtful story about other times and places. In other words, we can bring them into our thinking as we do 4QM planning.

The danger isn’t, after all, a single story per unit. The danger lurks in our hidden stories, the scripts that rule our fast thinking. Don’t eschew the unit story. Instead, choose your story well, reveal the human complexity of your actors, and show your students how you made these choices so that they can learn to make them, too.  


What Were The Anti-Federalists Thinking?

The federalist/anti-federalist debate is a great opportunity to study Question Two of the Four Question Method: “What were they thinking?” Good students (and teachers) of American history know that the anti-federalists opposed the ratification of the constitution. But good students (and teachers) of American history also want to know why the anti-federalists opposed the constitution. Answering Question Two requires us to dive into the minds of the people we are studying, to understand the world as they understood it. We call this “historical empathy.” Building historical empathy often requires slow and close reading of primary sources. (If you’re interested in learning how to do close reading well with your students I recommend “Reading Reconsidered.”) In this post I’ll use two anti-federalist texts to show how the Anti-Federalists’ preference for strong states was based on an important assumption they made about representation.

Anti-Federalists Favored The States

Melancton Smith of New York was one of the most important and articulate anti-federalists. We can’t be sure he was the author of the set of anonymous letters signed by the “Federal Farmer,” but he is a likely candidate. The Federal Farmer thought that the new constitution made the national government too strong, and the states too weak. In his second letter he writes, “as to powers, the general [national] government will possess all essential ones, at least on paper, and those of the states a mere shadow of power.” Interestingly enough, the federalists, supporters of the constitution, agreed with the Farmer on the facts, but they saw this distribution of powers as a good thing. Indeed, the constitution was deliberately designed to weaken the states and strengthen the national government. A close reading of the Farmer shows that, by contrast, he sees a strong national government as a bad thing. Consider his word choice: the national government will have “all essential” powers, while the states will have “a mere shadow of power.” His language would have been very different if he had been pleased with the distribution of powers: he might have said that the national government had “all necessary” powers, for example. But he’s upset with the distribution of powers, and wants the states to have more. Later in the same paragraph he actually calls for the states to have sole power to collect internal taxes. Today most textbooks note the inability of the national government to collect taxes as one of the major problems for the country before the constitution. So why did the anti-federalists want to continue that practice? What were they thinking?

Anti-Federalists Assumed That State Governments Represented Ordinary People

The anti-federalists’ support for strong states was intimately related to their views about representation in government. Their opponents, the federalists, were candid elitists: they believed that the interests of ordinary people could be best represented by men who were wealthier and more educated than the ordinary. So for the Federalists, a person’s representative in government could be, and probably should be, someone quite unlike themselves. They thought you should vote for someone better than you to represent you. The Anti-Federalists, by contrast, believed that a person’s representative should be someone like them. In a speech he gave on June 21, 1788 Melancton Smith explained: “The idea that naturally suggests itself to our minds, when we speak of representatives, is, that they resemble those they represent.” He goes on to call for government bodies to include people from “the middling class of life.”

This different view of representation in government explains why anti-federalists favored strong states: they believed that the state governments were where people from “the middling class of life” would have their voices heard. They were afraid that the national government, with its small number of representatives and senators and its inevitable physical distance from many of the citizens, would be dominated by the rich, who they believed would act against the interests of the ordinary people.

What makes the federalist/anti-federalist debate so interesting is that the federalists also believed that the national government would be dominated by the rich. But their assumptions about the wisdom of the ordinary people were the opposite of the anti-federalists’. The federalists thought that people from “the middling class of life” were too poorly educated to make decisions in their own best interests. They were susceptible to the blandishments of demagogues and charlatans, and needed to be protected from themselves because their ideas of government were often shaped by emotion and simplistic thinking. Empowering the ordinary people was, for the federalists, a recipe for bad government and chaos.

