Category: 4QM Teaching

Tough Topics, Young Students, and 4QM

This post is by guest author Sarah Bassett. Ms. Bassett will graduate in May 2023 from the University of Vermont as a certified teacher in grades K-3, and in this post she describes how the Four Question Method can help teachers talk about tough topics with students in the early grades.

As someone who is in my senior year of my undergraduate teacher preparation program in PreK-3rd grade education, the never-ending negative news about the education world can be discouraging. I am a fixer; someone who wants to solve problems and make things better. Being the curious person I am, I am always poking my mentor teachers to tell me more of why teaching is hard right now. It is often a mix of things: no time for planning, not enough paraprofessionals for the kids who need them, mandatory assessments that take up all the instructional time. But a repeated concern that I have heard from nearly every teacher I have spoken to is, “Trying to talk to the kids about the ‘hard stuff.’” When asked about ways to do so, the answer is often “I just don’t.” 

Addressing Tough Topics in the Early Grades

It’s cheesy, but I always envisioned myself as a teacher who would change lives for good. I have been in my teacher preparation program during years marked by a pandemic, equality movements, polarizing elections, ongoing racism and injustice, and school shootings. Every piece of painful news makes me want to go into my classroom the next day and make the next generation better: more thoughtful, more empathetic, and more confident in the face of injustice and hardship. In my experience, social studies in primary education usually consists of lessons about creating maps, the Pilgrims, and MLK’s I Have A Dream. There is nothing wrong with these topics, but knowing the importance of high-quality social studies instruction, it feels unfair to my students to not provide them with the time and space to think critically about all events, including the stories that don’t have happy endings. I whole-heartedly believe that young children are intelligent, competent, and capable humans, but it can be difficult to even know where to begin teaching trickier topics. 

Coincidentally, in my social studies education seminar in college this past week, our topic was “How do we talk to young children about difficult things?” After my professor fought back tears while telling us about teaching after 9/11, we listed other examples from both the past and present. We brought up topics as broad as slavery and as specific as the recent Uvalde shooting. The class opened to discussion on our essential question, but no one knew where to begin. 

If you haven’t figured it out already, my dad is Jon Bassett. I have watched the growth and development of 4QM from the beginning. I wrote in 2020 about how it helped me with my own college social studies classes, and I have been eager to see how 4QM can help my own teaching and my students’ learning. I broke the ice in my seminar by talking about my dad’s method using four questions, and began to think out loud with the group about how it could help here. While at first the focus was elsewhere (“your dad wrote a book?!?”), my cohort and I began to see how the 4QM could be a missing piece in helping us to address difficult topics with elementary school students.

We used the example of the Holocaust – a tragic and devastating event that none of us could think of how to explain to a seven-year-old. I quickly realized that the 4QM could give our young learners the right information that they’d need to make sense of a topic like that, and could help teachers give them the right amount of information. Like I said before, I truly believe in young children’s abilities as capable learners. Nevertheless, I don’t think my second graders are developmentally ready, nor is it necessary for them to dive deeply into some of these troubling topics. Thinking about the Holocaust and using the 4QM model, we realized young students could walk away with the following simple information: What happened? Hitler and the Nazis killed many Jewish people. What were they thinking? Hitler had mean thoughts about Jews, and he acted on them. Why then and there? This happened during a time of war, when many people were suffering and being killed. What do we think about that? The Holocaust is recognized as one of the world’s greatest tragedies. We think it’s wrong to treat people badly because of their religion or race.

Is that absolutely everything that a seven-year-old might want to know about the Holocaust? No. They might want some more details, and kids are naturally curious. But there’s a conceptual framework that teachers can lean on to build these tougher conversations and lessons. 

Elementary Students Need Social Studies Too

In an elementary school world with little or no high quality social studies curriculum, tools like the 4QM are critical for helping teachers to raise strong thinkers and students who have an understanding of the world around them. Elementary teachers should reconsider teaching the “hard stuff,” and know that there is a system that can support those discussions. 

By this time next year I hope to have my own classroom, and I plan to make space for these conversations and explorations. Using the 4QM makes the idea of leading those conversations feel easier and more manageable, and I am eager to put it into practice. 



History = Literacy

Over the past few years there has been increasing attention paid to “the science of reading.” A few journalists (including our friend and advisor Natalie Wexler) have been pointing out that too many American kids don’t learn to read or don’t learn to read well, because too many elementary schools ignore what science has proven about how we learn to read. In this post I’ll give a super-short summary of that science, explain why high quality history teaching is crucial to building literacy, and give an example of how we incorporated literacy instruction in our fourth grade unit on the Renaissance. The Four Question Method works really well in elementary school, and it may be even more crucial there than at any other grades.

‘Reading” Means Sounding Out Words, and Knowing What They Mean

When we say that someone “reads well” we mean that they have two distinct abilities: they can sound out words written on a page (this is called “decoding”), and they know what those words mean. We’ve all probably experienced the difference between these abilities when we encountered text that we could decode but didn’t really understand. For adult readers of this blog, that experience may have come when reading a technical manual or a challenging article in a college class. But students with small vocabularies have that experience often.

If we think of reading as a discrete academic skill, separate from history or science, we might try to address this problem by drilling students on vocabulary words. But as Wexler and others have explained, “having a big vocabulary” is just a synonym for “knowing things.” In order to become good readers, students need to learn background knowledge about the world. It’s that knowledge that enables them to understand words that they encounter in the texts that they read. 

Not surprisingly, learning history is an excellent way to build background knowledge about the world, and thus to improve students’ vocabulary. This would seem to be just common sense, and a recent longitudinal study confirmed that increased instructional time in social studies in elementary grades is associated with increased reading ability. It turns out that social studies instruction makes students, especially those with low incomes and families where English is not spoken at home, better readers. 

OK, But How Do We Do That?

