Category: 4QM Teaching

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. 


Digging For Real Gold in the Social Studies Classroom

We history and social studies teachers know we should be asking our students to think about the history they’re learning, not just memorize it, so we often ask questions that look like thinking questions. But many of these questions don’t actually require the kind of historical thinking that we say we want students to do. Many of them are impossible to answer honestly — so our students fake it, and so do we. Fortunately, there’s a better way. By focusing on the Four Questions that are at the heart of our discipline, students and teachers can practice real thinking every day, and can get consistently better at it over time. 

Fake Questions Are Like Fool’s Gold

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Last week I was digging through some old curriculum materials for my AP World History course (taught to tenth graders at the urban charter school where I work) and I came across a set of slides for a lecture on the Ottoman Empire. The slides were pretty good: well organized, with engaging images, light on text. They outlined a clear narrative of the rise of the Ottoman Empire, from the 1300s through the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. Then the last slide was a classic fake question. It asked students to use their notes to write a short paragraph in response to the prompt, 

“Identify the leading cause of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.”

This looks like a thinking question. We imagine that students would have to review their notes, identify elements of the narrative that “caused” Ottoman expansion, then weigh them against each other and identify one as the “leading cause.” But this question is intellectual fool’s gold: it only looks like the real thing. A few moments’ honest reflection will show us that the question can’t really be answered with the information we’ve provided. The slides tell students that the Ottomans were among the first military forces to use gunpowder weapons, and that their military was very well led during their expansionist phase. Was one of these the “leading cause” of Ottoman expansion? Which one? Let’s imagine a “debate” between two students, one of whom insists that all the excellent leadership in the world wouldn’t result in expansion without gunpowder weapons, and the other  insisting that gunpowder weapons would be useless in the hands of poorly led troops. Both positions seem quite logical.

A typical history teacher move in this situation is to tell students, “There’s no right answer. As long as you can give evidence to support your thinking, you’ll get credit.” But there’s no “evidence” available to students that would demonstrate why either gunpowder weapons or military leadership was more important to Ottoman expansion. So all we’re really asking students to do is to find and repeat back to us one of the things we just told them in the lecture. We’re not asking for rigorous cause and effect thinking. 

When we ask this kind of question we’re asking students to fake it, and when we tell them “there’s no right answer” we’re telling them that we accept their fakery. We’re taking intellectual payment in fool’s gold.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do that. We can use a typology of Four Questions to engage students in real thinking, and help them dig for real intellectual gold.

A Better Way

The “leading cause” question is an example of what we at 4QM Teaching call a “Question Three: Why Then and There?” Question Threes are rigorous and a lot of fun — but doing them honestly is challenging. That’s part of the reason it’s Question Three, rather than one or two: students need to know a lot before they can answer questions about historical causality well. 

My lecture slides on the Ottomans were actually answering Question One, “What Happened?” History and social studies teachers often rush through Question One because it seems like it is not a thinking question. But if you’ve ever asked students to retell a narrative that you just taught them, you’ll find that the thinking skills of chronology, selecting key elements of the story, and accurately showing change over time are actually very demanding. In our book and in our blog we have a lot of suggestions about how you can get students to exercise their narrative thinking skills. One of these would be a good closing activity (or homework assignment) for my Ottomans lecture, rather than asking students an unanswerable question. 

Good Questions

In our book we identify the Four Questions that are at the heart of teaching and learning in social studies, and show teachers how to use them in the classroom. They’re simple and direct, but also intellectually demanding and rigorous. Building lessons, units, and courses around the Four Questions cuts out the fakery and teaches real historical thinking skills. 

We had a gratifying moment at a workshop last summer when a middle school social studies teacher told us, “These questions are MUCH better than the ones I’ve been asking.” She knew she’d been faking it, and was thrilled to have the tools to make thinking real for her students. The Four Question Method can make thinking real for you and your students too — you can stop trading in intellectual fool’s gold, and dig for the real thing instead.


Templates For Thinking

In this post Jon plugs an awesome book on teaching writing, and explains why templates are a great tool for teaching students to think.

“They Say, I Say”

On the recommendation of the presenter at an AP workshop I attended this summer I recently picked up a copy of They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. This book does a truly excellent job of breaking down analytical writing into its component parts (“the moves that matter”) and teaching them to students. The major tool the authors use to do that is templates. Graff and Birkenstein give a whole series of sentence frames — sentences with blanks for the specific information — that show students precisely how good writers do things like, “Introducing Quotations,” “Explaining Quotations,” and “Disagreeing, With Reasons.” Their chapters explain how to use the templates to create powerful academic essays. It’s a great book.

