Category: 4QM Teaching

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. 




Quick Question Three

In this post Gary describes some quick ways to get students thinking about Question Three: “Why then and there?”

Question Three — why then and there? — is the hardest of the Four Questions. The Russians had a revolution in 1917. We can tell the story easily enough after consulting a decent textbook. We can say what Lenin, the leader of the revolution, was thinking by reading some widely available texts. To say with any degree of confidence and integrity why the Russian revolution happened when and where it did, on the other hand, we need to know an awful lot about Russia’s (and the world’s) economy and finances, its social institutions and political geography, and its culture. And we need to know how all these things were changing in the period leading up to the revolution. That inquiry project is not for the faint hearted. 

The good news is that Jon and I nailed down the procedures for tackling Question Three in our book, From Story to Judgment. In the book, we share a rubric and a template that breaks down the steps for teachers and students, from finding correlations between contextual factors and the outcome we’re interested in to testing explanatory hypotheses on comparable cases. Follow the steps. It really works! The book lays out a case study you may already use in your modern world history classes: Japan’s modernization and China’s collapse in response to imperialism. Why then and there, indeed! 

Still, gathering the materials necessary for students to formulate reasonable hypotheses about why events happen when and where they do, let alone to test them, is challenging and frequently laborious. Jon and I have started producing DBQs for 4QM teachers to use in the classroom to tackle Question Three in the classroom, like the one we designed for the book and others we have produced for clients. Once we’ve got a bunch ready, we’ll let you know when and where to find them.  

Quick Question Three Activities

In the meantime, there are actually lots of quick and relatively simple ways to practice the logic of explanation — the Question Three thinking skill — without conducting a full-blown explanatory inquiry. Here are some fun classroom options. 

  1. For a classic quick hit of Question Three, use your maps. Earlier this fall, I did two of these with my 9th graders. First, we looked at a map of river valley civilizations. I asked them to notice the pattern: early agrarian societies by living major rivers. Why there and not elsewhere? They supplied the plausible mechanisms: fresh water for farming and drinking, and water-control projects for ambitious leaders. Then, another Q3 puzzle: the ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus Valley civilizations were overrun by invaders. Their cultural and institutional traditions vanished. The Yellow River civilization became China. Why there and not in those other places? Again, our map tells a story (and our textbook tells it, too): China was relatively isolated by mountains, desert, and a vast ocean. Two chances to explain a difference with a difference in the same lesson!
  2. The key to the map activities is that they present lots of information in a condensed, visual form. Charts and graphs can do the same thing. Any time you have one, use it to identify correlations — patterned associations between events that may (or may not) reflect a causal relationship. For example, we reported here on a conference workshop we did in 2019 on political protests in Hong Kong, a topic that feels even more poignant now that the Chinese government has dissolved the remnants of independent politics there. The Financial Times made Question Three easy for us by gathering salient data in graphic form. Here’s one rich example:


    That data is already old, but the trend still holds: Hong Kong used to be a major economic engine for China. Now, it plays a diminishing role in an increasingly industrialized country with many points of access to the global economy. Similar charts, widely available, show that China as a whole constitutes a much larger part of that global economy than it did back in 1997, when it was returned to China by Great Britain. Together, these charts help us to generate hypotheses about the timing of the central government’s abandonment of the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement it promised to uphold in 1997. We can know how Chinese leadership justifies its crackdown on Hong Kong by reading its public statements. (That’s Question Two.) We can figure out the timing of its decisions by considering Question Three in light of these pithy charts.