If social studies instruction makes elementary students better readers, we should invest in doing it well. In our work with elementary teachers we’ve found that most of the widely available social studies curriculum is either activity focused, and so doesn’t build background knowledge effectively, or uses limited pedagogy: kids read (or are read to) and answer questions about informational text. By contrast, the Four Question Method offers elementary teachers a way to build history knowledge (and thus vocabulary and literacy) in a dynamic and engaging way.

We saw this happen in our recent curriculum pilot for a fourth grade unit on the Renaissance at Nashville Classical Charter School. The unit had ten days of instruction, forty-five minutes a day, and a summative assessment on day eleven. Our student reference sheet for the unit included ten “tier two” vocabulary words: they were specific to the unit, but also have broader meanings and are not extremely common. Knowing what tier two words like these mean makes kids better readers. 

Here is our list of ten words and the definitions we provided: 

Medieval: Relating to the “Middle Ages,” from about 500 to 1500 C.E.

Merchant: Someone who makes money buying and selling things, rather than from farming crops.

Banker: Someone who charges a fee to loan money to other people.

Patron: Someone who gives money to an artist to support their work.

Disciple: One of the twelve followers of Jesus, or anyone who follows a teacher very closely.

Chapel: A small church.

Anatomy: The study of the inside parts of the human body.

Boast: To talk with great pride about oneself, to brag.

Printing Press: A machine that copies words by pressing type down on paper.

Thrive: To succeed greatly.

We think that students who learned these words as part of an engaging and demanding social studies unit will become better readers. We expect them to be more likely to understand phrases like “freedom of the press,” or “The Anatomy of a Scandal,” or “a disciple of John Dewey,” than students who have never encountered those words in a meaningful context. 

A commenter on our blog post describing our Renaissance unit wondered if we had cut too much reading out of the original curriculum materials. We did cut a lot of reading, and we honestly don’t know if just reading more history would improve literacy as much, more, or less than using the Four Question Method to actually think about history. But we believe that the kind of engaged student thinking required by the 4QM will improve student retention of the historical content — which is the same thing as saying it will build student vocabulary. And that’s a good thing for future citizens, and future readers. 


Nashville Rocks!

We just completed a 4QM curriculum pilot at Nashville Classical Charter School. Nashville Classical uses Core Knowledge curriculum in the elementary grades. They give it high marks in K-2, where history is integrated into a top quality literacy curriculum. In upper elementary, grades 3-5, the CK materials they have are good, but not great. They mostly consist of readers on historical topics with questions for teachers to ask students. Teachers and students read, and students answer the questions. Students were learning, but lessons weren’t particularly engaging and didn’t transmit a framework for thinking more deeply about history and society. It was not clear, in the end, how much students were actually understanding and retaining.

Emma Colonna, the chief curriculum writer for the school, discovered us a few years ago and saw that we could help with both problems, engagement and thinking, and that addressing those would almost certainly help understanding and retention. (As Daniel Willingham explains, “memory is the residue of thought.”) That led to a series of conversations about when and how to integrate the 4QM approach into history instruction. We settled on the experiment we ran: a fourth-grade unit on the Renaissance built on Core Knowledge materials. 

Emma recruited a skilled fourth grade teacher, Lynn, and enlisted her supervisor, Lucy, to support the project. The school has piloted other curriculum projects before, so this wasn’t a heavy lift for them. (The Doug Lemov / Teach Like A Champion “Reading Reconsidered” curriculum had a pilot there, too.) We wrote an eleven day unit, using the Core Knowledge Renaissance reader and designing and writing our own additional materials as needed. Lynn attended two online workshops with us in the fall, and then we did an additional ninety minutes of remote training with her directly, using the unit materials we had created. This spring she taught the unit. We followed up with a post-teaching debrief with the whole team: Lynn, Lucy, Emma, Jon and Gary. 

Purposeful Engagement, Rigorous Assessment

All in all, the unit was a smashing success. Lynn reported, and classroom video clips confirmed, that students were highly engaged and were thinking purposefully about the history they were learning. The unit opened with a Question One reading lesson about the Renaissance in the Italian city-state of Florence (Story First!). But instead of simply answering questions about the reading, students then had to retell the story by sorting events and images into the correct order. When they were done, they had to use the images to guide an oral narration. Lynn told us about groups that got the story wrong, and then had to use their understanding of cause and effect chronology to get it right. (Rich wool merchants can’t patronize artists until after they make their fortunes!) We watched videos of students poring over their materials, talking through events as they helped each other to sort the story cards correctly. It was engagement with purpose. 

In subsequent lessons students learned about perspective, and how it made Renaissance art different from medieval art. They speculated about why Renaissance artists signed their work (Question Two: What were they thinking?), and had their own debates about when it’s OK to boast (Question Four: What do we think about that?). Lynn reported that the Four Question Method provided both structure and variety to the lessons. She told us that “having something different every day was exciting and engaging for the kids, and they learned a lot every day.”

We also found some things that we can improve on. We can do more with biography. The unit had students learn about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, but we didn’t do enough to create strong connections between the stories of these artists’ lives and their work. Our Question Three lesson (“Why did Renaissance thinking thrive in some places but not others?”) was too challenging — we need to design those lessons to be more accessible for fourth graders. And Lynn noticed that while students enjoyed the conversation about when it’s OK to boast, she wasn’t sure the connection to the Renaissance was clear to them. We can make those links between the past and present stronger and more explicit.

Lynn also wanted an extra day or two for the unit, which we think was a very good sign. The Core Knowledge materials we started with include nine chapters of reading totaling over eighty-five pages; the teacher guide recommends assigning all of it over twenty two lessons (not counting a day for an assessment). We used about fifteen pages of the reader in ten lessons, with the eleventh day for the assessment. We believe that the fact that we jettisoned so much reading, but Lynn still felt that the unit needed more time, is evidence that we were asking students to think much more deeply about what they were learning. When students are actively practicing the skills of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment they need more time with less content. Our choice to focus on Florence as a “representative event” allowed us to give students most of the time they needed to actually engage in rigorous thinking about the Renaissance.