Interestingly enough, the book’s preface makes it clear that not everyone shares my opinion. There’s a whole section called, “OK – But Templates?” that opens with the acknowledgment that “some instructors may have reservations about templates” (xix). But the authors respond with this explanation: 

The trouble is that many students will never learn on their own to make the key intellectual moves that our templates represent. While seasoned writers pick up these moves unconsciously through their reading, many students do not. Consequently, we believe, students need to see these moves represented in the explicit ways that templates provide. (xix)

This passage resonated strongly with me for two reasons. First, as a veteran history teacher who spent years in wealthy suburban district schools before returning to urban education in 2018, I am constantly reminded of how many intellectual moves middle class kids learn unconsciously that less privileged students need to be taught explicitly. Second, explicit instruction in intellectual moves — through templates — is precisely what we offer in our own book, From Story to Judgment

Make The Implicit Explicit

Most social studies teachers and students are only unconsciously aware of the questions that define our discipline. Consequently, most of us don’t think explicitly and carefully about the intellectual moves required to answer them responsibly. I know I didn’t, until developing the Four Question Method with Gary and writing a book about it forced me to. The goal of our book is to allow everybody in the social studies classroom — those who pick up the intellectual moves of history unconsciously through their reading and those who do not — to have an equal shot at understanding and success. We’ve seen the Four Question Method improve teaching and learning in all types of schools, from wealthy to high-poverty. While the leverage is greatest for students who face great disadvantages, it turns out that everyone benefits from more intellectual clarity in the social studies classroom.

That goal, and our use of intellectual templates to achieve it, means that From Story to Judgment shares a world-view with They Say, I Say. I’ve written before about other books that have this same outlook, most notably  Reading Reconsidered and The Writing Revolution. Like the authors of these books, Gary and I believe that complex cognitive tasks like reading, writing, and thinking about history can be “x-rayed” and explained in ways that are comprehensible to everyone. And we believe that social justice demands that all students be given explicit access to this knowledge and these skills. We hope that our book will join these others in helping to achieve that goal.




Books Are Not Enough

It’s official. Our book, From Story to Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning History, is out in the world. Judge for yourself! 

Whatever happens with the book — whoever reads it and whatever they get from it — writing it did a ton for us. Having to explain the Four Questions patiently in print certainly made us clearer about our method and the thinking skills it aims at. In the book, we work through specific examples of how to answer each of the questions in a skillful way. Creating those demonstrations, knowing that we’d have to share our work with an adult audience of professionals, forced us to practice what we’ve been preaching in a sobering and edifying way. The book has already made us smarter, better teachers.  

We hope that reading our book does the same for you. We think the odds are good. If you’re reading this blog post, you’re already an unusual teacher. You’re looking for things to read and do beyond what you’ve already figured out on your own and with colleagues. You’re hungry enough about your craft to seek more stimulation, more advice, more engagement about how to engage students in thinking about the human world in your classrooms. It’s safe to say that you are more likely than the average teacher to read a book like ours. You’re also more likely to implement whatever you learn from it independently in a way that improves your teaching practice. 

Most teachers don’t do that. That’s not meant to be a knock on “most teachers.” Lord knows that our field is challenging enough as it is without adding independent professional learning to the mix. Math majors who become teachers start their careers pretty much knowing all the math they’ll ever need. History and the social sciences produce no undergraduate experts. Even if you’ve got a masters or doctorate in one of our disciplines, what you don’t know vastly exceeds what you do. And history keeps piling up, to say nothing of fresh discoveries and interpretations of our past. That should keep us all plenty busy. 

But the reality is, a book on how to teach and learn social studies will help primarily those with the drive and discipline to make changes on their own. That’s a minority in any field; ours is no exception. So, I’m thrilled the book is out and available. And I believe that *you* will profit from it, without any supplements. 

But there’s a lot even a spectacular book, let alone one by first-time book authors, simply cannot accomplish.

Our book is an expression of our consulting practice. We’ve done lots of workshops with teachers from lots of different kinds of schools. We learned a ton doing that. Eventually we wrote it down, and now our learning is out in the world as a book. Fortunately, writing a book is only one way to share what you’ve learned with a larger community. 

And so, on to the next 4QM project. We’ve discovered, again through our consulting practice, that designing workshops around 4QM-aligned curriculum materials is a tremendously effective way to train teachers in the techniques that have improved our own pedagogy. For example, we recently wrote a unit on the rise and fall of the Roman Republic for a client. We then built workshops around that curriculum, working through each of the Four Questions as we went. The workshops were productive and the teachers, both veterans in the topic and those new to it, appeared to profit. And the teachers got to leave the workshop with the curriculum ready to go for their classes. 

