Category: 4QM Teaching

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.



Beyond The Essential Question

The Essential Question solved a problem. It gave teachers and those who train and supervise them a way to talk about getting beyond content coverage. The problem with content coverage is that it’s boring for students and endless for teachers. In our field, History/Social Studies, new content is piling up all the time. Rather than choosing randomly or deferring to textbook publishers or received wisdom, the Essential Question allowed teachers to make motivated, coherent choices about curriculum, and so make their courses more interesting and manageable. For each unit, identify an Essential Question and then plan around it. Teach only what students need to know in order to answer the Essential Question.

This apparently elegant solution has generated problems of its own. The biggest one is that, in practice, teachers have a really hard time formulating Essential Questions that make sense to students while doing justice to their subject matter. Interesting Essential Questions tend to be far too generic to guide actual teacher choices about curriculum. When is it okay to kill? Great question. But which content should we use to answer it, and why? Alternatively, teachers receive their wisdom — they cover what the textbook says — and tack on a question at the end and call it “essential.” What factors led to imperialism…?

There are only Four Essential Questions in History/Social Studies

We can solve the problems created by Essential Questions by defining the actual essential questions in each field. We’ve done it in History/Social Studies, with excellent results. Our framework, called the Four Question Method, has translated McTighe and Wiggins’ generic advice — plan around interesting, open-ended questions — into a discipline-specific framework for generating the questions that drive thinking skills in History and Social Studies.

Rather than inventing broad, open-ended questions for each unit, Jon and I began to watch, sort, and categorize the questions our best teachers actually used to frame lesson and assessment questions. We discovered that there are four essential questions that history teachers actually think are important, whether they’re aware of it or not. And we discovered that, when we pointed out our discovery to teachers, they got better at asking and answering questions themselves, and so did their students. Finally, we figured out how to name the essential thinking skills that allow students to answer the core questions. Doing that allowed both teachers and students to get beyond skill check-off lists and to begin *doing* things that matter with their new-found skills: answering interesting and important questions in our field.

It turns out that all interesting questions asked and answered in Social Studies classes are variants of one of four simple, generic questions. It turns out, further, that if you ask and answer these questions in order, you get a pretty good unit plan and a very handy reading strategy. They are:

  1. What happened?
  2. What were they thinking?
  3. Why then and there?
  4. What do we think about that?

Story First!

Our ‘aha’ moment, and the insight that’s been most powerful for the teachers we’ve trained, is that thinking in our field starts with knowing a story. The now-traditional Essential Question misses this point: open-ended, general questions can only be answered, or even appear as questions at all, to people who have coherent, ordered background knowledge. The old Essential Question in history, typically skipped the story. That’s why they tended to hang in the air, unrelated to specific content, or got tacked on after the story was already told.

What happened?, as simple and obvious as it appears, turns out to be the Ur-thinking question in history. And answering it requires skill. This was the second ‘aha’: constructing historical narratives with students is tons of work. It requires training. And it’s worth it, because what it does is to release both teachers and students from the burden of memorizing granular facts, the original problem that the Essential Question was meant to solve. “What happened?” becomes a question when the observer notices a change over time, something new and notable in human affairs. In 2008, the US elected its first African American President, a Democrat. He served two terms and left office with reasonable popularity numbers. In 2016, Americans elected a populist Republican with no experience in political office, with shallow connections to the Republican Party. What happened?

People who get good at framing and telling stories about change over time — who know how to narrate, the skill associated with answering What happened? Questions — tend to notice additional questions. Once you tell the story, with knowledge and conviction, curiosity plus discipline drives the rest. What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? Each of these questions has a cluster of skillful activities, defined and practiced by experts schooled in an academic discipline, that can be named for young people and taught to them. They can learn to interpret in response to Q2, explain in response to Q3, and judge in response to Q4.

Most of the old Essential Questions were Q3s and Q4s, which makes sense. Both are generalizing questions. “Why then and there?” has a comparative cousin: under what conditions do things like this — the election of populist, anti-institutional candidates — tend to occur? That was the point of the Essential Question: to provoke learning that bridges, that feels and is relevant to more situations than just the case study in question. The same is true of judgment: “What do we think about that?” invites us to draw practical and ethical lessons that we will in turn test and apply in other cases. When do we say that populist anti-institutionalism is a healthy corrective and when a danger to the republic?

In order to get to these generalizing questions, we needed to start with, not facts, but stories. Defining essential questions in our field helps history and social studies teachers to plan better, teacher teams to collaborate better, and students to learn better. It works. We’ve seen it and done it, and you can, too.