The summative assessment we designed was more comprehensive and rigorous than what students had previously done as well. One of the principles of 4QM teaching is that every activity can be an assessment; we’re always practicing the four thinking skills. So this unit assessment asked students to tell the story of the Renaissance, to identify some Renaissance art, to interpret a painting and some text to say what the creators were thinking, and to judge contemporary video of sports celebrations, saying if they thought the athletes’ boasting was justified or not. Results were strong, but difficult to compare to previous years when students had just answered multiple choice questions.

We’re continuing our work in Nashville next year. We’re planning to write more curriculum, with a goal of having an entire year of units for fourth grade so that students can practice thinking skills repeatedly and internalize the method. Assuming that goes well, we’ll continue the partnership until we’ve built out grades 3-5. 

We’ve been really lucky so far. We’ve gotten to work with urban and suburban district schools, independent schools, large charter networks, and stand-alone charters like Nashville Classical. In almost every case, these folks already had “stuff” — textbooks, lessons, handouts, and assessments. In fact, most teachers and most schools already have those things, or have access to them. What makes Nashville Classical and our other clients different is that they have vision. They see that their social studies instruction could be so much better than it is.

G.S. & J.B.

A Psychological Test for the 4QM

Jon and I got invited to present at a Learning and the Brain conference in New York last weekend. Before we presented, we got to hear a series of talks by psychologists and neuroscientists. I have to say, it made me nervous. We figured out the Four Question Method by teaching real students ourselves and observing other teachers do the same thing. We experimented, for sure, but in a decidedly unscientific way. (We never 4QM’d one of our classes while teaching traditionally to a control group, for example.) So, sitting through lectures by people who actually do experiments was a bit nerve wracking. What if they told us things that made us doubt our method?

They didn’t. On the contrary, the speakers gave us good reasons to believe that what we’ve observed in our classrooms is what brain science would predict. Naturally, this conclusion isn’t particularly scientific either. We were motivated listeners, not impartial auditors. And, there’s lots more to consider about our method than what we learned at the conference. But we were gratified to learn that what we figured out on our own reconciles nicely with what researchers have discovered experimentally. 

Willingham: Re-Tell The Story

The first speaker was Dan Willingham, whose book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, I read while we were writing ours. Willingham shared highlights from his forthcoming book. The part of his talk most relevant to the 4QM was about note taking during lectures. The goals of note taking during a talk (which I practiced as he preached!) are to prompt recall and to help fix information in long term memory. In surveys, college students report as much: they know why they’re taking notes. That doesn’t mean they do it right. According to Willingham, notes achieve their purpose when they record what the note taker was thinking about during the lecture. In other words, our notes shouldn’t be transcripts or copies. They should capture our thought process as the speaker engages it. 

In Why Don’t Students Like School?, Willingham wrote that “memory is the residue of thought.” That is, we remember what we think about. Our notes should facilitate that, both as we take them and as we use them for study. Willingham reported that his own students at the University of Virginia accept this part of his argument. They get that they shouldn’t be copying things he says, but rather recording the meaning they make of what he said, in their own words. 

The second part they struggle with: study your notes by reorganizing them. This is where I had a 4QM-connection moment. When Jon and I give narrative lectures, or assign students narrative readings and tell them to take notes on them, we follow that up by asking students to use their notes to create storyboards (or, sometimes, to write BBS sentences). Making meaning from a record of our thinking consolidates what we’ve learned, and so becomes part of the velcro in our brains that we can use as an adhesive for new knowledge. The four-box storyboard does what Willingham says we should do, and that students are reluctant to do: it gets them to think and make choices about a story we want them to learn well. 

Immordino-Yang: Question Four Helps You Remember

We also heard Mary Helen Immordino-Yang give a talk on the role of emotions in learning. She shared two things that connected to what we’ve observed and incorporated in the 4QM. First, she pointed out that enduring memories come from activating episodic as well as semantic and procedural memory. This point is a bit technical, but put simply: students remember better when the story they’re learning connects to a story they tell about themselves, about who they are. (That’s what episodic memory does: it keeps a record of salient events that help us to figure out who we are.) 

When we set out to “kill the list” and replace it with storytelling as the basis for learning history, this is what animated us. Lists mean nothing to our students. Memorizing them is a chore. On the other hand, real stories about real people doing remarkable things — that’s what we get to teach about, and that’s what our students get to think about, if we’re teaching history the right way. It’s on us as teachers to animate those stories, to make them real to our students. We do that, in part, by inviting our students to see the actors as real, complicated people. Digging in with Question Two (What were they thinking?) is particularly helpful for that: it gets us closer to those people by showing us how they saw the world. 

Immordino-Yang also reported on evidence that “admiration for virtue” invokes a very strong response from students (and the rest of us). People admire skillful people. But they remember the exceptionally good. Immordino-Yang told us a story about a Chinese woman, a new doctor sent out to the countryside to do an internship before starting her practice in a big city. As she was about to return from her internship, she was called to assist a woman having a difficult childbirth. After that, she decided that her place was with these underserved people who needed her. So she stayed. (And I remembered the story, without notes!)

Question Four asks, What do we think about that? When we think about people who do admirable things, we activate all kinds of emotional responses that lock their stories in memory. We made consideration of virtue a basic element in the 4QM. It turns out that our brains resonate to that kind of consideration. 

Gotschall: Question Your Story

Finally, we heard Jonathan Gottschall talk about the power of stories, for better and for worse. Gottschall isn’t a scientist, but he writes about the research he’s read and interpreted for a popular audience. Like the others who spoke, Gottschall emphasized the power of stories to lodge in memory. He also pointed out that we almost can’t avoid telling them, even when the information we’re given barely registers as a narrative. (He shared a short video of geometric shapes moving around on a screen. Even that we turned into a story, which audience members shared.) 

