Category: 4QM Teaching

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!


Troubleshooting “Document Analysis”

One of the most common and familiar activities in the social studies classroom is document analysis. Teacher training programs encourage it and our curriculum materials support it. I’ve got a shelf of document primary source readers on my office bookshelf, which I rarely use any more but can’t bear to part with. The internet is chock full of primary sources. Fordham sourcebooks, anyone? 

Why Bother?

But why exactly are we so intent on reading these primary sources? Jon and I have a clear and specific answer: we read sources to understand how someone, somewhere — someone who is not us — made meaning in and of their world. If you do it right, you get to know what that someone-who-is-not-us was thinking. That, in turn, helps our students to cultivate two cognitive habits that we consider extremely valuable, historical empathy and the author concept. Historical empathy is the capacity to understand how others think about things, regardless of whether we ourselves happen to think that way. The “author concept” is the awareness that things happen in the human world because actual people did and do them. When we practice interpreting primary sources the right way, we encounter other minds and contemplate their choices, and so cultivate both historical empathy and the author concept. 

The right way to interpret starts with asking the right question: What were they thinking? On the other hand, even if you and your students are clear on your reading purpose, there are two common problems you’re likely to encounter when you ask students to read and interpret primary sources in pursuit of an answer to Question Two. The first is the discovery, often well into the process, that students don’t actually understand the text they’ve allegedly read. The second is that, having read and understood it, they’re not sure what to do next.

The first problem is easily preventable. In this blog space and in our book, we endorse some straightforward reading strategies designed to make sure that students get the plain meaning of the texts they read, which in history class are often difficult and obscure to them. The key for teachers is to invest the time to do document analysis right. If you just want to talk about ideas, that’s fine — skip the document analysis. But there really is no substitute for interpretation, and there’s no way to get to interpretation without working your way through a meaningful artifact like a primary source. Take your time. 

The Challenge of Interpretation

The second problem is trickier. Let’s say your students know what the primary source says, and you know they know because you’ve seen their paraphrase or summary of the text or their answers to your carefully constructed text-dependent questions. Now what? 

A couple of years ago, I watched a young colleague try to coach his students into doing more than summarizing in response to a primary source. He conferenced briefly with each student, encouraging them to “say more” about the text than the brief summary they’d managed to produce. He’d then give them some examples for the text in question. It was a valiant effort, but not terribly efficient, for him or for them. What his students needed was an interpretive method, one they could use to approach any text and come out with real meaning. 

The first key to getting beyond paraphrase and summary and on to genuine interpretation is to use questions as inquiry tools. Question Two comes in a variety of forms (as do all Four Questions). Some versions work particularly well for directing student attention to the author’s purpose and intention, and from there into what they were thinking. So, for example, whatever the author of our text said and however they said it, we know that they were making choices. They could have said this exact thing — or said something else. And they could have said what they said in this way, or in some other way. So let’s ask ourselves: Why did they choose to say this thing in this way? Likewise, we can ask, bluntly, what was the author’s goal in saying this thing in this way? And, we can add: What assumptions about the world or the audience does the author make or reveal in this text? 

Use Your Story

This much students should be doing not only in social studies but in English class. Whether they do it systematically is, unfortunately, an open question. In any case, there’s a second tool available to social studies teachers that we need to use methodically: our story. The right way to select primary source documents to read with students is to identify a turning point or revealing moment in a true story and to get curious about it. Primary sources then give us the evidence we need to figure out why those people did what they did. 

The story frames the document analysis. Remember the young teacher prodding his students, one by one, to say more? Those students were reading extracts from Confucius’ Analects. They already knew the story of the Zhou dynasty collapse into civil war. That wasn’t trivia. It was the background knowledge they needed to make sense of the author’s choices and assumptions. If you’re wondering what problem Confucius was trying to solve in his philosophical teaching, it surely helps to know that he was an itinerant sage trying to convince local leaders to restore virtue and order in the midst of hostility and corruption. So, teaching students to use what they know — and planning for them to know what they need — is an essential part of document analysis in the social studies classroom.

So, doing document analysis? Start with your story. Check to make sure everyone knows what your sources actually say. Then, get beyond paraphrase and summary by asking the thinking question that makes kids smarter: What were they thinking…? 