  3. This one doesn’t even require charts or graphs: ask your students to identify the questions they’re asking and the claims they’re making. I recently did a judgment activity with my students. (That’s Question Four: What do we think about that?) As always, lots of what comes out in brainstorming in response to Question Four are claims about what will happen — great or terrible — if we choose a course of action. So, our deliberations about the virtues of political meritocracy as opposed to electoral democracy involved us in claims about how well each system deals with corruption and incompetence in leaders. Those are researchable Question Threes. We don’t actually need to know the answers in order to identify the core values and principles at stake in both systems. We do need to know what kinds of claims we’re making and questions we’re answering. Training students to get good at that makes them more faithful and effective discussion partners and much clearer thinkers.
  4. The same logic works for reading the typical tertiary sources we rely on for so much of learning in history classes. Our textbooks tell us what happened. They are also chock full of causal claims — answers to Question Threes — typically presented without evidence. Teach your students to identify those claims. Ask them what evidence would and should satisfy them that they’re true. That exercise alone will make them better, more astute readers.

There’s no substitute for practicing the full-blown inquiry we describe in the book. But excellent preparation for it is all around us. Enjoy!



4QM Can Improve Your Existing Curriculum

One of our favorite things about the Four Question Method (4QM) is how it helps social studies teachers to sort through and make better use of existing curriculum materials. We were reminded of this at a recent workshop when an eighth grade teacher said that he’d been using SHEG materials for years, and they sometimes work well in the classroom and sometimes don’t. He was really excited because he recognized that the Four Question Method gives him a framework to understand why some SHEG lessons work and others don’t, and the tools to make them succeed much more consistently. Understanding the 4QM makes planning engaging units and lessons using existing materials a lot easier. 

Most Curricula Don’t Understand Question Types

If you’re a social studies teacher or curriculum coordinator, you’ve probably heard of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) and maybe used their free curriculum materials. They’re a huge presence in our field. Another popular organization with a lot of free social studies curriculum is C3 Teachers. Like SHEG, it organizes social studies curriculum around student inquiry, and uses a lot of primary sources.

The problem with both of these groups’ materials is, as the teacher at our workshop found, that they don’t have a strong understanding of the different types of questions they are asking. This may be the pre-eminent problem in social studies curriculum. Most curriculum writers can’t identify the intellectual structures that differentiate between question types, so many of their inquiry lessons ask ambiguous questions, or boring questions, or questions that are rhetorically cute but impossible to answer honestly. (“Can Peace Lead To War?” Every time! Except when it doesn’t!) Without a clear understanding of question types, social studies teachers are left with vague similes and guesswork to determine what to ask students in order to elicit responsible thinking about the past. Sometimes they (or the curriculum writers) guess right, and the lesson goes well. Sometimes they guess wrong, and the lesson isn’t so great. Students don’t experience the cumulative intellectual growth that consistent questioning over time can produce. 

4QM Eliminates Guesswork

The Four Question Method takes the guesswork out of social studies inquiry. Teachers who understand the 4QM can use it to make existing curriculum materials much more effective in their classrooms. SHEG and C3 have done a great job of collecting and curating a wide range of primary and secondary sources related to important history topics, and presenting them in student-friendly formats. Most of their lessons can be tweaked into a 4QM format that will use those materials to teach social studies thinking clearly and consistently. 

Of course the gold standard would be curriculum materials designed for the Four Question Method from the beginning. We’ve started writing those materials, and our book describes how you can do the same. Let us know if you’d like to start a conversation about 4QM curriculum for your school or district. And in the meantime, apply the Four Questions to your existing curriculum materials — we think you (and your students) will enjoy the results.



How Storyboarding Helps Learning

In this post Jon describes how a storyboarding activity helped his students to make sense of lecture notes they’d taken on the Spanish Empire.

This week in my tenth grade AP World History class we were learning about the Portuguese and Spanish Empires of the 15th – 18th centuries. I gave the same lecture on the Spanish Empire to my two sections, first period and third period. I’m a big proponent of lecture as a teaching technique, especially for Question One, “What Happened?” A successful lecture is just a good story well told, and I was pleased with how well mine went. Most of my students were attentive, and most took pretty good notes, writing more than I had on the board, and some asked good questions.