We used that same curriculum again with groups of teachers from another district. Again, the value of teaching an open hand of model, 4QM-aligned curriculum was clear. We’re under no illusions about that second workshop. It demonstrated a method for teaching students to tell a great story, take it apart, and practice thinking skills along the way. But for those who aren’t going to teach ancient Rome, they need one more step: bona fide 4QM curriculum for the courses they actually teach. 

Workshops, books, and demonstrations are all terrific. For teachers with the drive and time and gumption to work things out for themselves, that’s all you really need. But there’s no good reason that a quality curriculum has to be fashioned teacher by teacher, classroom by classroom. We’re not interested in scripting daily lessons. Only teachers know who they and their students are in the classroom, and so only teachers are well equipped to make pedagogical decisions at that granular level. But we are very keen on providing teachers with the resources they need to build daily lessons for their own students that harness the power of story and lead them, step by step, from story to judgment, giving them practice in core thinking skills along the way. 

Meanwhile, a new school year is underway. Once the dust settles, we’ll get going on our next project, writing 4QM curriculum materials. Meanwhile, you hard-core folks should buy the book. I’m quite confident you’ll know what to do with it. 


Primates Like Puzzles!

We’ve known for a long time that primates like puzzles. In this post Jon explains how the Four Question Method leverages that reality for social studies classes, using examples from the 4QM Teaching book, From Story To Judgment.

Reading About Monkeys

As part  of this year’s back-to-school professional development at the school where I teach tenth grade world history we read about a well-known study of motivation in monkeys. In 1949 some University of Wisconsin psychologists put some mechanical puzzles into monkey cages, and were surprised to find that the monkeys put a lot of effort into solving the puzzles, even though they got no extrinsic rewards for doing so. They seemed to enjoy the puzzle solving just for the fun of it.

The point of the professional development reading was clear: if we can harness intrinsic motivation of our students by giving them fun puzzles to solve, we can motivate learning more effectively than we can by setting up a transactional relationship between work and grades. At 4QM Teaching we agree completely. One of the main advantages of the Four Question Method is that it gives history and social studies teachers a practical tool to turn history/social studies lessons into puzzles. Humans are the most sophisticated primates, and primates like puzzles.

4QM = Puzzle Building

Gary and I joke that if we had 4QM bumper stickers they would say “Story First!” Question One is, “What Happened?”, and 4QM trained teachers coach their students to answer it by telling a true historical story. At first glance it may seem that this question doesn’t offer much opportunity for puzzle-building. It’s true that Question One relies on another powerful feature of human brains in addition to our interest in puzzles: the fact that we really like stories. But when teachers launch a 4QM history unit, we set up the story of the unit as a puzzle. Here’s a common example from U.S. History:

In 1763 the thirteen British colonies in North America were happy and proud to be British, and had just defeated France in a major war. Only twenty years later they had declared their independence and allied with France to defeat Britain in a war to secure that independence. What happened?!? 

It may seem counterintuitive to tell students the ending of the unit story on the first day, but it’s the contrast between the story’s setting and outcome that sparks our puzzle-solving curiosity. For curious students, the story of the American Revolution then becomes much more than a list of names, dates, and “key terms.” It becomes the solution to the puzzle of how such a dramatic change happened in such a short time.

Question Two is, “What Were They Thinking?” Once we’ve established our story, we introduce students to some of the interesting people in that story. Some of these people will do things that we find dramatic, or significant, or confusing — which gives us another opportunity for puzzle-building. Here’s another example from U.S. history:

Jane Addams was a wealthy college educated 19th century American woman who decided to live in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago — the kind of place young ladies like here were most definitely advised to keep clear of. What was she thinking?!?

Good Question Two puzzles activate our curiosity, then take us out of our present world and immerse us in the past. Addams had some ideas about helping the poor that we would recognize today, and had others that we would probably find unfamiliar. When we start to understand Jane Addams on her own terms we’re really learning something new.

Question Three is, “Why Then and There?” This Question pulls back from the story and the people who made it happen, and asks about underlying conditions and context. In our book we explore a classic Question Three from world history about the age of imperialism.

In the mid-19th century both China and Japan were forced open to Western trade, and had to reckon with their military and political weakness compared to the industrialized imperial powers. Modernizing reformers existed in both places, but by the early 20th century only Japan had become an industrial power. What factors explain why modernizers failed in China but succeeded in Japan? 