Gottschall’s main point was that stories can mislead as well as they can inform. For sure. Social media is full of bizarre stories that people seem to take at face value. Those stories satisfy an urge to make meaning of a messy, complex reality. That so many of them are bogus doesn’t make them any less satisfying to lots of people. 

Jon and I are resolute advocates of “Story First!” But we’ve never said or meant to imply that storytelling is enough. The 4QM is an inquiry method. We want our students to learn true stories about real people doing memorable things, for sure. But we also want them to acquire the tools to take those stories apart and to interrogate them. What really happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? Each of the four questions slows us down and forces us to rethink the story we just learned. Stories are fast and sticky. The 4QM is designed to slow us down. In the end, the method is designed to teach students both important stories and how to think skillfully and critically about them. So far, the evidence suggests it’s a pretty good idea. 



The 4QM Research Essay Challenge

It’s research essay season at my school again. Two years ago, when the pandemic broke out, the research we typically require in our core classes was a casualty. We could barely get our students to show up at Zoom sessions, let alone slog through the research. 

Last year it reappeared, but like everything else, with an asterisk. This year, though whatever “normal” used to mean in schools has been thoroughly revised, we’re back at it. In preparation for that process, I’ve issued the teachers in my department a challenge. I’ll make a similar offer to you now. 

Here’s the challenge: if you get a student to write a research essay that contains a persuasive argument, supported by evidence, I will buy you a T shirt that says “Story First!” on the front and “4QM Teaching” on the back. Who wouldn’t want one of those? But wait — it gets better: if you get a student to write a persuasive argument, supported by evidence, that answers a question *other* than Question Two (What were they thinking?), I will send you a free copy of our book. (The original offer to my department involved beer, which I can’t promise to transfer across state lines.)

Narration Is A Skillful Activity

Nonfiction narration — telling a true story well — is a skillful activity. If your students manage to write a competent narrative that they learned from independent reading (and viewing and listening), then they and you should be proud of their work. That’s challenging enough! 

Unfortunately, many of the student essays that sound like or purport to be arguments supported by evidence simply aren’t. They’re historical narratives, as they should be in most cases. Even the College Board thinks so. They’re just afraid to say so. 

If your students do manage to make a persuasive argument, supported by evidence, my wager is that it will be interpretive, a response to Question Two. That’s because the evidence will be accessible to them in the form of primary sources or meaningful artifacts that can provide a window into the thinking of the historical actor or actors whose minds they’re trying to plumb. 

The other kind of claim we encounter frequently in our students’ research essays is explanatory: this thing caused that thing to happen (ie. Question Three: Why then and there?). In storytelling, we make such claims all the time. Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, so Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. We have no proof that that’s why Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, but it’s bizarre to think we’d need any. There are no other candidate explanations worth considering. So we just tell the story.

Historical Q3 Analysis Requires Evidence That We Usually Don’t Have

On the other hand, in historical analysis, when we say that something caused something else to happen, it typically sounds more like this: the Roman empire was successful because of its roads. Or, alliances caused the Great War. Or, the Civil War was caused by slavery. 

To see what’s wrong with each of these arguments, let’s use our handy Claims-Evidence-Reasoning (CER) tool: 

Claim: Rome’s empire was successful (was pretty big, and functioned pretty well for a good stretch of time) because the Romans built an extensive network of roads. 

Evidence: __________________________

Reasoning: Roads allowed Romans to police the empire and collect taxes efficiently.

Go ahead. Fill in the blank. Or, better, find a student who fills in the blank. A book awaits you.  

Here’s another: 

Claim: Alliances caused the Great War (to break out? to grow larger?)

Evidence: ___________________________

Reasoning: Allies felt bound by their agreements, and so joined a war they would otherwise have avoided. 

Go for it. A T shirt *and* a book for this one. 

By the way, this argument particularly bothers me. We, or at least I, just lived through an era when the great powers militarized at an unprecedented clip, formed extensive alliances, and drew most countries of the world into their spheres of influence. We call this period “The Cold War.” And yet, no world war. Yet, our textbooks tell us that militarism, alliances, and imperialism caused the First World War. For the record, alliances are not dangerous. Ask the Poles. 

Finally, the Civil War. It was, indeed, fought over slavery. That is incontrovertible. But take a look: 

Claim: Slavery caused the Civil War (1861-1865)

Evidence: _____________________________

Reasoning: The antagonists in the American Civil War were very concerned about the institution of slavery, some for it and some against it. 

Now, the reasoning in this case is the tipoff: it’s an interpretation. In other words, it answers Question Two, What were they thinking? For sure, most Americans involved in the Civil War were thinking about slavery, particularly Confederate leaders. We could prove that by reading speeches, as most of us do when we teach US History. 

What we can’t do that way is answer the explanatory question, Why then and there? Slavery as an institution began in North America in 1619. It was accommodated by the US Constitution and compromised over repeatedly. Slavery was as much of a constant in American politics and society as any other institution that society possessed. 

Unfortunately for this claim, a constant can’t explain a change. We can only explain changes with changes (what scientists call ‘variables’). So, the claim is a red herring

Research Paper Ground Rules

Here’s what our students need to know before they set off to write a research essay, and what their teachers need to know before they require one: 

  • Nonfiction storytelling is good. It’s hard to do well. Praise is in order for those who do it well.
  • Arguments are good, if they’re real. They’re bad if they’re not. 
  • If you want an argument, aim at interpretation. 

They’ll be blue with white lettering. Tell me your size when you submit your winner.



“Thematic Units” Done Right

During a conversation with a 4QM Teaching client this week he mentioned that, “I know you guys don’t do thematic units.” He’s right. Thematic units, such as one that compares the American, French, and Russian revolutions, are not part of our repertoire. That’s because to actually understand a thematic unit, students need to hold multiple stories in their heads simultaneously. That’s very difficult for most students to do. The Four Question Method gives us a better way to make comparisons across cases: by grounding student learning in a single story and using focused questions for comparisons, the 4QM makes “thematic” thinking clear and accessible in a way that thematic units do not.