But critics of lecture as a teaching technique are correct that unless we ask students to do something with the information they’ve noted, we can’t be sure of how much they’ve actually learned. So I followed my Spanish Empire lecture with a classic 4QM classroom activity: I had my students retell the story by illustrating a four-box storyboard. 

Storyboards As A Classroom Learning Activity

At 4QM Teaching we train teachers to use storyboards in unit planning, but we also use them a lot as a classroom teaching technique. They are a brilliant tool for forcing students to use information they’ve learned (whether from a lecture, reading, or some other source) to create a coherent and accurate historical narrative. Storyboarding is a powerful learning technique because it requires students to make decisions. They need to decide what information is relevant and important enough to include on their storyboards, they need to create illustrations that reflect a clear and accurate understanding of the story, and they need to decide how to divide the story into four sequential chapters that cover the whole assigned time frame. Making all of those decisions, especially if students are working with a partner or small group, requires a lot of interacting with and thinking about historical content.

From the teacher’s perspective, storyboards also function as an excellent check for understanding. Listening in on student conversations and asking questions about illustrations quickly reveals what students understand and don’t about the historical narrative you think you taught. 

Storyboarding can be scaffolded up or down, depending on what your students need. Many of my tenth graders don’t yet read or write on grade level, and it’s still early in an unusual post-pandemic school year. (If you’re a teacher, you know what I’m talking about — it’s been a rather bouncy fall, right?) So I made this storyboarding task a bit easier by giving students the date range for each box, keyed to turning points in the story I had articulated in my lecture. You can make the task harder by just giving a start and end date, and having students decide how to break the story into four chapters, or by giving no dates at all and having them make all the decisions.

Students were assigned to create a title for each box that reflected the events of that box’s date range, and to illustrate the box with appropriate pictures. I emphasized that art is not being graded (my “people” are usually just lollipops), but comprehension is. I scored the storyboards out of eight points: one each for the title and illustration in the four boxes.

How’d It Go?

The results were interesting, and humbling. Here’s some of what I noticed. 

First off, nearly everybody enjoys storyboarding. It’s fun to talk with your classmates, and it’s fun to draw. Second, the conversations about what to put in each box are great. Students pore over their notes, trying to figure out why I chose the dates for each box, arguing over what goes where, and debating appropriate titles. I had a lot of students waving and beckoning, asking me to “Check mine! Check mine!”

Second, a significant percentage of my students had taken what looked like good notes, but they didn’t fully understand them until they had to use them to retell the story. Students were confused about who was a Spaniard (Hernan Cortes) and who was an indigenous American (Moctezuma). They were confused about the sequence of events (the “Columbian Exchange” happened over many years, and after 1492). Storyboarding was an excellent way to surface and correct those misunderstandings. 

Third, because of scheduling, my third period class did the storyboard on the same day we finished the lecture, while my first period class did it the following day. The students who did it the same day had a much easier time of it. If there’s a cognitive scientist reading this, I’d love to know which you think is more effective for learning — I suspect waiting a day actually produces more retention, but I don’t actually know that. Comments welcome!

Fourth, drawing is a great way to have students whose written English is not strong express their understanding of historical narrative. As I mentioned before, many of my students are not yet strong writers.This activity put a premium on thinking about the history, not on thinking about spelling, sentence structure, word choice, or all the other things that go into writing.

I’m posting a picture of a sample storyboard from a strong student below. The box titles are:

1469 – 1492: The Catholic Kingdom

1492 – 1502: Discovery of New World

1502 – 1533: Conquering the New World

1533 – 1750: Social Hierarchy in Americas

If you’ve never tried storyboarding with your own students, I highly recommend it. We talk about it extensively and include an example from American history in our book, From Story To Judgment, and you can always reach out to us through the comments or by emailing us at if you’d like to talk more about it. 


Quick Practice in Narration and Interpretation

In this post Gary describes two quick ways to get students practicing the historical thinking skills of narration and interpretation.

