Category: 4QM Teaching

Schools Can’t Fix This

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts put civics instruction at the center of its revision of the Social Studies curriculum frameworks published in 2018. Every 8th grader in the state is meant to study the institutions of the American republic and learn how they work. The governor signed a law that same year that will eventually require every 8th grader to complete a nonpartisan civic action project. Many organizations have stepped up to support this effort by creating curriculum and providing support and training for Massachusetts teachers. The movement is national: iCivics, Project Citizen, and many others advocate for civic education in schools. 

We here at 4QM Teaching share the vision. The explicit goal of our project is to cultivate the thinking skills and habits of mind that prepare young people to become philosopher-citizens. Our students will inherit our democratic republic and become its active stewards. It will thrive or not in their hands. We think that the Four Question Method is a great way to equip them for that awesome responsibility. 

Noble sentiments. I think I still believe them. 

Schools, Teachers, and The Mob

Two weeks ago, a sitting president encouraged an angry mob to attack the US Congress in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Our republic is broken. I’m not convinced that anyone knows how to fix it. This, however, I’m sure of: schools did not create this problem. They are surely not equipped to solve it. 

That won’t stop us from trying. When bad things happen in the world, particularly things that move and touch us personally, many teachers feel strongly that they should address those bad things in their classrooms. That’s an inspiring and noble impulse. It’s a way to model civic awareness and engagement. 

It’s likely, then, that many teachers, especially social studies teachers, will want to redouble their efforts in the wake of our current constitutional crisis. For that, and many other reasons, teachers are among the finest people I know. They care about the world and they care about their students, and will stay up late many nights in a row in order to help students their care as well. 

We Can’t Fix This

Nevertheless, I say to my dear friends and esteemed colleagues: we can’t fix this. I understand the temptation to think otherwise. After all, we are in the thinking business. We equip young people with knowledge, and train them to acquire more of it. It’s tempting, then, to think that we can do something about a political problem that, on its face, appears to be rooted in cognitive dysfunction. People believe false reports they read on social media. They put stock in conspiracy theories. They accept exaggeration and outright lying from politicians and pundits. You’d think that people in the knowledge and thinking business, especially ones who are explicitly committed to civics education, would have an important role to play in addressing our national crisis. 

Unfortunately, I see no evidence that we can solve that crisis with the enlightenment tools that are our stock-in-trade. People who distrust the government don’t suffer from lack of knowledge of the US Constitution or the three branches of government. They’re not confused because they don’t know how a bill becomes a law or what a political party is. Nor is the problem that too many people lack training in how to vet sources on the internet. That’s an independent problem, one we should certainly address in schools. But people don’t join militias or QAnon because they’re confused about a web page’s point of view or what the role of an editor is. People who have grown skeptical and impatient with our constitutional procedures are not lacking information or techniques for assessing it. They are motivated to find the information that addresses their underlying passions and grievances. 

Our crisis is political. It will have to be addressed that way — through politics — or left to fester. Schools already do what they can. Schools feed children and their families. They provide them with health care and counseling. They identify abuse and offer protection. They care for the severely disabled. Individual teachers in the thousands and tens of thousands make life-saving connections to young people every year. Teachers don’t just teach. They lift spirits and save lives. 

For sure, teach about the election and its aftermath. Teach about the presidential transition and the constitutional arrangements that frame it. Teach about the mob attack and social media and the crisis of contemporary American democracy. Teach civics. It’s important, still. 

Meanwhile, the big “we” — the entire adult membership of the American polity — we’re the ones who own this problem. We will solve it or not using the rickety political institutions we’ve inherited and whatever new forms of organization we can shore up beside them. This is a grown-up problem. 


How Learning History Is Like Learning Spanish

I’m trying to learn Spanish. I use the free version of  the online language app duolingo, I watch the news in Spanish sometimes, and I write flashcards from an old copy of 500 Spanish Verbs. I can read Spanish fairly well now, and I can understand the spoken word alright if it’s slow enough, but speaking is still hard for me. When I’m trying to  speak Spanish I can literally hear myself thinking as I form sentences. Sometimes I even mumble out loud: “So it’s a boy so that’s “el” not “ella,” and the past tense third person of an -ar verb, that’s “-o,” so this verb is “paso.”” I speak slowly, and often make mistakes.

If you know about the psychology of learning, you’ll know that the problem I’m running into is the limited capacity of working memory. Working memory is the  brain function that allows us to hold things in mind while we’re concentrating on them, and it has pretty small limits: most of us can hold about seven “chunks” of information in our heads at once. So my spoken Spanish is poor because I need to take up a lot of my limited working memory with actually processing the verb conjugations as I form them. The solution is to encode my verb conjugations in long-term memory, where I can just pull them out without thinking about them, or without thinking about them for long. This frees up working memory for other more sophisticated tasks, like choosing just the right vocabulary, or constructing sentences that can express more subtle meanings. 