As we all know, the Constitution was ratified, and today textbooks and Broadway musicals generally see that as a good thing. But if history students are to make responsible judgments about which side in the ratification debate was right and why, they must first take the the time to truly understand what people on both sides were thinking. That means taking the time to build historical empathy for the losers as well as the winners.


Reveal Codes

The old Wordperfect word processing program, from the technological Stone Age — yes, kids, there was competition for Microsoft Word back in the day — had a really cool feature. You could hit a function key and “reveal codes.” That was a great command. It showed you on the screen what the program was doing to your document. It revealed the paragraph breaks and font adjustments and margins and whatnot — all the non-printing characters that the program used to modify and “process” your text. If you wanted to know what WP was up to, you just had to push a button.

It’s likely that word processing has now gotten so complex that revealing codes would simply litter the screen with digital operands. Or maybe there isn’t an audience any more that really cares to see under the hood. In any case, Reveal Codes is still an awesome metaphor for teachers.

By high school, our students are sophisticated enough to understand the choices we make as teachers and (still) curious enough to care. Over the years, as I’ve become more confident and observant in the classroom, I’ve increasingly brought my choices, as well as my problems and dilemmas, directly to my students. I’ve increasingly advised the teachers I supervise to do the same. After almost a decade of classroom instruction, and subjected to a wide variety of teachers’ personalities and techniques in high school, our students know a lot about what works for them and what doesn’t. It’s useful to get their feedback, frequently astute, always revealing. And it’s good for them to see how we think.

I’ve asked students how to grade projects, and how to structure them. I’ve given them choices about what to learn and how to learn it. I now let them choose their own adventure for their “citizenship” grade, structuring that small component of their term score as a kind of SMART goal. And I’ve increasingly taken the time to explain why I’m asking them to learn what I’m teaching.

This transparency is built into the Four Question Method. The fundamental technique, which requires the teacher to know the unit story and to teach it to students — Story First! — is predicated upon the idea that both teacher and students must be clear on and fluent in the unit narrative before they can get anywhere with “higher order” thinking. More important, the language of the 4QM is meant to be student friendly, in accessible English. “What happened? — Tell me the story!” That’s not arcane, and sounds nothing like Ed School. By design. “What were they thinking?” is properly enunciated with a tone of shock or bemusement, and in my personal version, in a Yiddish accent.

Transparency Helps Students

Unfortunately, the usual suspects who coach and direct teachers tend to widen rather than narrow the gulf between teachers and students. Try bringing your state standards to class, or reading the list of thinking skills it contains to students. Ask them if they have any of those skills, or knew they were working on them. For that matter, try explaining to students how you picked this rather than that Essential Question. Even better, ask them to give you an answer to your Essential Question that isn’t question begging.

So here’s yet another reason to use the Four Question Method, besides that it will make your planning better, your teaching better, and your assessments better: transparency. Tell your students what stories you want them to know and why. After you tell them what you’re curious about in the story, ask them — and then let their curiosity lead you both. Tell them the questions they need to learn to answer skillfully if they want to make sense of the world they’ll inherit and refashion. If all goes well, they’ll give you some good ideas about how you can help them succeed.

What Were The Federalists Thinking?

I recently read a New York Times op-ed about elections in Pakistan that made me think of the federalists. Many students struggle to empathize with the federalists. Epitomized by the now Broadway-musically famous Alexander Hamilton, the federalists counted George Washington and many other founders of the United States among their number. They were candidly elitist: federalists thought that “the better kind of people” (that’s a Washington quotation), by which they meant the wealthy and well educated, should rule, and the common people should agree to ruled by them. One way they sought to ensure the supremacy of this wealthy elite was by supporting property qualifications for voting. Under this system, which existed in all thirteen colonies and was continued by all thirteen states upon independence, only men who had paid a certain value of taxes in the previous year were eligible to vote. This ensured that landless and poor people (and women) would not participate in elections. To most Americans today, and especially to most of our students, this policy seems like a bad idea: we reflexively dismiss it as dangerously anti-democratic. But it is precisely because this policy seems so obviously wrong to us that learning about it presents 4QM teachers with a golden opportunity to teach Question Two of the Four Question Method: All those people in the seventeen hundreds supported property qualifications for voting…What were they thinking?