“Story First!”

The first argument that Gary and I had when we started to create the Four Question Method was about content. Gary said that specific content didn’t matter, we just needed students to know underlying principles and ideas about how the world works. I disagreed. I remember one debate about the French Revolution. Gary said there was no reason to teach it — students need to know under what conditions revolutions are more likely, or how revolutions tend to unfold, but they don’t need to know the specifics of the French Revolution. I said that the specifics matter, although at the time I wasn’t able to articulate why. 

Gary eventually conceded that I was right, and I eventually came to understand why. Specific content does matter, and students need to learn it because they can’t think responsibly about things they don’t know very well. So if we want students to engage in “higher-level” thinking about history, they need to know the story first.

And it turns out that it takes quite a bit of effort for students to learn even a single story well. Students need to interact with the story and retell it in some fashion in order to actually learn it. Those interactions and retellings are often very engaging and a lot of fun (we describe some techniques for doing that in our book), but they do take classroom time and student effort. Nevertheless, they are crucial to surfacing and correcting misunderstandings and errors. 

Focused Comparisons and Contrasts

In a thematic unit like the one on revolutions I described above, students need to learn at least two complete stories before they are introduced to comparative thinking. This is a cognitive heavy lift. Anyone who’s ever reviewed for a cumulative exam knows that humans tend to forget information that they don’t use regularly. So if we’re asking students to compare two stories, they’ll need time to review the previous story before they can compare it with the one they’ve learned most recently. If you’re actually going to compare three (or more) revolutions, the challenge is even greater.

By contrast, the Four Question Method introduces comparative thinking in each individual unit. We do this with Question Three, “Why Then and There?” We’ve blogged quite a bit on Question Three before (see here, here, and here), so I won’t give a full-blown explanation of how it works in this post. The point I want to make today is that Question Three makes historical comparisons accessible to students by working from the single unit story that they are currently immersed in, and asking about specific contrasts with another story that they don’t need to learn fully. 

Here’s an example from an industrial revolution unit in a world history course for tenth graders. (The link gives you view-only access to a teacher-facing document. Feel free to copy it and use it.) That unit story focuses heavily on Britain, the first country to have an industrial revolution. Then our Question Three for that unit is, “Why did the industrial revolution start in Great Britain, not in China?” We don’t study two or three different stories of industrialization and then require students to compare and contrast across cases — we have them study a single case deeply (Britain), then give them the materials they need to identify relevant factors that explain a contrasting case (China). 

Here’s an example from a World War One unit in the same course. Once students know the story of how World War One began, we ask “Why did a minor diplomatic dispute become a general European war in 1914?” The contrast here is in time, not place. The students know the case of 1914 well, and the contrasting case is the previous century of relative peace in Europe. Again, we don’t study two or three different stories of wars breaking out and then require students to compare and contrast across cases. We ground our thinking in a single story, and then focus student attention on the relevant elements of a contrasting case. 

The last part of Question Three thinking is creating a general hypothesis: Under what conditions does industrialization, or war, (or revolution) tend to occur? If students record their thinking, they can test their hypotheses as they learn different unit stories throughout a course. This course-level hypothesis testing lets students focus on one story at a time, while still making responsible comparisons.

Adults Are Not Students

Planning Question Three lessons is challenging for teachers — you have to know a lot to structure a responsible Question Three puzzle for students. (That’s one reason why we’re writing more of them and making them freely available to teachers.) But this challenge is precisely why we think that full-blown thematic units are so difficult for students to grasp. Grown-ups have an annoying habit of forgetting what it was like to be a kid, when all your academic knowledge was brand new, and when most of it came from your formal education during school hours. Simply put, adults have forgotten how much we’ve learned, and how little our students know. Comparisons across cases require a lot more knowledge than most students will have, even when we’ve taught them well.

So teaching Question Three well is difficult. But doing so is much better than compiling stories from different times and places then turning students loose to find relevant comparisons and contrasts on their own. 



The Activity Trap

In this post Gary observes that we sometimes design lessons that look productive — like a busy beehive — but aren’t, and explains how the Four Question Method’s definition of intellectual puzzles can make sure that students really are thinking.

A Well-Planned Cooperative Activity is a Thing of Beauty 

At its best, a cooperative activity is a thing of beauty. Your classroom is an energetic hive. Students are talking, writing, working, maybe moving from station to station. You’re involved, checking in, probing, problem solving, but mostly the activity moves on its own. Your students are in charge and the lesson runs by itself. 

There aren’t many better feelings than watching your students successfully execute a plan you made for them that worked as you intended. If you do this routinely, you know how hard it is to make it look easy. Here’s what it takes: 

Students have a clear task to accomplish. Students have clear instructions about how to work together to accomplish that task, including well-defined norms and roles they understand and have internalized. The materials they need are accessible and ready for use. There are lots of opportunities for you, the teacher, to monitor both group progress and individual contributions. The timing is specific and reasonable, with lots of visual cues to guide the process.

And, amazingly, all this can be true and the activity can still flop. Your hive can be lethargic, or busy with distraction rather than production. Or, most insidious, things can look and sound great and, well, signify nothing, or very little. Sometimes the bees make noise but not honey. 

All Dressed Up and No Place to Go

The technical challenges to planning a successful student-centered activity are formidable enough. Planning in the way I just described is arduous, and teaching students to inhabit an activity plan takes patient practice and careful feedback. Even if you meet those challenges, the honey-less noise problem is real and persistent. 

As friends of teachers like Daniel Willingham have taught us, we remember what we think about. So, even if you meet all the technical challenges, the hazard of the honeyless hive is a real one. Learning to work cooperatively and collaboratively is important, for sure. If your students spent their hive time thinking about how to converse effectively, that’s great. But if your goal is to teach social studies along with conversation skills, you need more. The task or tasks you define as objectives for your activity have to require thinking about something real and pertinent to skillful study of the human world, or what we sometimes refer to pejoratively as “content.” 