A full Question Three puzzle gives students documents and data that allow them to compare and contrast two different places or two different times, so that they can identify relevant factors and hypothesize about how those factors might explain the different outcomes. (Our answer to this question focuses on the political power of the landowning classes, who tended to oppose modernization and were stronger in China than in Japan.) But you can engage students’ curiosity around Question Three without curating a full document and data set — once they understand how Question Three puzzles work, they can identify them themselves, theorize about possible explanations, and describe the data they’d need to support them. Most students genuinely want to know why wars are lost or won, why some countries are rich and others are poor, why movements succeed or fail. These are all examples of Question Three puzzles.

Once students know a story and have explored the thinking of the people in the story and the context in which they made their decisions, they are ready to answer Question Four: “What Do We Think About That?” Question Fours are puzzles of self-reflection. Students judge someone or something from the story, and have to say if they find them admirable or not — and why. If we’ve set the question up well, the answers aren’t easy, and students will disagree. The point of a Question Four puzzle is not to arrive at “the” answer; it’s to understand ourselves, and to understand how different people might arrive at different judgments from ours. In our book we ask about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, people who had committed political violence during apartheid were offered a kind of bargain: make a full confession for the public record, and be released from any possible prosecution or punishment. This process is known as “restorative justice,” and it contrasts with the most common form of justice in Western societies, which is called “retributive justice.” We ask students,

Was restorative justice a good choice for post-apartheid South Africa?”

In answering this Question students need to understand the history of South Africa, but they also need to develop an understanding of their own beliefs and values, and to begin to articulate some general principles that they would be willing to stand by in their own lives in the present day. Good Question Four classes become examples of civil and civic discourse, something that seems to be sorely lacking in our current climate.

Grades and Puzzles

In whatever format they are given, grades are an important tool for communicating whether students are mastering the knowledge and skills we want them to learn, and as such they can be a positive motivator. But if the intellectual tasks that lead to mastery of knowledge and skills are set up like puzzles (and stories), our students are much more likely to find enjoyment in the work that leads to mastery. After all, primates like puzzles.


Click Here to Order From Story To Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies

4QM In Grade Five

Gary and I are high school teachers, but as we’ve been expanding our 4QM work we’ve been doing more with the middle and elementary grades. This post describes some great 4QM curriculum written by Alex Hoyt, an award-winning fifth grade teacher in Hudson, Massachusetts. Read on to see how the Four Questions can make the American Revolution come alive for ten and eleven year olds, and to get links to Alex’s materials!

“The Swiss Army Knife of History Teaching”

Hudson is an economically diverse suburb west of Boston that has embraced 4QM training for its social studies department. Alex describes the Four Question Method this way: 

The Four Question Method is the Swiss army knife of history teaching. It gives me four tools, each with multiple uses. It cuts through all the red tape I have in my head about planning, and gives me and my students a clear and smart way to think about what we’re learning.”

Not surprisingly, we love this quotation. We especially like the metaphor of “cutting through all the red tape” around planning. Alex explained that planning lessons can feel treacherous, especially when you’re new, because you feel your responsibilities deeply — and you have a lot of them. You’re supposed to address your state content standards, and one or more lists of “historical thinking skills.” And don’t forget to emphasize civics (very hot these days!), and make sure you design lessons that are student-centered and engaging. In Alex’s experience, the Four Question Method allows him to meet all his responsibilities without having to overthink. If you plan your unit around the Four Questions, you’ll be teaching historical thinking skills. If you design lessons in which students do the intellectual work of actually answering the questions, your lessons will be student-centered and engaging. If you have them discuss their answers with each other while reflecting and debating, you’ll be teaching civic dispositions. And of course you’ll address your state content standards, because 4QM teaching always starts with a story.

What Was King George Thinking?

This spring Alex created a 4QM style unit on the lead-up to the American Revolution. He decided to tell the story of the events between the French and Indian War, which the British won in 1763, and the Battle of Bunker Hill, the first major military engagement of the revolutionary war. His clever hook for the unit was to put the students in the position of British King George III. In each lesson he would teach them a little bit of the story (each called “the situation” in the attached materials), and then ask what they would have done if they had been King George III. He then taught them what the King actually did, and asked them to consider Question Two: What was King George thinking?

The summative activities for the unit included activities for Questions One, Two, and Four. For Question One, Alex had students retell the story they had learned using a storyboard. He gave them a choice of words or pictures for their storyboard boxes, and introduced a fun new twist for this assignment: he would roll a die to determine how many boxes each student got to tell the story. The minimum allowable number was three, so he simply rerolled if the die came up one or two. 

