Category: 4QM Teaching

Whodunnit? Identifying Actors in Narrative Notes

Last week, Jon wrote about Graham Delano, an awesome young teacher at Nashville Classical Charter School. Graham’s students had learned a story, but didn’t know how to begin retelling it. Graham called them back and identified the actors in their story — Native Americans, led by Chief Joseph, and the American military. That prompt allowed students to do what skillful narrative requires: say who did what, in an active voice.   

Graham’s students aren’t the only ones who need help with that task. (In our book we have a whole chapter on historical narratives.) My own students are much older than Graham’s, and they too struggle to narrate historical events in a way that highlights the actors. Their default mode is to list events: this happened, then that happened. As if the people of the past were spectators watching events unfold before them! 

Note Taking: One Source of Bad Narratives?

I’ve begun to wonder if the way we teach history, or at least the way I do, trains students the wrong way. I have a particular culprit in mind: note taking. 

Notes on reading and lecture can end up looking a lot like lists. And if you don’t know better, you can think that getting down the names and dates of events is the main purpose of notes. In fact, as Dan Willingham has clarified, the goal of notes is to remind us of stuff we’ve thought about, so that we can think about it again. 

For historical narratives, we do want to think about and remember events, but not independent of the people who did those things we now designate “events.” Our narrative memory is most meaningful and stickiest if we make it a package deal: who-did-what. 

But that’s not my students’ default. I’ve tried a variety of ways of addressing this problem in my own classroom. One of them is substituting more engaging narratives than the textbook when I can find them. For my origins of Islam unit, for example, I use two chapters from Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (Public Affairs, 2010). Ansary has written for textbook companies, so he knows our audience. His book is different, though: it foregrounds the actors in the narrative. 

I’ve found that even that isn’t enough to keep students from taking reading notes as bulleted lists of events. So I came up with a hack that worked reasonably well. It’s simple, and can work even with relatively dry textbook readings. 

I made students a printed, four-page notes template. I designed each page to capture notes on a segment of the story, from Muhammad’s birth in 570 CE to his death in 632 CE. Each page had three sections for students to complete. 

  • Part One: When and Where? 

This one’s simple: when is the action taking place, and where? The whole story takes place in Mecca and Medina, between the years I listed above. Students just need to lock in the context for the chunk of the story they’ve read. 

  • Part Two: Main Actors 

This section has two columns, one for the names of actors who do things in this chunk of the story, and one for a brief description of each of these actors. The first chunk includes Muhammad, Abu Talib, the uncle of Muhammad who adopted him after his parents died, and so on. 

  • Part Three: Our Story So Far

For this template, I framed the narrative notes section as a storyboard. So, below “When and Where” and “Main Actors” sits a little four-box storyboard. I filled in the title of the last box for each of the four mini-storyboards so that students would know where to end up. They had to make titles for the other boxes and then write a brief sentence describing who did what below it.

Here’s an example from Max, from page two:

How’d It Go?

When we debriefed the reading, which we began in class and students completed for homework, I asked about the notes template. We’d done traditional outline notes on similar readings, and have storyboarded plenty. I asked if this worked for them.

Hallie volunteered immediately that the “main actors” section helped a lot. I checked during the class, and she in fact knew the story well. (She tracked Omar, who is a bit player in this chapter but ends up becoming the second Caliph and a crucial figure in the development of Islamic doctrine and the Islamic empire.) 

One of the comments I ended up making on lots of the templates was about the overuse of pronouns. The storyboards were full of sentences that said “He” did this or “they” did that. Still, the list of main actors gave me more confidence that students had a particular “he” or “they” in mind when they took their notes. (As I pointed out, whether they’d remember who “they” were when they studied from these notes is a separate question.)

Ideally, I’ll wean my students off my templates and have them create their own in their notebooks from here on out. They can make a section for “where and when” and a section on who’s making history before they record events. The fact is, a storyboard is just an outline laid out on a page for visual effect. They can make their “storyboard” vertical and proceed chunk by chunk. On the other hand, I do like forcing them to read and learn the section before writing their notes. That requires more thinking about the action before writing stuff down. 



Quick Question One: Turn & Talk!