To Judge or Not To Judge?

One of our favorite testimonials on our website is from a tenth grade student: “The Four Question Method makes history more clear and helps me think.” That’s exactly the point of the whole project. Our big insight is that there are really only four questions that students can ask and answer in social studies, and knowing them clarifies thinking for everyone. This allows teachers to design engaging and meaningful lessons, and students to learn more efficiently and effectively.

Unfortunately, intellectual confusion often reigns in the social studies classroom. Here’s an example I came across just last week.


This year I’m teaching tenth grade world history, and our textbook (which I quite like) is the fourth edition of Strayer and Nelson’s Ways of the World. Each chapter closes with a feature called “Reflections” about how historians do their work. The reflection at the end of chapter thirteen is called “To Judge or Not to Judge.” It starts by posing a question: “Should historians or students of history make moral judgments about the people and events they study?” The authors then go on to lay out the two sides of this debate. Some people argue that historians should be detached observers, focused on the task “to describe what happened and to explain why things turned out as they did.” Others point out that “all of us…have values and outlooks on the world that inevitably affect the way we think about the past,” and say that historians should go ahead and judge, rather than striving for “some unobtainable objectivity” (610).

The Four Question Method shows us that this debate is unnecessary. The two sides aren’t actually disagreeing — they’re just addressing different questions. The Four Question Method teaches students the thinking skills of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. We want our students to do all four things — but we also want them to recognize that each one is different. When we’re answering Questions One, Two and Three we’re trying to figure out what happened (that’s the skill of narration), understand the thinking of the people involved in the story (interpretation), and use comparative data to explain why things happen when and where they do (explanation). When we answer these Questions we do our level best to put aside our own prejudices and values, and follow the evidence where it leads us. Often our evidence is incomplete, and reasonable people will often disagree about what conclusions our evidence supports. But at least in principle, these questions are subject to rules of evidence and reason.*

But Question Four introduces the thinking skill of judgment. It asks, “What do we think about that?” Question Four cannot be resolved with more or better evidence, because it is an ethical question about right and wrong, good and bad. Our answers depend on our own beliefs and values. In writing our book we realized that the best classroom examples of Question Four focus on a particular historical decision that can then be generalized: Should Christopher Columbus have a statue in a waterfront park in Boston? Who gets a statue?


In writing their reflection on chapter thirteen, Strayer and Nelson don’t see the distinction between Question Four and the first Three Questions. This leads them to pose a series of confusing questions, like this one: “Was Stalinism a successful effort to industrialize a backward country or a ferocious assault on its moral and social fabric?” (610). 

Strayer and Nelson intend this as an example of a judgment question. And it looks like a judgment question, but it’s not. In fact it asks Question One, “What happened?”, twice. Did Stalin’s policies industrialize the Soviet Union? And did his policies dramatically change the moral and social fabric of the Soviet Union? Strayer and Nelson make these questions look like judgment questions by using value-laden language like “success” and “assault,” but in reality neither one asks about right or wrong, good or bad. 

This question has the added problem of being a false dichotomy. We see these a lot in social studies, because phrasing questions in this way is fun and makes them sound more complex than they are. But they’re almost always bad questions. In his classic book Historian’s Fallacies David Hackett Fischer gives this example: “‘Basil of Byzantium: Rat or Fink?’… Maybe Basil was the very model of a modern ratfink” (10). Strayer and Nelson do exactly the same thing with their question. Stalinism was both a successful industrialization effort and an assault on the moral and social fabric of the Soviet Union, but the question seems to preclude this answer.


The judgment question that Strayer and Nelson are really trying to ask is, I think, “How should we publicly remember Stalin?” Our answer to that depends on the answers to Questions One, Two, and Three, but it also depends on our own values and beliefs. And while professional historians may choose to shy away from explicit judgment, citizens cannot and should not. That’s why we like to think of every 4QM social studies unit as a practicum in judgment. Almost none of the students we teach will become historians, but all will be citizens. They need practice in making judgments about the past we all share so that we can build our common future together. 

The Four Question Method helps students, and citizens, to do that. It makes history more clear and helps us all think.


*I know that there is an argument in academia (and on social media) about whether rules of evidence and reason actually exist. At 4QM Teaching, we believe that they do. 