Historical Empathy for the Federalists

When we study Question Two we want our students to achieve “historical empathy.” Historical empathy is the ability to understand why historical figures believed things that they did; the ability to see their world as they saw it. Achieving historical empathy requires us to set aside our present-day understandings and beliefs and to dive deep into the world of the past. Historical empathy is not the same thing as agreement: we can still conclude that having property qualifications for voting is a bad policy even after we understand why the federalists (and many of the anti-federalists too, as it happens) thought that it was a good policy. But if we don’t regularly slow down our students’ thinking and take the time to honestly answer Question Two, we risk leaving them with the idea that most people in the past were simply not as smart or enlightened as people in the present, or were just plain nuts. The federalists were neither stupid, nor unenlightened, nor crazy. So let’s take a moment to think through the policy of property qualifications for voting from their point of view: What were supporters of that policy thinking?

“Wolves At The Voting Booth”

Here’s where the op-ed about Pakistan comes in. It was published in the July 17 2018 print edition of the New York Times, and it is titled “Wolves At The Voting Booth.” Author Ali Akbar Natiq describes how elections work in the rural villages that make up much of Pakistan. Most of the residents of those villages are poor agricultural workers, who work for wages on land owned by the local “big man.” In this context, the poor don’t control their own votes: they vote as the big mans tells them to, or suffer the consequences. As a result, Natiq explains, “In our villages and small towns, we don’t have political leaders; we have brokers and thugs who sell our votes to federal politicians and their backers in the military establishment. Democracy serves a singular purpose in the village: to maintain the power of our feudal lords and to further enrich them and their families.”

The United States in the late eighteenth century was a lot like Natiq’s home village today. In the time of the Federalists, the U.S. was an overwhelmingly rural pre-industrial society, with land being the major source of wealth and security. Land ownership was much more broadly dispersed than it was in Europe then or Pakistan today, but there were still many Americans who were not independent “freeholders” or “yeoman farmers,” but instead worked on land owned by others. The situation Natiq describes is precisely what supporters of property qualifications for voting hoped to avoid in the United States: they worried that a poor man’s vote was not in fact an independent and considered vote. It could be coerced by his landlord or his boss, or it could be sold by the poor man himself for cash or other benefits. In effect, poor people’s votes would simply count as extra votes for those who had economic power over them.

This fear was amplified in the eighteenth century United States by the method in which elections were carried out. For the first 100 years or so of the country’s existence, until the progressive era of the late nineteenth century, voting was public. Voters either gathered in a large group and stated their preferences orally, or walked up to a table at a public voting place, and placed the ballot of the candidate or party they wished to support in the ballot box. In the nineteenth century ballot boxes were often glass globes, and party ballots were often different colors – so everyone knew how everyone else was voting. This made it impossible to hide your vote from your neighbors. (There’s a good short article about the history of voting in early America here.)

Seen in this context, supporters of property qualifications for voting don’t seem quite so foolish or unenlightened. As the example of modern Pakistan shows us, their fear that poor people’s votes would simply be exploited by the wealthy was not unreasonable. Of course the federalists had other reasons for wanting to disenfranchise the poor as well; they feared a political movement of poor people that might attempt to dispossess the rich. But when we simply dismiss historical figures without taking the time to truly understand what they were thinking we are selling them, and our students, short.


We Should Stop Hiding The Story

History teachers think that teaching kids to think means teaching them to make arguments. That’s partly true. An argument — a claim, supported by evidence and reasoning — is a species of thinking. But it’s not the only kind of thinking we need to teach students to do. On the contrary: it’s not even the most important kind. Our field, in a way rarely recognized explicitly but always acknowledged in practice, is predicated upon the capacity to tell a story. Narrative, like argument, is historical thinking. It’s the primary kind.