The Question Two activity was a writing assignment that asked students to sum up what they had determined about what the King was thinking at the start of the conflict, and then after the Battle of Bunker Hill. And the Question Four activity was a class discussion about the question, “Did King George do anything wrong?”, followed by individual writing in response to the question. Check out Alex’s materials here.

4QM In Grade Five

Alex took about a week to teach this unit; three days for the situations and King George’s responses, and two days for the storyboards. He reported that “It was fun, and according to the products kids made, effective as well!” This is a great example of how the Four Question Method can help teachers and students in the elementary grades make social studies memorable and meaningful. Over the next year, we’re planning to produce more 4QM teaching and learning materials, focusing on grades four through eight. Hopefully we’ll see more from Mr. Hoyt!



From Story To Judgment

We’re in the process of collecting blurbs for our upcoming book about the Four Question Method. (Blurbs are those little quotations you see on the back cover or inside the front pages, where people who are not the author tell you how great the book is so that you’ll decide to buy it.) It’s been really gratifying — people besides our moms actually have some very nice things to say about our work. One of our favorites so far includes this line:  

“The Four Question Method brings the ‘both and’ approach that all good teaching requires by balancing learning the narrative and facts with developing deep, historical thinking skills that are essential for our students.” 

The writer of this blurb has been a history teacher and school principal, and is now an ed school dean. He identifies something that we think makes the Four Question Method unusual: in the debate between the importance of teaching knowledge and the importance of teaching skills, we’re honestly on both sides.

Story First! (With Two Caveats)

Admittedly, we believe that knowledge comes first. Teaching and learning in our field always starts with a story, because you need to know what happened in the past before you can do any kind of thinking about it. That’s why Question One is “What happened?” (We joke that if we had Four Question Method T-shirts or bumper stickers they’d say “Story First!”) But our emphasis on knowledge acquisition comes with two important caveats. First off, no matter how they learn it, your students need to retell the story themselves. It turns out that narrating an accurate historical story is a cognitively demanding skill. Students can tell the story by drawing pictures on a four-box storyboard, writing four-sentence stories or “because-but-so” sentences, or presenting orally. The process of telling the story forces them to make decisions about what to include and exclude, where to chunk or chapterize the story, and how to ensure that the narrative events connect clearly to each other. All those decisions require both knowledge and skill.

Our second warning about starting with knowledge acquisition is that your students certainly should not stop there. Knowledge alone is not enough. In order to really understand the past, in order to actually learn from it, students need to use their knowledge as the starting point for interpretation, explanation, and judgment. Every important story about the past is full of interesting people who did interesting things, so we pause our narrative from time to time to ask Question Two, “What were they thinking?” To answer this question students practice the thinking skill of interpretation. We study documents, artifacts, and patterns of behavior in order to get into their heads, to try to understand the reasons for their choices and decisions. Those choices and decisions only seem important to us if we know the story first. So knowledge serves as a springboard to new questions and new thinking.

The same is true for Question Three, “Why then and there?” Question Three asks us to step back and look at the story in context as a way of explaining it. Every story takes place in conditions particular to a specific time and place. How did those conditions make this story more likely in this time and place? How were conditions changed from before, or different from conditions in other places? How did those changes or differences influence the story? Question Three is best approached through comparative puzzles that present data about different times and places and ask students to notice patterns. We’ve started writing a series of these puzzles about world history Question Threes, like, “Why did World War One break out in 1914 and not earlier?” And, “Why did industrialization start in Britain and not China?” These questions inspire natural curiosity, but only after students know what World War One or the industrial revolution was – they need the story if they’re going to get curious about explaining it. 

Question Four asks, “What do we think about that?” and gives students a chance to practice the thinking skill of judgment. Once students have worked on the first three questions, they naturally move to judgment: they admire certain people in the story and disparage others, they think a certain decision was good or bad, right or wrong. A well structured Question Four lesson makes that kind of thinking the focus of the class, and teaches students to slow down and take their own judgments (and those of their classmates) seriously. Responsible judgment only comes after students have gained knowledge of the story, the ideas of key people in the story, and the context with which they were operating. Like the other thinking skills, judgment takes practice. It is perhaps the most important of them all, since it directly relates to the responsibilities of citizenship. After all, what is citizenship in a democratic republic but a series of judgments about good, bad, right and wrong? 