Books We Like

The aim of our book, From Story To Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies, is to make the thinking that defines the disciplines of history and social studies clear and accessible for both teachers and students. We believe that the Four Question Method (4QM) does that in a way that is at once simple and demanding. The questions themselves are simple, and can be understood by students in all grades and academic abilities. At the same time, taking each one seriously is academically challenging. Each question provides depth and rigor for the most demanding students and teachers. 

Our book contains specific examples of 4QM lessons, but it is much more than a bag of tricks. The lesson examples are there to illustrate the possibilities unlocked by planning, teaching, and learning with the Four Question Method. In this regard we share an approach with two other practical books for teachers that we admire: The Writing Revolution and Reading Reconsidered

The Writing Revolution

The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades is co-authored by teacher Judith Hochman and journalist Natalie Wexler. The book breaks down writing instruction in practical and powerful ways — it is full of practical teaching techniques that will help students become better writers. But what sets it apart from everything else I’ve read on this subject, and what makes it similar to our book, is the way it links writing instruction to student thinking. Hochman and Wexler understand that different types of sentences convey different types of meaning, and that the prerequisite for clear writing is clear thinking. But they also recognize that writing can be a tool for clarifying and deepening thinking. When we teach students how different kinds of sentences work, and ask them to use different types of sentences in writing about content (be it math, science, history, or whatever we’re teaching), we are actually helping them to learn content and to understand how sophisticated thought works. Thus “writing” instruction should always be content instruction.

We’ve borrowed several techniques from The Writing Revolution and cite it frequently in our book. Our book is discipline-specific to social studies, but  the approach is the same as Hochman and Wexler’s: we link our teaching and learning activities directly to the underlying thinking that we want students to do. 

Reading Reconsidered

Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction is by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway. This book is a distillation of excellent teaching techniques for reading as observed and refined by the authors, who work in the Uncommon Schools network of charter schools. One thing we especially love about Reading Reconsidered is how much emphasis it puts on reading nonfiction. In history and social studies we’re almost always reading nonfiction, and that presents its own pedagogical challenges. Reading Reconsidered includes lots of excellent tools for helping students to read nonfiction more effectively, all of which can be applied in history class.  And like The Writing Revolution, it links its teaching techniques to the underlying intellectual challenges they are meant to address. This is another text we borrowed from and cite extensively in our own book. 

From Story To Judgment

We freely admit that one day we’d like our book to be mentioned in the same breath as these better known works. We think we’ve done for social studies what they’ve done for writing and reading: provide an “x-ray” of the underlying thinking required to succeed at complex intellectual tasks, and show how that thinking can be taught in practical classroom learning activities. We also share their commitment to social justice. The most capable and privileged students will probably learn to write, read, and do history well without the kind of granular instruction that all three of these books describe. But many students (most?) will need more explicit teaching in order to fulfill their potential.

We hope we’ve provided a road map for that teaching and learning in social studies. We encourage you to read our book, and let us know if you agree.


The Hardest Job in Education

In our book, we claim that social studies teachers have the hardest and most important job in education. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already convinced (or you’re one of our close friends or relatives). 

Though admittedly rhetorical — lots of things we teach in school are important — learning about both history and politics is and should be high on our collective agenda right now. We’re in the midst of another public reckoning about race and inequality and, simultaneously and relatedly, witnessing a not-so-slow-motion assault on our basic institutions of democratic representation. Helping young people, the inheritors and future custodians of those institutions, to figure out how they work (and don’t) and how we got here should be a high priority for all schools. 

The first claim, that our job is the hardest, deserves at least a bit of elaboration. 

We Don’t Know Much When We Graduate

If you’re a math major in college and become a math teacher in middle or high school, you already know as much about mathematics as you’ll ever need to know. You can and should learn your subject more deeply. And, like everyone else in the teaching profession, you still have to acquire pedagogical content knowledge, what effective teachers know about how students learn their subject. 

By contrast, if you’re a history or social sciences major in college and become a social studies teacher in middle or high school, you’re not even close to mastering your content knowledge. In part that’s a result of misalignment between training programs and the jobs they’re supposed to be training for. Ed Schools should teach their candidates the exact courses they’ll be expected to teach when they start work. They should teach those courses — US history, world history, and some social science electives, including civics — at an adult level, aiming at content mastery. 