It’s obvious, upon a moment’s reflection, that telling true stories about what humans do with and to each other is the substance of history learning, the predicate upon which all other kinds of thinking — interpreting ideas and motives, explaining patterns and anomalies, making judgments about actors and outcomes — is based. If your students can’t tell you the story of your unit after you’ve taught it, in what sense can you say they’ve learned it? And if your unit has no story to begin with, what exactly was it about?

Narration Is The Hidden Skill

History teachers can be forgiven for overlooking the obvious: that an adept history student will be able to narrate historical events. Most of the official guidance, training, and in-service PD history teachers receive amounts to something like a conspiracy to hide the story. Consider the standards documents that give us our official, state-sanctioned targets for teaching and learning. They refer to lots and lots of stories, but in a form designed to hide their narrative structure and significance. They turn compelling narratives of change over time into lists. They do the same, incidentally, with thinking skills, which are really just the tools curious and skillful people use to satisfy their reasonable curiosity — their genuine questions — about what humans have done and continue to do to and for each other.

Or consider the College Board’s guidelines for AP World and US History. They list thinking skills, none of which is called “narrative” or “storytelling.” And when they themselves narrate, they do what they can to obscure that fact. And so the document that tells the story of world history in digest form, meant to outline the structure of the AP World History class, insists that each chunk of its grand story is a “concept.” It’s not. It’s a chunk of the story, a brief narrative about what happened. (Put the six eras of the overview into a six-box storyboard and you’ll see exactly what they’re actually doing.)

The Essential Question method plays the same game. According to Wiggins and McTighe, the Essential Question for a unit is supposed to capture an enduring understanding. When is it okay to kill? Under what conditions do empires fall apart? Great questions. But there are an indeterminate number of ways to answer them. The fact that in any particular course we choose World War II and the Ottoman Empire as the subject matter for our inquiry is a matter of complete indifference to the Essential Question method.

You might say that the Essential Question method simply takes the standards lists and animates them with interesting questions that can drive kids to think. But what’s missing, of course, is the story. What the Essential Question on killing or empire will miss about World War II or the Ottomans is why World World II or the Ottomans are in the standards, and therefore in our courses, in the first place. The only way to know that is to know the story for which these events matter. And, in fact, what history teachers actually want students to know at the end of their unit is not when it’s okay to kill — history teachers don’t know that anyway, and neither will our students when we’re done with this one unit, or even many like it. (They won’t really have much of interest to say about this question until they take an ethics course.) What we want our students to know is the story of World War II and why it’s important to the larger story in which we ourselves are actors.

Why We Hide The Story

So why do our methods and our practice both conspire to hide the story? I have three conjectures. One is that stories or narratives were babies that were thrown out with the bathwater of “facts,” in the pejorative sense of lists of granular information, including dates and state capitals, that are the alleged opposite of critical or historical thinking. Progressive educators are supposed to be done with all that. Only Mr. Gradgrind would attempt to pour facts into empty vessels.

It’s true that asking young people to memorize lists is bad pedagogical practice. But we all agree, I hope, that they need to know things. You can’t think about history if you don’t know any. The key is to substitute ‘narrative’ for ‘facts.’ When you do, you see that the story is essential to argument, of whatever variety. And if you actually attempt for tell coherent, meaningful stories to students, and then try to teach them to do the same, you’ll see that it’s quite complicated and difficult. It requires not just memory, but skill and technique — and, dare I say, thinking!

My second conjecture is that narrative simply lost out to the more scientific and ‘rigorous’ proposition that we ought to teach kids to argue. If there’s no thesis, there’s no argument, and if there’s no argument, it’s not a real essay. That’s a fallacy, but a potent one. And the fact is, professional historians have been fighting a rear-guard action against modern social science on this ground for most of a century. Most historians tell stories, and good historians tell stories that are distinctive and that mean something — and that, by the way, contain lots of the kinds of judgments that count as thinking in any other context. Social scientists also engage in thinking, but much of theirs is in a form that looks much more like normal science, and so looks and feels less like Hollywood and marketing and, well, storytelling.