Puzzles Drive the Train

The Four Question Method can help with one of the most persistent problems in activity planning: proceduralism, or the exclusive focus on procedures to the exclusion of meaningful learning goals. It takes so much thinking and planning to design a first-rate cooperative activity that it seems almost petulant to complain about empty calories. But there it is: sometimes the task is just that, a thing to do. If the task is clear and your students willing, you can make an activity appear productive. The goal, of course, is to make it actually so.

Bees don’t think about honey. They focus exclusively on the task in front of them. So let’s switch metaphors. Let’s try to get to a meaningful destination. Let’s hop on a high-speed train. 

The engine that drives the train in social studies is a puzzle about real people. There are four kinds that work to drive thinking (and therefore long-term memory, which enables even more thinking) in social studies. 

In 4QM lessons, we always frame all of our puzzles with a story. Story first! And our stories themselves always have a puzzle framework. People start in one condition, the “setting,” and end up in another one, the “outcome.” How did that happen?!? Who did what to get our story from setting to outcome? 

Storyboarding is an obvious and terrific cooperative activity for rehearsing a story so that students really understand it and so that it lodges in memory. So is image sorting. Here’s a version from a 4th grade classroom at Nashville Classical Charter School. What you see is students matching descriptions to images. That’s step one. Next, they’ll arrange those images in the correct chronological sequence. Then they’ll use those images to help them tell the story of the Renaissance out loud! 

As Willingham notes, stories make us think (and therefore remember) through anticipation. They make us wonder, in light of what’s happened so far, what will happen next? That’s puzzle logic at work. We have expectations about what actors in a story will do, or should do. Sometimes we guess right, which is gratifying. Often we’re wrong, which surprises us. That’s even better. It makes us want to know more. 

We design narrative puzzle activities that harness the power of anticipation. They can be really simple: stop at a turning point in your story, and then ask your cooperative teams to predict what will happen next. In other words, practice making anticipation explicit. Shots have been fired at Lexington Green. Now what!?!?

Or, add more structure. Mansa Musa, the emperor of Mali, is considering making the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. We know about the Keita rulers of Mali and what Musa has done to restore and expand the empire. We know his back story, including Sundiata’s founding of the Keita line, the gold-salt trade that drives the empire’s economy, and the spread of Islam to Mali. Now, let’s appoint a team of advisors, each of whom has a focus or area of expertise: politics, economics, or religion. What do we advise? Should he go? If so, what should Musa aspire to accomplish for Mali on his Hajj? How should he do it — what and whom should he take with him — in order to accomplish those goals? 

Or, simply tell the story and then frame an interpretive puzzle so that students can dig into it. Tell students what Musa actually did and then ask: Why did he do it? Why did Mansa launch such an elaborate and expensive expedition? Why did he give away so much gold in Cairo on his way to Mecca that he disrupted currency markets for years afterwards? What was he thinking?!? Here, we imagine how Musa might have staged that advisory board, in real life or in his head. And we use the facts as we know them, what he did and decided, to test whether we’ve got him right. 

You get the idea. The Four Questions are all designed to launch meaningful puzzles about real people doing real things. Harness your activities to a puzzle question. That way, when your hive is buzzing, your honey will get delivered. 


4QM Curriculum: Why Did The Industrial Revolution Start in Britain, Not China?

I teach tenth grade world history at an urban charter school in Boston. Most of my students are immigrants or the children of immigrants, and many speak Spanish or Haitian Creole at home. This fall they started school having not attended regular in-person classes since March of 2020, which meant we  had some catching up to do on top of our usual work together. So I was especially proud last week when I read some pretty good essays on a challenging question: Why did the industrial revolution start in Britain, not in China? In this blog post I’ll explain how I used the Four Question Method, along with some things I learned from The Writing Revolution, to get these good results. I’ll show you two student work samples, and link to the lesson materials so you can try it for yourself.

Question Three Is Always Comparative

The Four Question Method builds social studies units around a sequence of questions that define our discipline. We start by teaching students to answer Question One, “What happened?” with a true story of a change over time. In this unit we learned about the industrialization of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Question Two focuses on some interesting people in the story and asks, “What were they thinking?” For this unit we asked about Adam Smith and Karl Marx and people who supported their ideas. Questions Three and Four pull back from the unit story and the individuals in it to ask more generalizing questions: “Why then and there?” and “What do we think about that?” The specific Question Three for this unit was a classic of world history: Why did the industrial revolution start in Great Britain, and not in China?

If you’ve taught world history, you’ve probably worked with a shorter, more common version of this question: Why did the industrial revolution start in Great Britain? But one important insight of the Four Question Method is that a good Question Three is always comparative. You can’t actually create a defensible explanation for why something happened in one particular place without contrasting it with another place. We teach our students this basic logical rule for answering Question Three:

“Explain a change with a change, and a difference with a difference.” 

If we want to explain why industrialization happened in Britain, as opposed to just describing how it happened there, we have to contrast Britain with another place where industrialization did not occur. That’s the difference we want to explain. We then look for contrasting conditions between Britain and the place that did not industrialize that could plausibly explain why Britain industrialized, but the other place did not. It’s those differences that we use to build a hypothesis about what conditions lead to industrialization generally.

Curriculum Materials: Why did the industrial revolution start in Great Britain, not in China?

Creating a hypothesis about the conditions that lead to industrialization is a challenging intellectual task for anyone. But 4QM curriculum materials that structure the task step by step make it do-able for students, and even fun. In building  the materials for this lesson I used the templates Gary and I developed for our book, From Story to Judgment. You can find the student-facing documents and a version that’s annotated for teachers here

There are two crucial intellectual steps in the process of answering Question Three, clearly laid out graphic organizers for students:

  • First, identify correlating factors. What was different about Britain and China?
  • Second, make explanatory claims. Say how these differences might have led to industrialization in Britain, but not in China.