If 4QM Teaching had a t-shirt it would say “Story First!” on the front (and “What’s the Question?” on the back). That’s because we know that students can’t do any serious thinking about history until they have answered Question One, which is “What happened?” Good answers to Question One come in the form of a historical story, and telling an accurate and true one is actually quite challenging. In our book we devote a whole chapter to teaching Question One, and we include specific ideas about how to assess it: can your students actually tell the story you think you’ve taught them? We’ve also blogged on Question One assessment before.

But we know that good history teaching doesn’t stop with Question One. We also want students to answer Questions Two, Three, and Four: What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that?In this post we’re going to share a brief video clip from a first year teacher teaching a Question Two lesson. But before he can get there, he needs to make sure his students know the story. In this clip he does a great job assessing Question One really quickly, with a technique you’ve probably used before: a turn and talk. We’ll show you what he did, and explain why it’s so effective.


This clip is from a fifth grade unit on Native Americans that we wrote for Nashville Classical Charter School. Nashville Classical uses Core Knowledge History and Geography (CKHG) for elementary social studies (it’s available for free download). The curriculum is knowledge rich and well written, but it has a fairly limited pedagogy (mostly reading and answering questions that are based directly on the text), and doesn’t engage students in rigorous historical thinking. We’ve written three new units (with more on the way) that build around the Four Question Method while using a lot of the CKHG materials.

In this lesson first year teacher Graham Delano is teaching a Question Two (“What were they thinking?”) about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Chief Joseph fought a series of battles against the U.S. Army, before formally surrendering in 1877. The focus of this lesson is interpreting that decision: 

  • What was Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe thinking when he abandoned his struggle against the American government?

But before students can answer that question, they need to know the story of the Nez Perce wars. Graham’s students learn that through reading the CKHG text aloud during the first ten minutes of class. 


Once they’ve read the story, Graham checks their understanding of it by asking them to “turn and tell your neighbor what decisions were made that led to the war. Go!” He’s a first year teacher, and he quickly realizes that his students need a bit more scaffolding, so he calls their attention back to himself. He clarifies who will be talking to whom, and then he gives them a more specific version of the question: 

“It could be decisions made by the Native Americans, and decisions that were made by the U.S. Army. What decisions were made that led to the outbreak of war?”


Graham’s reset gives the kids what they need, and they quickly get down to work. Even more importantly, the new wording incorporates one of the key elements of good historical narration: it identifies the actors in the story. One of the most important things we want students to learn in history class is that historical events don’t just happen. People make history by making decisions. In this particular case, Graham is teaching his students that the Nez Perce war didn’t just “break out” by itself. It was the result of decisions made by the U.S. government and army, and decisions made by the Nez Perce. (You can access the 4QM narration rubric here.)

When the students share out, they identify two key decisions that led to war: the army’s decision to order the Nez Perce to a reservation in Idaho (despite the fact that they had signed no treaty giving up their lands), and the decision of some Nez Perce warriors to fight that order. So the students demonstrate that they understand the story, and the role of actual people in driving it. Graham is now ready to move on to Chief Joseph’s decision to surrender, and students’ interpretation of his thinking.


We’ve seen a lot of history classes go badly when teachers skimp on teaching “What happened?” because they want to get to questions that they think are more interesting or more demanding. But if students don’t have a solid base of knowledge to work from, they can’t answer those subsequent questions well. Graham shows us that building Question One knowledge can be done quickly, effectively, and in a way that puts students at the center.


A Teacher Asks About Question Three

One of the most fun things about attending this year’s National Council for the Social Studies annual conference was meeting teachers from around the country who have been using the Four Question Method. They gave us great validation (a teacher from San Francisco stopped by our booth to enthuse, “This stuff works!”), and asked great questions. One excellent question came from a California teacher who attended our presentation on Saturday morning, and whose students are struggling with Question Three, “Why then and there?” That’s not surprising, since Question Three is the most abstract and difficult of the four questions, and it’s easy to get it wrong. In this blog post I’ll explain how Question Three is supposed to work, and describe some tools we use to help students (and teachers!) answer it well.


The specific case this teacher brought up was a lesson on South Carolina’s decision to secede from the United States in 1860. Lincoln had won the presidency that year, campaigning on a platform that called for no expansion of slavery beyond the states where it already existed. Before his inauguration, South Carolina became the first of the slave slates to declare themselves independent from the United States. The state issued a “Declaration of Secession” on December 24th, which the students had read and interpreted in class.