My third conjecture is that our methods and our practice hide the story because teaching narrative is in fact quite demanding. It requires of teachers that they actually know the stories they’re going to teach and know how to communicate them effectively — and then teach all that to young people. If you haven’t tried it, you should. No: you must. Whatever you do, don’t hide the story.


Kill The List!

I was working with a young history teacher on unit questions recently, and she wanted to talk about one that she had used but didn’t like very much: “What changed and what stayed the same during the Protestant Reformation?” She thought the question seemed boring, but she also understood that kids need to know some basic information about the Reformation before they can do any sophisticated (and fun!) thinking about it, and she needed a unit question that held them accountable for knowing that information. When we came back to this question later in our workshop, we agreed that it is boring — but not because it asks for recall of basic knowledge. It’s boring because it asks students to make lists.

Question One of the Four Question Method is “What Happened?,” and the answer is always given in the form of a story. We joke that if the whole method were boiled down to a bumper sticker it would read, “Story First!” The teacher I was working with was right: kids need to get some basic information about their topics before they can do anything else. We provide that as a story. A well told story is exciting and memorable. It draws our attention and it sticks in our minds. By contrast, a list is boring. Lists are actually designed to be boring: they give us discrete items shorn of their context and meaning. We have to write down a grocery list precisely because it’s hard to remember; there’s usually no story connecting a quart of milk to an avocado to double-A batteries. And questions that ask for lists are often a bit absurd. Consider that a correct answer to the question, “What stayed the same during the Protestant Reformation?” could be a really long list of totally irrelevant things: the laws of physics, the number of continents, the preferred habitat of the howler monkey… you get the idea.

Kill The List. Tell A Story.

So we recommend that history teachers kill the list, and replace it with a story. That’s what we ended up doing with this young teacher’s unit question in our workshop. We killed the request for two lists about the Reformation and replaced it with, “Tell the story of the Protestant Reformation.” Now we’ve got a prompt that requires students to know about the major people, events, and ideas of an important historical happening, and does so in a way that makes those people, events, and ideas easier to remember while also highlighting their significance. In a well crafted story, each person, event, or idea has a clear purpose in the narrative, and helps to move the story forward.  

So try it with your next unit: kill the list, and teach your students to tell a story instead. At 4QMTeaching we have a lot to say about how to do that well. You will find that it is indeed more difficult, for you and your students, than simply asking kids to memorize a list of “key terms” from the textbook or unit guide. But the extra effort is well worth it, because your students will actually understand what they’re learning, and why it matters. That’s worth a lot more than a memorized list.


Prepare To Forget

If you loved History in school, you probably shouldn’t teach it. The same is true for the other subjects. The problem is that most of our students don’t love our subjects. If the point is to win them over, to get them interested, then it’s helpful to remember what it felt like before you cared. If you learned to love History in school, and remember what brought you around, good for you. If not, consider your longstanding interest a hazard.

The same is generically true for schools and teachers. Lots of people who teach are also people for whom school was an affirming place. If you did your homework, went to your classes, paid attention, learned stuff and demonstrated that fact with regular and predictable success, that’s awesome. If that made you want to make school a career, that’s also a hazard.

One of the ways that love of a subject screws you up is that it gets you to remember a lot of it. History teachers end up knowing a ton of history, because they love it, and because they practice it like crazy. Even if our students loved History as much as we do, they’d never learn and remember it the way we do. We do those units and lessons, read those documents and textbooks, over and over again. Even our most successful students get one shot.

Marketers and Dog Trainers

Marketers, unlike teachers, spend a lot of time thinking about how to convince people to want what they’re selling. What would it be like if teachers spent more time thinking like marketers? I half-joke with rookie teachers that there are only two essential books everyone new to the profession must read: Cesar’s Way on classroom management and Made to Stick on lesson planning. Be the pack leader, and sell through stories.