In our new book, From Story to Judgment, we describe gold-standard activities — we call them “inquiry labs” — for practicing the Four Questions and the historical thinking skills associated with each of them: narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. It was important to me and Jon to get those inquiry labs right, because we wanted to be super clear about what skillful thinking really means and how we can practice it with real students in real classroom settings. There are lots of empty-calorie activities out there and lots of fakery in what are billed as ‘rigorous’ activities and assessments. We want teachers to take their questions seriously so that students learn how to do it, too. That’s what drives real and skillful thinking. So we worked hard to lay out what that means for each of the Four Questions. 

We also included playcards in the book, in which we describe lots of ways to practice those thinking skills without committing the substantial class and prep time a full-blown inquiry lab requires. The playcards include quick-hit activities that can exercise the minds of students in the ordinary flow of a lesson. 

This year, I’m finding tons of cool, quick ways to get my students practicing elements of each of the core thinking skills, many of which I’ve never tried (or imagined) before. What’s great about these quick activities is that they require very little preparation on my part beyond selecting decent narrative sources for my students to read. 


Here’s an example: my students read a textbook section on an early Chinese dynasty. There isn’t much story there: the Shang dynasty consolidated power, coerced workers into building walled cities, oversaw irrigation projects, and made war against border tribes. Then the dynasty collapsed and a new aristocratic family, the Zhou, took over the Yellow River valley.

The textbook version of the Shang story is fairly static. Aside from coming to power and losing it, the ‘story’ is basically a list of actions and accomplishments. That, it turns out, is no obstacle to practicing narration. We played a game: tell me what the Shang rulers and people did. In table teams, my students made lists from their notes of all the things the Shang did. Then we went around, in turn and at pace, with no repetition allowed. Much vigorous talking ensued.

It sounds perfectly obvious, but the action is all in the syntax. Every qualifying utterance must be a sentence, and every sentence has to start with a subject — the Shang rulers, the Shang people, someone historical and identifiable. And every subject must be followed by an action verb. That, it turns out, is genuinely challenging for students who are accustomed to copying lists of information from their textbooks. Students couldn’t respond with “irrigation” or “bronze weapons.” They had to say, “Shang rulers built irrigation canals,” or even better, “Shang rulers made their subjects build irrigation canals.” 

The thinking skill we were practicing is drawn right from the narration rubric in Chapter One in the book. The second row of that rubric describes “Agency,” the narrator’s capacity to say who did what (to whom). That’s a core element of storytelling. Learning to read through that lens is a core element of an essential historical thinking skill. My students got to practice it. 

The INTERPRETation Game

The next day, we played a similar game with Question Two. This time students had to say what the Zhou rulers thought or believed using the information in the textbook. Just from reading their notes, students could say, “The Zhou thought that natural disasters were a sign that the ruling dynasty had lost Heaven’s approval for their rule.” Once that Question Two claim has been aired, things get interesting. Now you need to begin making inferences about what the Zhou must have assumed to be true about the world if they believed in the Mandate of Heaven. For example, students now had to say things like, “The early Zhou rulers probably believed that they would do a better job controlling floods than the Shang.” That activity made for a great, low-cost and high-return practice in one of the core elements of interpretation: unpacking the assumptions implicit in an author’s meaningful text or utterance. 

My students have already done and will continue to do all the usual 4QM stuff this year. We made storyboards for the creation of the imperial system, from Zhou to Han. We did a full-blown interpretation, with rubric and template, of selections from Confucius’ Analects. And we’ll do a formal judgment exercise on Confucianism as a governing ideology soon enough. 

But it’s good to know that we can practice thinking every day, simply by focusing on the language we use to recount what we’ve learned about what people did and what they were thinking while they did it. The activities may be quick, but they add up. I’m wagering that, among other things, that daily focus on language will make my students better readers of historical sources, which are chock full of responses to Question One and Question Two.