The title of our upcoming book is From Story To Judgment. That’s because good teaching and learning in our field always starts with a story, but should demand all four thinking skills. At a recent workshop for teachers where we had just completed a Question Four exercise, a participant said that “Making a judgment really helps me to know the story, and thinking through my judgment makes me know I’m going to remember it better too.” That’s what the Four Question Method is designed to do. We start with knowledge. But it’s only through truly engaging with that knowledge and grappling with important questions about it that we give it meaning.



We Wrote A Book!

We did it. We wrote a book! About a month ago we sent the final chapter off to the publisher (John Catt USA). A round of copy edits, some decisions about cover and layout, and then we’re done with it. Feels like it did when my kids moved out. We did what we could. Now it’s up to them, and it.  

That’s an illusion, of course, on both scores. Parenting continues, and from what I hear, gets more complicated, not less. And the book may be written, but we still have to figure out how to convince teachers to read it after it hits bookstores at the end of the summer. What’s amazing and wonderful is that, despite having spent the year writing it, I still believe that they should. The book is actually pretty good! It says things about teaching and learning social studies that I wish I’d known when I started out. For that matter, it says things that will make me a better teacher next fall.  

If you’ve attended our workshops, there’s a bunch you’ll recognize. Our basic argument is the same: teaching and learning social studies both go well when the teacher asks and answers the four questions (that’s planning) and then coaches students to do the same thing (that’s teaching and learning). And the logic of the four questions is still the same. Start with a story in response to Question One: What Happened? Then dig in and figure out what some of the protagonists in that story were thinking (Question Two: What were they thinking?). Then step back and figure out how changes and differences in context may account for why the story happened when and where it did (Question Three: Why then and there?). Then, having done all that, figure out what all this means to us, here and now (Question Four: What do we think about that?).

New Clarity On Student Work

What’s new and for me, personally, a game changer is the clarity and precision of the method we’ve now articulated for planning, teaching, and assessing student work. We’ve always said that students don’t just need to learn stories. They need to learn to tell them. That’s how they achieve proficiency in the thinking skill we call narration. Same with interpretation, explanation, and judgment, the thinking skills associated with the other questions. They need a teacher to show them how to do those things well. Then they need to try it themselves. 

In the book, we’ve nailed down inquiry methods for all the questions with step-by-step instructions, templates, and examples. And we’ve provided rubrics keyed to the instructions and templates so that assessing student performance in any of the four thinking skills is straightforward for teachers and useful for students. The instructions for teaching students to tell true stories (Q1) and interpret meaning artifacts (Q2) are clearer and more detailed than they’ve ever been. Despite the crazy conditions this year, Jon tested the changes on his students. The rubrics were particularly effective at getting them to see how to make their work better. 

The real game changers are Question Three and Question Four, explanation and judgment. Those were always the hard questions for teachers to plan and students to execute. In the book, we call them generalizing questions. For example, a story is a particular account of what happened. Question Three generalizes in response to that story: under what conditions does a story like this one happen? In order to answer that question well, you need to know a lot about context and conditions. That’s the first challenge. The second challenge is knowing what to do with the knowledge you’ve got so that it can inform an explanation that makes sense. 

When Jon tried out our new, step-by-step procedures for answering Question Three with his students, the results were extraordinary. He used the exact case study we present in the book, comparing Chinese and Japanese responses to western imperialism in the 19th century. His students worked through each step of the process, from identifying similarities and differences in context and conditions to describing mechanisms to testing hypotheses. They understood what they were doing and had results in the end to show for their efforts. And they sounded like social scientists doing it! 

The results were similar for our new Question Four procedures. Unlike explanation, students are used to hearing and talking about judgment questions. Most of them have had years of practice responding to some version of, What do we think about that? What’s much rarer is being held accountable for giving a skillful answer. In the book, we show how to teach and assess judgment in a way that elevates student discourse. 

The Question Four case study in the book, and the one Jon recently tested with his students, is about restorative justice and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In the classroom, students first learned the history of apartheid-era South Africa and the transition to democracy. Jon then asked them to make a judgment about the amnesty provision of the TRC, which granted immunity from prosecution to perpetrators of human rights violations who gave full, honest, public testimony about their actions. Students were able to work their way through the case, step by step, first articulating their own reactions, then identifying the assumptions that drove those reactions, and then defining the values and principles that supported them. They even tested their principles for consistency. The conversation ripped — and it led somewhere. Students were practicing a kind of thinking they can apply to other cases and to their own lives. They were learning to judge like engaged citizens. That’s the point, right? 

We’ve always believed that social studies teaching and learning, our own and in general, could be so much better. Figuring out what questions drove deep learning and clear thinking were in the classroom got us a long way down the road. Writing the book has forced us to work through the details in a way we’d never quite managed before. We’re clearer on how our own thinking works and about how to share that thinking with students. I, for one, am excited to get back to the classroom in the fall equipped with the new tools we’ve devised. 