Our students will forget most of what we teach them. Some of that forgetting will happen very quickly. What if we planned for that? Focusing on skills and habits of mind, which we can practice over and over until they become close to automatic, is a sensible strategy. It’s not enough, though. Teaching a story that kids can visualize and feel gives them the frame for learning more. It makes the content necessary for getting from novice to advanced beginner available to them when they need it. Put those together: teach them how to learn stories, then tell them a good one. Practice it. Then your students will be ready and able to do history. Some of them might even come to love it.


How High Schoolers Are Like Medical Students

In the last few years medical schools have noticed a growing phenomenon: a high percentage of first and second year medical students don’t actually attend classes (“Med Students AWOL”). That’s because medical students have to pass a major examination (eight hours of multiple choice questions!) at the end of their second year, and their classes don’t do a very good job of preparing them for it. It turns out that one thing that does help them remember the overwhelming amount of information they need for the test is something that we recommend to history teachers and students at our 4QM workshops: stories with pictures. In 2013 three medical students founded an online company called “SketchyMedical,” which creates illustrated stories about microbiology, pharmacology, and pathology to help medical students learn the material for the exam (here’s their home page). Many students have decided that SketchyMedical works better than actually attending class. As one of the founders explained, as med students themselves they “were just bombarded with different names of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, and we were having a tough time keeping them all straight.” They found that stories and pictures were an effective way to make sense of it all, and apparently lots of other medical students agree.

history class can feel like medical school

For many (or most!) middle and high school students, history class can feel like medical school: students are bombarded with different names, dates, events, and “key terms,” and they have a tough time keeping them all straight. A full period summative assessment at the end of a unit can feel like an eight hour multiple choice exam. In our work with history teachers and students, we have found that, like medical students, adolescent history students learn more efficiently and effectively if teachers start with the story and have students illustrate it with pictures. Question One of the Four Question Method is “What Happened?” because before students can answer any other history questions they must have at least a rudimentary understanding of the story that they will be exploring in depth. In our experience and observation, it’s all too easy for teachers to rush through or overstuff the story, and it’s all too easy for teachers to assume that their students know the story when they don’t.

So try “sketchy history” to help kids learn

In our 4QM workshops we recommend using storyboards as a planning tool for teachers, and as a teaching tool to check for student understanding. Asking students to draw a 4-box illustrated storyboard is a simple and effective technique that serves both as a learning tool and a formative assessment. Maybe students were taught this part of the story in class, when you lectured and they took narrative notes. Or maybe you’ve flipped your classroom, and students were responsible for learning this part of the story on their own, through homework reading or video. Either way, once they’re responsible for knowing the story you can assign them to small groups to collaborate on creating a four-box storyboard.

Give students four panels (a folded 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper works perfectly well to create the panels), and tell them that each panel needs to have an illustration. Panel number four will be the outcome, or result of the story. Panel number one will be the setting, or starting point of the story. And they get two panels in the middle to illustrate how the story moves from setting to outcome. The panels progress in chronological order, and the illustrations should demonstrate the key events of the story in a way that makes narrative sense. Tell students to give each panel a title and a date range. Once students have completed the task, you can have each group, or a random selection if you are pressed for time, share their storyboard and talk through the narrative for the class.

Making the storyboard requires students to demonstrate understanding of important historical thinking skills. They must show accurate knowledge of chronology, and related understanding of cause and effect. They must make decisions about how to chunk the story, breaking it into chapters or historical periods. It also requires them to decide what events and are key for each chapter or period, and to create an illustration that will epitomize it. This is a remarkably efficient way to find out who in your class actually knows and understands the narrative, and who is laboring under misconceptions that must be corrected if they are to go on to deeper thinking. And the storyboards themselves make great study and review tools.

Hopefully your students are still showing up for class. But we can all take a tip from the medical students who aren’t, and make use of “sketchy history” to help our students learn and remember they narratives that are the foundation of our discipline.