These two steps took a full 52 minute class period working with the six documents, followed by a homework assignment, followed by a second 52 minute class period. We worked in small groups and discussed each step as a whole class, with student exemplars on the document camera. At the end of the second class period I had students complete the “sum up” part of the assignment, in which they wrote up their explanatory claims in a paragraph. 

There’s a third intellectual step in answering Question Three, which requires finding a third case to test the claims on. I didn’t do this part with my students, although it’s included in the teacher annotated documents. I’m planning to circle back to it when we learn about Stalin’s U.S.S.R., and I felt the assignment was challenging enough already.

Writing an Essay

Once we’d talked our way through steps one and two, I assigned my students to write up their claims in a five paragraph essay. Writing clearly is challenging for my students, but the task was made much easier by the clarity of the materials we had used to answer the question. Students could see how each main body paragraph would address one contrast between Britain and China, and understood that they needed to both describe the difference and explain how it led to industrialization in Britain but not in China. Because the “step two” graphic organizer includes sentence stems (thank you, Writing Revolution) students had an easier time of structuring both their main body paragraphs and their introductions. Paragraphs are just organized collections of sentences, and an essay is just an organized collection of paragraphs. Because the curriculum materials broke the thinking task down into its component parts, students were able to write an essay that most of them otherwise might have seen as too long or confusing.

Some readers might wonder if this step-by-step breakdown of thinking and writing tasks allows students to succeed without actually understanding the material. But being clear about what we’re asking doesn’t make historical thinking itself any less demanding, and my students’ papers demonstrated that writing a good essay requires accurate understanding. You can check out two student samples of main body paragraphs here. Student A understands the material, and Student B does not yet. I allow revisions on essays, so the student who misunderstood the situation of agricultural workers in China will get another shot at it. (And yes, these paragraphs are way too long — that’s on me. I should have coached them to split them in two, one for Britain and one for China.)

Try It, and Let Us Know How It Goes!

We’re actively seeking feedback on our curriculum materials, so please feel free to give this lesson a try and let us know how it goes. Obviously there are lots of possible variations here: you could change the order of the documents, you could jigsaw the documents, you could skip the essay and just do a discussion… knock yourselves out.

Whatever your lesson format, it’s always true that clear questions and procedures enable clear student thinking. The Four Question Method is a way to achieve both.

Thanks for reading, and we look forward to hearing from  you.



Beyond Summary: How to Interpret Challenging Texts

Two weeks ago in this space, I wrote about common challenges teachers face in getting students to work productively with primary sources. One of those challenges is getting students to do more than simply repeat what the author said. Granted, even that can be quite difficult when we’re dealing with sources written in unfamiliar or archaic language. Still, we’re aiming for more than reading comprehension assessments. We want our primary sources to engage our students with a genuine thinking task: interpreting thinkers from other times and places — or, in 4QM-speak, answering Question Two. 

In that last post, I offered general advice for getting students past the activities of paraphrase and summary. This time out, I’m sharing a case study. 

Ninth Graders Interpreting the Qur’an

My class recently finished a mini-unit on the origins of Islam. Our main source for the story (Question One) was a chapter of Tamim Ansary’s book, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes. Once we had the story down, we practiced together on a chapter (Sura) from the Qur’an. For this modeling activity, I chose a Meccan Sura, composed (or recited) when Muhammad and his small Muslim community were vulnerable to attacks by the tribal merchants Muhammad’s new teachings threatened. (Some of those merchants, his own uncles, would soon plot his assassination!) Here’s the text: 

Who speaks better than someone who calls people to God, does what is right, and says, ‘I am one of those devoted to God’? Good and evil cannot be equal. [Prophet], repel evil with what is better and your enemy will become as close as an old and valued friend, but only those who are steadfast in patience, only those who are blessed with great righteousness, will attain to such goodness. If a prompting from Satan [the Devil] should stir you, seek refuge with God: He is the All Hearing and All Knowing.

The Qur’an 41.33-36

Paraphrase First, Then Interpret

Our first task after encountering the text was to be sure we all knew what it said. So we paraphrased. We saw from our paraphrase that the Qur’an is praising people from calling others to God and telling them to avoid retaliating against those who oppose and condemn them. We observed that the passage associates the urge to fight back against opponents with a “prompting from Satan” and that the highest praise is reserved for those who are “steadfast in patience.” 

Why does the Qur’an say this? This “why” question inaugurated the interpretive stage of our inquiry lab. At this point, we were ready to move beyond the letter of the text to its author’s purpose in creating it. 

I reminded my students of the tools we’ve used to perform this interpretive task in the past. These tools are all variants of Question Two. In the case of our current inquiry, here’s how they sound: Why does the Qur’an say this, exactly? Why this and not something else? And why say it in this way and not in some other way? Why, in other words, did the author make the choices we see on the page? 

The point of these probing versions of Question Two is to cultivate in our student-readers what we call the “author concept.” We want our students to see actors in history as real people making real choices, expressing genuine meaning and purpose. Their default tendency — and ours, too, often enough — is to reify both events and artifacts. In a flat world, events just “happen,” without people to do or drive them. Texts just state things, without an author whose meaning and purpose is expressed there. Interpretation, on the other hand, is how we respond to texts when we recognize that real people are speaking to us through them. It’s what people mean, I think, when they talk about active reading. 

How’d They Do?

So, what did my students make of this passage?

Working in small groups and then together in a large one, with coaching from me in both locations, here’s what they came up with: in pre-Islamic Arabian society, the tribal code led people to retaliate against opponents. The Qur’an, by contrast, is teaching the followers of Muhammad to adopt a different code, one that cuts against the grain of their upbringing. To fail to respond aggressively to an insult is both ignoble and hazardous in a tribal society. But that, it turns out, is what this Sura is admonishing Muslims to do.