But first, how about a summer break…? 


“Why Are We Doing This?”

One of my favorite moments in any class is when a student interrupts the lesson (always politely) and asks, “Mr, Bassett, why are we doing this?”

In social studies there is a pretty broad consensus that students should do certain things. At the top of the list, if not the very top, is “read primary sources.” Unfortunately, it seems like most people who want students to read primary sources don’t have a very good idea of why they want that. And when we plan lessons around an activity rather than a clear learning goal, we end up with disjointed lessons that have a pretty weak answer to the student’s question of why we’re doing this.

We recently got an example of this kind of lesson planning in the 4QM Teaching email in-box, from a curriculum organization we subscribe to. There was a google slide deck dedicated to “Planning With Primary Sources,” which guided teachers through the steps to planning a lesson that uses a primary source document. The first step in the process is to find a “compelling question.” They included a helpful list that you can browse; examples include “To what extent should there be limits on the powers of leaders?” and “Who is responsible for securing world peace?” Once you’ve chosen your compelling question, the next step was to go to a standards document to choose a “content specification.” The slide after that offered some specific primary sources a teacher could choose to use in the lesson; there were about thirty or so, including Hammurabi’s Code and the Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III of 1793. Then, at slide number six, the teacher is asked to decide why students will read the primary source: to answer a compelling question, or to practice for a state examination. What follows are fifty more slides about how students could go about reading the primary source. 

This whole exercise struck me as a compelling example (pun intended) of backward thinking about lesson planning. It starts with questions that cannot be answered outside of a specific time and place (“Who is responsible for securing world peace?”), offers a list of primary sources that seem to have been chosen for their link-ability and lack of copyright protection, and devotes most of its energy to an enormous infrastructure around how to use them in class. I can hear it now: “Mr. Bassett, why are we doing this?”

At 4QM Teaching, we believe that learning goals should dictate pedagogy, not the other way around. We also believe that there are four possible learning goals in history/social studies classes. Students are always trying to find out what happened (Question One), what someone was thinking (Question Two), why something happened when and where it did (Question Three), or what we think about that (Question Four). And our mantra is “Story First!”, because kids don’t get interested in Questions Two, Three, or Four until they’ve answered Question One. 

Here’s how we might arrive at the choice to use one of the  primary sources mentioned above in a lesson: The Qianlong Emperor’s letter to George III. We’d start with a story. In the 1700s Great Britain became the world’s first industrial power, and built a massive navy that they used to project their economic might around the globe. They were especially interested in selling their manufactured products in China, which was then as now an enormous market and very tempting. They repeatedly asked for the right to trade freely in China, and were repeatedly refused. Eventually the British began selling opium (a highly addictive drug) in China, and in the early 1800s fought several wars to force the country open to foreign trade. Thus began the time period that the Chinese government today calls “the century of humiliation” — China’s one hundred years of domination by foreign powers. 

Part of this story is the Qianlong Emperor’s refusal to allow the British to trade in his Empire, which refusal was delivered in a letter to the British King George III in 1793. We know how the story ended, and it looks to us like the Emperor may have made a catastrophic blunder — wouldn’t he have been better off allowing the British to trade, and thus avoiding the opium wars that came almost fifty years later? We’re now primed and ready to dive into a Question Two: What was he thinking??

When we set up a lesson this way, students have a reason to care about the primary source we’ll give them to interpret. Maybe the Emperor’s “blunder” won’t seem so foolish once we understand the thinking behind it, or maybe it will seem even worse than we thought. Either way, we’ll have a much better understanding of events once we’ve taken the time to dig into the source and develop some historical empathy for the Emperor — once we’ve tried to see the world as he saw it in 1793. 

Primary source interpretation is our go-to pedagogy for answering Question Two. The documents and artifacts historical figures leave behind them are rich mines of data, and we’ve got a straightforward and effective way to lead students through the kind of thinking they need to do when they interpret them. 

The other three Questions have good pedagogy matches as well, although we like to emphasize that we’re pedagogical pragmatists, not rigid ideologues — teachers should use techniques that match their learning goals and their students. But wherever we end up in our planning, we should start by defining our Question. And remember, Story First! If you follow those rules, we’re much more likely to be ready when someone interrupts to ask, “Why are we doing this?”