I was thinking about my spoken Spanish last week as I graded unit tests for my AP World History class. Part of the test was a short answer question from the College Board about the Portuguese arrival in the Indian Ocean, based on a primary source from a Portuguese merchant in South Asia in 1515. Many of my students struggled with a question that seemed very straightforward to me: they had to identify two ways the Portuguese had changed the Indian Ocean trading system. As I thought about why they struggled, I realized that speaking history for them is like speaking Spanish for me. I could answer the history question easily because I can call on a lot of facts that I have encoded deep in my long term memory. I don’t have to think about where “South Asia” is (India), I don’t have to think about the date of the Portuguese arrival in the Indian Ocean (1488), I don’t have to actively process my image and understanding of the silk road trade routes that preceded that arrival (overland routes that terminated in Muslim controlled Eastern Mediterranean lands), I don’t have to actively remind myself what a “cartaz” was (the Portuguese system of enforcing their maritime monopoly), et cetera. But most of my students don’t have these facts encoded in long term memory (especially this year). For them this question was like conjugating an irregular verb is for me.

My students will do better on questions like that if they have more key facts encoded into long term memory. That’s why the Four Question Method starts with Question One, “What Happened?” We can’t think effectively about the other Questions unless we know the basic story that Questions Two, Three, and Four build on.

Now this is not a defense of “drill and kill” teaching focused on “just the facts.” The Four Question Method starts with “What Happened?,” but it certainly doesn’t end there. One of the reasons we answer Question One with a story is because stories help humans to remember important facts. And the less working memory we have to occupy with establishing important facts, the more we have for using them as evidence in support of a claim — an interpretation, explanation, or judgment. Duolingo does the same thing, by the way, and for the same reason. One part of their website consists entirely of stories using the vocabulary I’m working on. The stories help me encode the vocabulary, so that I can then use those words quickly and easily to express more complicated ideas.

The pandemic has sent my urban school into remote teaching mode, and has drastically reduced the time I have with my students. I have fewer opportunities for all Four Questions this year, so I have to be extra thoughtful about what elements of what stories I’m going to require students to memorize. But if students don’t encode at least some key facts in long term memory, their ability to answer more sophisticated questions on an exam will be like my spoken Spanish: laborious, slow, and error-prone.


Clear Puzzles, Smart Students

My wife, Marian, just got the best compliment a teacher can get. Last week, after the final Zoom session of her art history class, a student hung around to tell Marian that she had made her feel smart. She said that she hadn’t had that feeling in school before. She thanked Marian for allowing her to have it now. 

Marian teaches liberal arts classes at a music conservatory. Her students could have attended a liberal arts college or full-service university, but chose not to. Instead, they dedicated themselves to expensive and arduous training in a field where careers are hard to come by.  They take Marian’s classes, in writing, literature, or art history, not because they want to but because the conservatory requires it. And so, like those of us who teach elementary, middle, or secondary school, my wife’s students are conscripts rather than volunteers. 

I had clear indicators before this fall that Marian was pretty good. She’s won three teaching awards. She gets repeat customers in her classes often enough. Many students say nice things to her. I’ve also watched her plan her courses. Her art history course, which she designed from scratch, took her several years to hone. I remember when she locked it in. She was excited and it sounded great. I wanted to take the course. 

Thanks to Zoom and COVID, this fall I did. Actually, I audited. The conservatory has been fully remote this fall. That means that Marian teaches in our dining room. I’m on leave this year, working on the book manuscript for the Four Question Method (due out this August!). I write in the study next to the dining room. I listened in from there. 

The course has a clear goal: Marian wants her students to understand what contemporary art is about. Some guy nails a banana to a wall. Another splatters paint on a canvas. A woman sits in a chair and has staring contests with strangers. Is that really art? It is. She shows them how and why. She’s divided the course into four sections: movements, materials, mastery, and museums. (Must be something in the water here. We all do things in fours.) She shows, with lots of vivid examples, how the work of artists, and the public response to that work, is shaped by each of those elements: the movements with which artists identify or to which they react. The materials they work with and transform. The mastery they display or invent or challenge or reject. The institutions that authorize, display, or exclude their work. 

The conception is so smart and the goal is so clear. Contemporary art befuddles lots of people. Marian uses it to get her aspiring artists, mostly musicians, to think more deeply about their own creativity and how it gets channeled through culture and institutions to become this thing we call “art”. They encounter movements and traditions and learn how new artists incorporate, challenge, and reinvent them. 