In the course of our deliberations, one of my students pointed out that we actually knew an example of exactly what this Sura was promising, that an enemy “will become as close as an old and valued friend.” The reference, he suggested, might be to Omar, who Ansary says was an implacable enemy of Muhammad and his followers, but then became one of Muhammad’s most stalwart allies. (Omar eventually become the leader, or Caliph, of the Muslim community.) 

So, why was the Qur’an encouraging Muslims to adopt this new, decidedly nontribal practice? Perhaps being “steadfast in patience” was simply a sensible survival strategy for a vulnerable community. Or, perhaps the overriding interest of this early community required such a strategy: recruitment. Unlike the tribes, the Muslim community, or Umma, depended upon conversion for growth. Maybe the passage is encouraging Muslims to find more Omars.

By the end of 45 minutes of reading and talking, we had an interpretive claim on the table: one goal of the Sura was to encourage early members of the Umma to overcome their pre-Islamic dispositions and to focus on the long game: the recruitment of new members through patient persuasion. 

Kids Won’t Think Harder Than We Do

This workshop took a lot of planning on my part. I selected the Qur’an passage myself, and made sure it fit the story we learned together. (I repeated this workshop with a later Sura as well, one from Medina, when the Umma was much stronger. Practice!) And I did what we always tell teachers to do in our workshops: I asked and answered the questions for myself. There really is no other way. Our students won’t think harder than we do about a text. And they won’t think well about it unless we show them how.

Facts Or Skills?

Gary and I first created the Four Question Method to solve a common problem facing history teachers: how can we teach our mandated content while also teaching students to think about what they learn? Limited instructional time can make these two imperatives seem mutually exclusive. Teaching and learning content takes time, as does thinking about it responsibly. In Massachusetts, where Gary and I teach, there are 180 days in a school year, and the state social studies standards for each grade level specify a lot of content to be learned in those 180 days. How can we teach it all, while also teaching students how to make arguments about the motives, causes, and ethics of historical events?

An Old Dilemma

Anyone familiar with the history of American education or who pays attention to what passes for educational debate on social media (our twitter handle is @4qmteaching) knows that this content v. skills dilemma is an old one, and responses to it tend to fall into two groups. On the one hand are the progressives, who emphasize thinking skills. To them, learning how to think clearly about a topic is more important than memorizing any particular facts about it. They use terms like “higher-order thinking” to describe the kind of cognitive tasks that they want students to learn, and they denigrate an emphasis on content knowledge as “mere memorization.” On the other hand are a group of people who we can define as “knowledge first” folks. These people find the progressive emphasis on thinking skills misplaced, and argue that no one can think critically about content they don’t know very well. They want students to learn facts first.

Cognitive science clearly supports the second group. It’s true that you can’t actually think well about content you don’t know well. In his excellent book Why Don’t Students Like School? Psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that “successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If any one of these factors is inadequate, thinking will likely fail” (18). “Long-term memory” refers to things that you know, but don’t keep in the front of your mind. The multiplication tables are a good example. Having them memorized allows you to quickly call up the product of 7 X 7 (49) without taxing the working memory you’re using at the same time to solve a larger problem. If you need to use your limited working memory to figure out what 7 X 7 is, you have less brain power available to address the larger problem.

But if it’s settled science that memorizing information is a necessary prerequisite to thinking, why haven’t the educational progressives simply been argued out of existence? 

Progressives Are Right (About Some Things)

I think it’s because the progressives got some important things right. The original progressive educators were active in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and were fighting against a system of classical education that emphasized memorization almost exclusively. Classroom lessons consisted mainly of “recitations,” in which students would be called on to recite information that they had memorized. I have a textbook that was used to train public school teachers in the early 1900s, and it includes detailed diagrams on how to get each student in a classroom of forty-five children up to the front of the room to recite and back to their seats to copy lessons in an orderly fashion. Such was the pedagogy of that era.

Progressive reformers performed a valuable service by successfully blowing up that system. They were right that a student who can recite the names of all the U.S. presidents in order but can’t make her own case as to why any one might be more admirable than the others has not learned as much as we want her to learn about American history. They were also right that information that is memorized for a recitation, or an exam, without being repeatedly recalled or used for any meaningful thought, is quickly forgotten. Whenever we ask students to write something in their own words, or to create an original argument about the past, we’re reflecting the insights of the educational progressives. They are right that doing things with our knowledge both helps us to remember it and can demonstrate that we actually understand it.

The Four Question Method

So let’s return to the social studies teaching problem that the Four Question Method set out to solve. We know that the “knowledge first” people are right. As Doug Lemov said in a recent interview in Education Week, “facts and higher-order thinking are not opposites. You can only think deeply about that which you know a great deal about.” So we have to take the time to teach historical content. But we also acknowledge the things progressives got right: We want to do more than just teach facts, and we want to engage students in more than just recitation.

The Four Question Method starts with historical knowledge. We joke at our workshops that if we had T-shirts they would say “Story First!” on the back. But we build that knowledge through questioning and active student engagement. Question One is, “What happened?” and we coach students that a good answer comes in the form of a compelling story. We deal with long lists of content by focusing student attention on representative events that drive the story forward, rather than treating all the facts on the list as equals. (Not all the presidents need to be memorized.) 

And the method doesn’t stop at knowing the story — we move from story to judgment. We pick some key players in the story and ask Question Two, “What were they thinking?” The answer to this question comes in the form of responsible interpretation of texts or artifacts left behind. We pull back from the story and ask Question Three, “Why then and there?” We answer this question with explanations that look at data and use the tools of social science. And we choose a key decision point in our story to ask Question Four, “What do we think about that?” We answer this question with our individual judgments, arrived at through a community conversation about  our values, beliefs, and ethics. 

We think we’ve managed to solve the problem of how to teach important content and thinking skills in social studies. We think we’ve done so in a way that’s consistent with cognitive science and is accessible by a broad range of teachers and students. Leave us a comment, check us out at, buy our book, or join the conversation on twitter to let us know if you agree. Thanks for reading!