Of course, even then there would be lots more content to know. For one thing, history itself piles up all the time! 

But that’s not the root of the problem. The main trouble is that our knowledge lacks structure. Math and science undergraduates learn both content and structure in their majors. They acquire the basic, school-ready knowledge essential to their fields. And they learn structure: the core concepts and procedures mathematicians and scientists use to generate that knowledge in the first place. They learn both salient facts and a framework that makes them useful for further inquiry. 

Because there’s general agreement not just about essential content but about the structure of knowledge in those fields, math and science majors graduate from their own academic training ready to move on to the next challenge: the best way to teach those subjects to children. World language training is the same: a major in Spanish will equip you with both post-secondary knowledge of vocabulary and semantic context and an adequate grasp of the structure of grammar and syntax in the language. What’s left is pedagogical context knowledge. 

We Have No Structure 

Social studies, by contrast, is a hot mess. There’s a story to be told about the fragmentation of the disciplines that study human societies, past and present, from the time of the founding of the American Social Science Association (1865) to the modern configuration of majors and disciplines we encounter in universities today. There’s another story to be told about the interest of professors of history, and later geographers, in school curriculum and the relative disinterest of economists, political scientists, and other social scientists. The interest of these professionals in what we do in primary and secondary education is inversely related to the popularity of their majors in post-secondary education. Historians recruit among us, lately unsuccessfully. Political scientists and economists hardly try and don’t have to. 

The result is that even where we have rough consensus on the key stories worth telling in our classes — and we do, more than your news feed would lead you to believe — we have very little clarity on the intellectual operations of our enterprise. We lack consensus on what the key questions are in our multi-discipline of social studies and, naturally, on the concepts and procedures necessary for answering them well. We lack structure. 

Jon and I have made two contributions to our field, or at least tried to. The first is by way of a reminder. We teach stories, not “facts.” Stories comprise facts, of course, and the best teachers in our field have always embedded facts in narrative and taught them that way. We’ve proselytized for the storyboard both as a way of visualizing stories in planning and in the classroom and as a reminder to teachers: story first!

That observation, about the primacy of narrative, is rooted in our own pedagogical content knowledge. Students need to know things in order to think about anything in particular, or in general. Students can’t intuit what people have done in other times and places. We need to communicate all that to them. Narration is the most effective way to do that. Teach kids stories. And teach them how to tell those stories themselves. That will make knowledge stick, and therefore available for yet more thinking. University historians, by the way, generally get this right. They practice narration themselves and model it for their students. 

Our second contribution is more contentious and challenging. It is, put bluntly, that what currently passes for the structure of inquiry in our field is incoherent. If you look back over the blog posts in this space, you’ll see that they do one of two things: they promote specific techniques for teaching the skills associated with the Four Question Method, or they identify and lament the confusion and ambiguity we encounter regularly in our resources (here, here and here, for example) and classrooms (here, here and here). We see poorly formulated questions, unsupported claims, and incoherent arguments wherever we look. 

4QM = The Riddle of Structure Solved

The Four Questions, and their attendant skills and standards, are the riddle solved. They offer what social studies practitioners have lacked: a clear structure for thinking in social studies. People who’ve internalized and adopted the framework ask better questions in the classroom. Their students learn and make fewer bad arguments. I’d like to think they get better at spotting the ones they encounter in school sources and in real life. 

In real life, however, most teachers don’t have the time, energy, or material resources at hand to purge and revise their sources and replan their curriculum to align it with our framework. Many veterans of our workshops experiment with narrative planning and teaching. Fewer have created a wholesale curriculum that tracks the Four Questions, and so prepares students to ask and answer the questions that drive coherent thinking in our field. 

Hence our new year’s resolution, announced last September: 4QM Teaching is writing curriculum. We’re already written pilot units for 4th and 7th grade (the Renaissance and the Roman republic, respectively). We look forward to feedback from real classrooms and real classroom teachers this spring. We’ll report back soon!

Our goal over the next couple of years is to build our MA standards-aligned curriculum for grades four through eight. If the curriculum works, students who learn it will enter high school having internalized the logic of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. They’ll be able to identify the intellectual task that an inquiry question in social studies requires of them and will be able to spot a fake question or claim when they encounter it. 