That’s all terrific, and worthy of recognition. But the compliment that young woman shared with Marian — that took more than a well designed course. It did require that, by the way. In order to make a student feel smart, you need to challenge them to do something worthy and then give them the tools to do it. Marian was clear on the challenge and provided lots of relevant materials. (She assigned each student a contemporary artist to feature in a project. She matched each student with an artist who complemented their interests!) 

That young woman, who managed to get through thirteen years of mandatory schooling without a single memorable moment of high competence, finally found it in Marian’s class. She found it because, she said, Marian took what she had to say seriously. Marian prepared her to join a conversation about ideas. Then, when she did so, Marian responded to her as though her ideas were worthy of sincere consideration. Marian respected her, publicly and repeatedly. 

I listened in. I’m confident that all the students felt that way. It took a student for whom the experience felt new to say something. It’s a simple, salutary reminder at the end of this unusual year and on the eve of what has got to be a better one. Our goal is always to make our students smart. Let’s make sure they know it and feel it.   

Happy New Year! 


4QM = Clear Questions

A month ago I wrote a blog post about how the Four Question Method can take existing inquiry based social studies curriculum and make it better. Most inquiry curricula lack a clear understanding of question types, so they often ask questions that don’t work very well in the classroom because they are ambiguous, or can’t be answered effectively as written.

The fact is, it’s easy to write ambiguous or boring or unserious questions. One of the reasons we defined the Four Question Method is to make it easier for history teachers to write good questions. We like to say that we didn’t invent the Four Question Method, we observed it. We created our question types after years of observing history teachers and practicing in our own classrooms, and it’s proven to be an excellent tool for designing, or improving, inquiry lessons in history and social studies. This week I’m going to show you how you can use the 4QM to improve this question from the C3 Teachers unit on the French Revolution:

“Did Napoleon’s rise to power represent a continuation of or an end to revolutionary ideals?”

This is a common type of history question: the either/or question. Teachers like these because they force choices, and we tend to think that forcing students to take sides will generate good class discussion. It’s true that either/or questions may generate high participation, but if your question is unclear you won’t generate high quality student thinking. Let’s apply some 4QM thinking to this question to see how it can be improved. 

Clarify The Question: Q1? or Q4?

As written, it’s not clear what type of question this is. It might be a Question One, “What Happened?” In that case, we should rewrite it so that it’s clearly asking students to compare what Napoleon actually did with revolutionary ideals. To answer that question effectively, students would have to know what the revolutionary ideals were, and then compare things that Napoleon did with those ideals. That’s demanding, which is a good thing. But of course, Napoleon did both kinds of things: Some of his actions continued revolutionary ideals, and some of them contradicted them. That’s the only honest answer to the question, which is why the question in its current form is misleading: the either/or is pretend, because the correct answer is “both.” So as a Question One this is an exercise in categorizing. Valuable, for sure. But ultimately I think it’s not especially interesting.

The more interesting option that jumps out here is a Question Four, ”What Do We Think About That?” The clue here is the verb “represent” in the current question. The question writers don’t just want to know what Napoleon did. They’re also asking for students’ judgment on those things. What do Napoleon’s actions “represent?” That’s a question that’s asking us for our judgment today, in the present. So let’s make that more clear. Instead of making the question an exercise in categorization (promotions by merit in the military = for revolutionary ideals,  censoring newspapers = against revolutionary ideals), let’s clarify that it’s asking for an ethical judgment:

“Consider Napoleon’s reign as Emperor of France. Do you think Napoleon should be admired or condemned?”

Students need to know a lot in order to answer this question well, and they may even need the categories of things Napoleon did that support or oppose revolutionary ideals. But an honest Question Four gives us more room for real debate. Napoleon violated many revolutionary ideals. Was that bad? Or was an authoritarian ruler the best kind of ruler for post-revolutionary France? What do we think of the revolutionary ideals, anyway? 

I’ve had good luck with this question by starting class with a virtual tour of Napoleon’s Tomb in Paris. It’s clear that the government of France thinks Napoleon is worthy of admiration. Are they right?

Writing questions that generate high quality student thinking requires intellectual clarity. Applying 4QM thinking can give teachers, and their students, that clarity.

J. B. 


Conspiratorial Thinking: Q3 Gone Bad

I confess that I might find it comforting to believe that a small group of shadowy insiders — the “deep state,” an international cabal, George Soros — is manipulating everything behind the scenes. Sometimes I’d prefer to think that someone, anyone, knew what the hell was going on and could do something about it. On the other hand, even those paragons of cunning manipulation, our social media savants, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, appear to be in a state of continual slack-jawed confusion about the unintended consequences of their clever inventions. In my sober moments, I have to acknowledge the forlorn truth: it looks like it’s just us here, humans who can barely make accurate predictions about what will make them happy next week, never mind manipulating millions of strangers. 