The teacher was having trouble getting her students to answer Question Three, “Why then and there?” about South Carolina’s secession. She described a common error: when she asked her students why the secession ordinance was approved in 1860, they re-told the story summarized above (that’s answering Question One, “What happened?”), and described the motivations of the South Carolina legislators (that’s answering Question Two, “What were they thinking?”). How could she get them to answer Question Three?


This is Jon writing, and I am very sympathetic to this error with Question Three because I made it myself for a long time. I’m a trained historian, and when Gary and I were working out the Four Question Method I spent eighteen months telling him that there was no Question Three. I argued that once we’d told a story and described the motivations of the actors in the story, nothing further was needed: we’d already explained why the events happened. Gary is a trained political scientist, and with great patience he eventually got me to see that Question Three defines a different kind of explanation than Questions One and Two, that we should also explore. 

The key insight that helped me to understand Question Three thinking, and that I offered to the teacher at our presentation, is this:

Question Three is always comparative.

Questions One and Two focus on one specific story, like the election of 1860 and South Carolina’s secession. Question Three is always comparing that one specific story with others, either in different times or different places. 

As a teacher working to structure that comparison for students, it helps to remember our first rule for answering Question Three:

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

The first part of this rule refers to change over time, and the second refers to differences across places. In the case of South Carolina’s secession, we’re going to compare South Carolina’s decision to secede in 1860 with previous times in the United States when states did not vote to secede. There must be something that changed by 1860 to make secession a more popular option than it had been previously.

The first step in structuring a Question Three comparison about change over time is to identify a specific long standing pattern that the event you want to explain disrupted. South Carolina seceded in 1860 in order to defend the institution of slavery. The secession broke a long-standing pattern of peaceful compromise on that issue. The leaders of the United States compromised on slavery when they wrote and ratified the Constitution in 1789. They compromised on slavery in 1820 with the Missouri Compromise, and again in the Compromise of 1850. There were many smaller incidents in which slave and free states came to agreements that preserved the union before December of 1860. Clearly, South Carolina’s decision to secede from the union broke this pattern: it’s a big change. What underlying change might explain that?


Identifying the comparison specifically is the first part of guiding students to a thoughtful answer to Question Three. Our second rule helps them (and us) to finish the job. That rule is, 

Factors, Not Actors

This rule is a reminder that we are seeking an explanation based on underlying changes in context or conditions, not specific stories of individual people. It’s easy to “answer” Question Three with circular logic: “South Carolina seceded in 1860 because by then many more people were in favor of secession than they were in 1820.” Yup. that’s a re-statement of the outcome we’re trying to explain, and an answer to Question Two. We want to take a metaphorical step back from that answer, and ask, “What underlying conditions had changed between 1820 and 1860 that might explain why so many more people favored secession in 1860?”

This phrasing helps us see that good answers to Question Three will use social science categories (political / economic / social, or others) and be generalized descriptions, not particular stories. So for example, in this particular case, one might answer the question above this way: 

The underlying political conditions in the United States changed between 1820 and 1860. In 1820, there was a balance between free and slave states. This meant that both sides could reasonably expect their interests to be represented on the federal level as the country expanded, so both had reason to compromise. By 1860 the balance had shifted in favor of the free states, with no prospect for its ever being restored. This meant that slave states like South Carolina had much less incentive for compromise within the framework of the U.S. Constitution, and secession became a much more attractive option to them than it had been earlier. 


As I said in the introduction to this post, Question Three is the hardest of the Four Questions. Answering it responsibly requires abstract thinking and knowledge of more than one historical story, and it helps if you’ve got some experience with the social sciences. But we know from our own experience and observation that when the student experience is well structured, even those who don’t read on grade level or have a lot of academic success behind them can engage Question Three puzzles effectively. And when they do, the “ah-ha” moments are especially sweet: kids feel really smart when they can answer a hard question well. 

We’re grateful to those of you trying the Four Question Method out in your classrooms, and taking the time to ask us questions. Keep them coming!