Whatever your approach to teaching social studies, your students are unlikely to know more and think harder than you, their teacher, do. That’s why the Four Question Method requires teachers to ask and answer their own unit questions (planning!) before teaching students how to do the same thing (teaching and learning!). Having a curriculum that addresses each question clearly in each unit should help. Equally helpful would be teacher training that genuinely prepared us for the hardest, most important job in education. 


Who Gets A Statue?

In this post Jon describes two lessons that ask students to make a specific judgment about a recurring question: Who gets a statue?

Question Four in the Four Question Method is “What do we think about that?” This Question asks us to pass judgment on something that happened in the past. A classic judgment question from American history is, “Did Truman do the right thing in dropping the atomic bombs?” As we explain in our book, a full answer to Question Four requires us to go beyond the singular case, and to articulate general principles that we could apply to other cases. If we believe Truman was wrong, what general principles can we build from that judgment? Is it always wrong to target civilians in war? Is it sometimes acceptable? Under what conditions? Asking students to move from the specific to the general forces them to think rigorously about their own values and beliefs, and gives them a meaningful opportunity to listen to people who may disagree with them. 

If you plan a course really well, you can circle back to your Question Fours more than once. General William Tecumseh Sherman was famous for targeting Southern civilian property in the American Civil War — he clearly thought such a strategy was acceptable in his context. Sherman and Truman would make a nice Question Four comparison in a U.S. history course: it would be interesting (for teachers and students) to see if students who supported Sherman also supported Truman, and vice versa.

Does Genghis Khan Deserve A Statue?

This year I’m teaching AP world history, so a lot of my course is pre-modern. One problem with asking “What do we think about that?” in pre-modern history is that the contexts are so different that it can difficult to find an engaging question about which we might need a general principle today. “Under what conditions is it acceptable to lay siege to a city and sack it?” doesn’t really come up much today. (Thankfully.) But I found a way around this dilemma by asking a contemporary question about some key historical figures: Who gets a statue?

My first unit in the course is about the Mongol Empire, and at the end of the unit I ran a Question Four discussion about the Mongolian government’s decision to build a giant statue of Chinggis Khan, the brutal Mongol conqueror, outside their capital city. The statue is 131 feet tall, made of stainless steel, and tops a visitors center and museum. Should the Mongolian government honor Chinggis in this way? 

Our discussion was enthusiastic, with varied opinions. A substantial number of students said that the five million dollar statue was fine: Chinggis is a hero to the Mongols, and he didn’t do anything especially unusual for his time. I remember one boy in particular who said that “the Euoropeans would have done exactly the same thing if they weren’t so weak.” Others thought that it was wrong to honor a man today who famously said that his greatest joy was in conquering his enemies and making their loved ones weep, no matter what the mores of his time were.

What About Columbus?

Two units later I was teaching about European exploration and maritime empires, and I led a discussion about the city of Boston’s decision to take down a statue of Columbus from a waterfront park (I teach at a Boston charter high school). The decision was taken just last year, so the topic was timely. And it allowed us to return to our earlier discussion: Who gets a statue?

The Columbus conversation was more one-sided: almost everyone thought the statue should have come down. But in making their case, students were able to recall and use the thinking they had done about Chinggis’s statue. A few students did argue that the statue should stay, because Columbus was a man of his time, just like Chinggis. (One student pointed out that yes, Columbus did bad things, “But the Aztecs were ripping people’s hearts out!”)  Some argued that just as a Chinggis statue makes sense in Mongolia a Columbus statue might belong in Italy or Spain, but that he was no hero to the United States and so should not be honored with a statue here. Most students thought that honoring Columbus as an individual with a statue in Boston was inappropriate, since his behavior towards Native Americans was reprehensible even by the standards of his own time, and since if he hadn’t sailed to the Americas someone else would have. 

With a broad consensus on this particular decision about the Columbus statue, we then tried to arrive at some general principles for who should get a statue. My students started out by saying that only individuals who had done something truly extraordinary and overwhelmingly good should be so honored. (Harriet Tubman was put forward as an example; Chinggis Khan would probably not qualify.) When I asked about George Washington, the consensus fell apart, in a really productive way. Some students felt that the general principle of extraordinary achievement of overwhelming goodness was satisfied by Washington (independence!), while others disagreed. Some wanted to modify the principle, while others wanted to soften its terms.