Classroom Debates: For and Against

I think I’ve finally reconciled myself to debate. I came by my skepticism honestly. Way back as a TA in grad school I remember reading a paper by a student in a political theory class that was chock full of arguments, good, bad, and indifferent. The sheer density of claims, with a half-hearted defense tacked on to each one, struck me as wildly counterproductive. Even the good arguments sound bad when they arrive in a swarm of weak ones. 

That student, it turns out, was a skilled debater. Apparently the volume approach was standard practice at his competitions. For me, it became a hazard to warn against. 

When I first started out as a high school teacher, I ran debates often enough. I did whatever lessons I was given or could scrounge up. I would not describe what I did as “excellent debate lessons,” but I do remember animated sessions with occasionally illuminating moments. Debate really does work to get students talking, arguing, and collaborating. Good-natured competition encourages focus and team spirit. 

The latter, the team spirit, is what worried me. When we debriefed after a debate, I noticed that students were overwhelmingly convinced by the arguments on their side, whatever views they held beforehand and, frankly, whichever reasons seemed most compelling to me. I worried, and still do, that team spirit was transforming into calcified groupthink. 

I should have overcome my antipathy to debate much earlier than now. As a supervisor, I’ve observed excellent debate lessons numerous times, in a variety of styles. I’ve watched students prepare for and execute very compelling Oxford-style debates on important topics in world history. I’ve heard, in their debriefings, a thoughtfulness I often struggled to achieve in the ones I ran. 

I’ve also seen students debate in clever formats designed to thwart the problem I had with mine, premature entrenchment in a view. For example, in “Murphy pods” — called that, affectionately, by students of a teacher in my department — students have short, repeated arguments against changing opponents, switching positions as they go. I particularly like that format because it requires exploration. When you hear someone contradict your claim in a forceful way, you remember it. That argument is now available to you in the next round. A few rounds later, and the better arguments have typically gotten elaborated and the worse ones attenuated. 

Debate Is Not The Same As Judgement

What finally brought me around, though, wasn’t teaching or observing. It was drafting the chapter of our 4QM book on judgment, Question Four (What do we think about that?). What I figured out about judgment as I sat patiently and mulled slowly is that the skillful thinking we call judgment requires exactly that — patient, slow thinking. Debate is quick, hot, and noisy. Ultimately, figuring out consistent core values and general principles has to be slow, quiet, and reflective (like writing a book in semi-quarantine). 

That doesn’t mean that debate is a bad idea. On the contrary, I now see that debate is an awesome brainstorming technique for judgment thinking. Debate generates claims — lots of them. Without that activation, you can’t really think through a real-life decision or dilemma. Part of the exercise of good judgment is canvassing your options thoroughly. Failure to do that accounts for a lot of my own poor judgment to date.

But that’s just stage one. After you consider the problem broadly and creatively (and noisily), then you need to slow down and get quiet. This, too, requires a structured activity, a parallel to debate. This is what I was missing when I started out. I’d run a noisy activity and then be surprised that students were stuck wherever they stopped. We didn’t have the follow-on activity that would have compelled them to sort through their findings and say which can be fixed to values and principles that they can articulate, apply, and ultimately live with. I missed the pedagogy of the reflective generalization stage.

Interestingly, I once knew this, sort of. My first year as a high school teacher was pretty miserable, mostly because I was so bad at it. At the end of the year, my boss (now my 4QM partner, Jon) told me he’d give me a senior Ethics elective to teach the following year. He could see I needed a course a bit more in my wheelhouse so that I could rebuild my confidence. 

In any case, Ethics worked for me. It wasn’t a history class, but we did always start with a case study or a scenario. And we always worked from our reactions to that scenario to general principles, which, at the time, I taught directly: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, and so on. 

Question Four is, in a way, the translation of that enterprise into the history curriculum. Our case studies and scenarios are now drawn from true stories. And our instruction in principled ethical thinking is more inductive. Still, Question Four is a lot like the course that might have saved me for high school teaching almost two decades ago. We work from cases to principles and back again. 

Interestingly, I don’t recall that we ever debated in that Ethics class. We just talked. They were seniors who’d opted in, and running a philosophical discussion was one of my very few classroom competencies. So just talking turned out to be enough. 

Now I know: debate is great. It’s the generative stage of practice for the thinking skill we call judgment. It helps us to answer Question Four by forcing us to think through a wide range of claims and possibilities. So make noise and raise the temperature. Then, slow down, get cool and quiet, and reflect. Which of these warm-to-the-touch choices of action in a real-life situation are consistent with the core values and consistent principles we will use to guide our future choices? When the din dies down and the teams dissolve, where does our judgment settle? That’s the part we take home.