We Remember What We Think About

The Four Question Method was originally designed to solve a common problem for history teachers: How do we wrestle all of our mandated content into manageable and meaningful chunks that our students can understand? The solution is the six box storyboard that we use for unit planning. Fitting the “story of the unit,” whether it’s the American Revolution or the expansion of Islam or sub-Saharan African kingdoms, into six boxes forces teachers to make thoughtful decisions about what specific content is in and what’s out. These thoughtful decisions replace the not-so-thoughtful ones that get made for you when you don’t storyboard your units, and you are forced to skip content because you’re suddenly out of time.

As we developed the method, we realized that teacher planning is just a model for student learning: we want our students to learn and practice all the same skills that teachers use in planning. When teachers are storyboarding a unit, they’re answering Question One, “What Happened?” for their unit. A good answer to Question One takes the form of a narrative, and crafting a good historical narrative requires a lot of decisions. What events do you think are most important? What ones can be dropped or given less emphasis? Where do you want to break and “chunk” the story? What are the key turning points? These decisions shape the story that you’re going to tell, and ultimately reveal what you think is worth telling.

It turns out that making those decisions is a great way to actually learn the story, which is why we often have students make their own storyboards in class. It’s a lot to ask students to storyboard a unit, so we almost never do that. Instead we ask students to take one part of the unit story, usually one box of the unit storyboard, and use four boxes to tell that story. I did that activity today with my tenth graders, and it was a great example of why this technique is so powerful.


We’re in the middle of a unit called “Enlightenment and Revolutions” in my AP World History course. We’ve done more than two weeks of learning: reading philosophy, discussing philosophy, taking lecture notes. We’ve had two formative assessments along the way, one on the Enlightenment and one on the early phases of the French Revolution. Yesterday we finished learning the story of Napoleon, which ends with his final defeat and the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815. Historians generally accept that date as the end of the revolutionary era in France. 

I’m giving a big quiz tomorrow, and I wanted an active way for students to review. So I gave them a four box storyboard (just four blank boxes with the title up top) and told them they had to storyboard the French Revolution from 1789 to 1815. They work in groups of four and five, and I gave their instructions as follows:

  1. First determine your date ranges and titles FOR ALL FOUR BOXES. Your date ranges must be contiguous (you can’t skip years between boxes), and your titles must be descriptive.

  2. Once you’ve done that, tell the story of each box in SIX WORDS. You don’t have to use a sentence, but you are limited to six words. 

The first step generated a lot of purposeful activity. Students were digging back into their class notes and homework readings, trying to decide where to break the story. There was lots of good conversation like, “No, the reign of terror comes before Napoleon” and, “We should break it in 1806 because that’s when Napoleon started the Continental System, and that made everything start to go bad for France.” In both my sections, we had more than one version of the date ranges and titles. Some groups put everything before Napoleon in the first box, then had three boxes dedicated to his rise and fall. Others spread out the liberal and radical phases of the revolution (both before Napoleon) in two boxes, and then had only two boxes dedicated to his rise and fall. 

The second step, getting the story of each box into six words, generated more purposeful activity: what was the most important part of the story? One group’s first box was 1789 – 1792, “The Liberal Phase of the French Revolution.” Their six words were, “From Ancien Regime to Constitutional Monarchy.” A tight, pithy, and accurate summary of the time period, which they had to understand in order to write.


Daniel Willingham famously said that “memory is the residue of thought.” That’s a fancy way of saying that we remember what we think about. And when we have to make the kind of decisions that storyboarding requires, we have to think about our content. A lot. 

My students today spent a full class period working their materials, and thinking about the French Revolution: consulting notes, talking together about what happened when and what mattered most, then writing down their decisions. All of this makes them more likely to remember the story. (Giving them a quiz on it will also help them remember it; that’s called “retrieval practice.”) And honestly, storyboarding is a lot of fun. Students enjoy it, even though it’s intellectually demanding

Of course as teachers we want students to do more than just remember what happened. We also want them to practice answering Questions Two, Three, and Four: “What were they thinking?” “Why then and there?” and “What do we think about that?” My students have done a lot of Two and Four already in this unit (we’ve read Locke, Rousseau, and Robespierre), and we’re coming up on some Question Three thinking as we compare the French Revolution with the Haitian and Latin American Revolutions. The Four Question Method starts with a story, but it doesn’t end there. 

We describe all these ways of teaching, learning, and thinking in our book, From Story to Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies. If you’d like to talk more about this post or anything else related to the Four Question Method, leave a comment or email us at We look forward to hearing from you!



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.