In our book we explain that Question Four is a generalizing question. One of the main reasons we study history at all is so that we can learn from the past to inform our decisions in the present, and generalizing about the principles underneath our judgments is one way to make sure that our learning from history is rigorous and relevant. The Four Question Method helps to guide students and teachers alike in designing lessons in responsible generalization.


The Power of Representative Events

One of the most challenging problems history and social studies teachers face is managing the enormous scope of content that we are responsible for teaching. One teacher we worked with a few years ago referred to that content as “a behemoth.” The Four Question Method gives teachers a way to tame that behemoth: by focusing on the story of the unit and choosing “representative events” to tell it.

Story First, With Representative Events

Gary and I are currently writing an elementary school unit on the Renaissance for Nashville Classical Charter School in Tennessee. The school uses the Core Knowledge Foundation’s history and geography text, which is lively and well written. It also includes nine chapters on the Renaissance, with a total of eighty nine pages of text. As I said, this is a good textbook: it’s clear, coherent, and does a good job explaining historical events — none of which are givens among textbooks in our field. But can we really expect nine and ten year olds to remember all the artists and popes and places listed in these eighty nine pages? We cannot. And if we actually tried to teach all that content, we’d crowd out all the time for students to practice their own historical thinking: the kids would have no time for the skills of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. We need to pare down the list of content in our unit, but we need to do it in an efficient way that has positive effects on student learning.

At 4QM Teaching we say that social studies teaching starts with “Story First.” The key to paring down your content is deciding what story your unit will tell. Every historical event that makes it into our curriculum is big and complicated — there’s a lot you could teach, and there are many different ways you could construct your narrative. But you only have one school year for all your content, so you’ve got to decide which story you’re teaching this year. 

An important way to tame your story is to choose a small number of “representative events” to focus on. Most big historical stories have a lot of similar events in them. Wars have many battles. European imperialists conquered many places. The thirteen American colonies protested many English policies during the 1760s and 1770s. Don’t make your students learn all of them to the same depth. Choose one or two that are important and can represent all the others, and focus on them — then tell your students that there were others that were similar in most key respects. 

Florence: Cradle of the Renaissance

The nine Core Knowledge textbook chapters on the Renaissance include three on specific cities: Florence, Venice, and Rome. We decided to only teach Florence. It’s a great representative event for our unit story. Merchants become wealthy through trade (in the case of Florence through the wool trade), expand their business into banking, and use their wealth to explore classical learning and patronize artists. Our choice of Florence also helped us to decide what specific artists to include in the unit. We’re only holding students responsible for da Vinci and Michelangelo, both of whom had strong connections to the city. We can tell students that there were other Italian cities that followed a similar pattern to Florence, including Venice and Rome. But we don’t have to read those chapters and teach those cities, or their artists. (I was sad to have to cut Titian, a Venetian master whose work I love. But unit planning for kids should be built around a lean story, not including everything their teacher loves. We’d never get through the school year that way.) 

Time For Student Thinking

Choosing representative events to tell your unit story buys your students the time they need to practice historical thinking skills for themselves. We’re planning a day to teach the story of Florence, and then a day to have students use storyboard cards to tell the story back to each other. Historical narration is a very challenging skill, especially for students learning something for the first time. If we were rushing from Florence to Venice, the students would not have time to practice telling either story for themselves, and only the most capable students would remember both stories a week or two later. 

Of course our unit goes well beyond narration. We’re going to have kids do a drawing exercise on perspective, and interpret da Vinci’s Last Supper and a detail of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. We’re building a Question Three puzzle on why the Renaissance spread where and when it did (trade!), and a Question Four discussion class on vanity. We’d never be able to do all that if we were actually assigning all nine chapters in the textbook. 

I’ve written about cutting unit content before, and in our book we describe the 4QM unit planning process in much more detail. The bottom line is that social studies teachers always have to select a story from among many, which means they have to decide what not to teach. Selecting representative events to carry your unit story is a great way to make those decisions.