What’s wrong with conspiracy theories is obvious enough: they’re lousy explanations. They presume both knowledge and an ability to keep secrets that strain credulity. And, if they get popular enough, they can be dangerous. Yuval Noah Harari’s recent op-ed in the New York Times gives a great summary of the typical fallacies in global cabal conspiracies, and provides a salutary reminder that Nazism was, after all, one of these theories. (The Soros theory, rampant now, echoes Nazi antisemitism, an association not lost on Viktor Orban of Hungary, one of the theory’s promoters.) 

Conspiracy Theories = Q2, Not Q3

Global conspiracy theories reveal much more about their adherents — how they feel and what they fear — than they do about events in the world. But they also reveal something about the logic of explanation, and about the need for us as Social Studies teachers to do a better job teaching it to our students.

At our 4QM overview workshop, we typically use the example of the Salem witch trials to describe the Four Questions and show how to answer them. We picked that case specifically because it helps people to see the difference between our explanation question (Q3: Why then and there?) and the other questions, especially our interpretation question (Q2: What were they thinking?). The people of Salem thought that Satan was recruiting witches into a secret cabal (!) that was hellbent, literally, on undermining the righteous people of Salem. It’s important for us to know that. It’s also important for our students to understand that this is an answer to Q2, an interpretation of ideas about the world of a particular and somewhat peculiar group of people, the Puritans of Salem, in the late 17th century.

What it’s not is an explanation of the outbreak of a witchcraft hysteria at that time and place. Q3 asks us to step back from our narrative (Q1) and interpretation (Q2) and to do something else: try to figure out why this set of beliefs and the attendant actions — witchcraft accusations, trials, and executions — happened when and where they did. Why 1692, but not earlier or later? Why in Salem, but not other towns and regions? More generally, under what conditions, exactly, can we expect panics like this one to break out? In order to resolve puzzles like these, we teach our students two handy phrases designed to ward off fallacies and remind them of what a genuine explanation requires: “explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.” And: “factors, not actors.” 

Scholars have applied this explanatory logic directly to the Salem case. At our workshop, we share some of their results. Boyer and Nissenbaum, in Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft (1974), notice the growing economic tension between the agrarian west and mercantile eastern part of Salem. Karlson, in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1987), notices the relatively high number of independent property-owning women in Salem, likewise a source of tension in a largely patriarchal society. Both observations support classic Q3 claims about why the Salem panic broke out when and where it did. Changes in the economic geography or gender demography of Salem, or both, led to increased social tensions, which activated some prior beliefs and led to an outbreak of witch hysteria.  

The fact is, we’ll probably never really know what concatenation of factors turned a latent possibility in Salem into a painful reality. The more general Q3 aspiration, to say something sensible about the conditions under which panics like this break out — including our own current rash of conspiratorial enthusiasm — is even more elusive. Explaining patterns and anomalies in human behavior is an uncertain business. For better or worse, we’ll never be able to run controlled experiments on small New England towns, let alone countries of 330 million people, to see what factors induce an outbreak of panic about satanic conspiracy. The best we can do is what Boyer and Nissenbaum and Karlsen did: try to identify factors that interacted dynamically with the outcomes we’re interested in and then posit a mechanism to account for that interaction. 

Why Bother With Question Three?

If our results are so likely to be partial and tentative, why bother grappling with Q3 at all? I can think of two good reasons. First, it’s unavoidable. The fact is, we do this all the time. Are some of your students happier in the morning than the afternoon? Are they more attentive at the beginning of the week than at the end? Do students respond differently to you based on your race, ethnicity, or gender and theirs? Can you mitigate that effect by building relationships? Altering curriculum? If you’re a teacher and you’re paying attention, you’re working on Q3 puzzles like these all the time. We humans all do this as we make our way in the world, taking context and conditions into account as we calibrate our responses to other people and theirs to us. We’re just typically not reflective and systematic when we do so. Q3 practice makes us moreso.

More important, though more tenuous: maybe, just maybe, knowing how the logic of explanation really works will help our students to avoid the lure and trap of the fake kind. While explaining things is difficult and uncertain, the logic of explanation is not. The Q3 operation is very clear: ask a specific version of the why-then-and-there question, and then try to identify differences (between places) and/or changes (between times) that may plausibly be associated with the differences you’re asking about. If you get good at this mental operation, you’ll think more deeply, in a very specific way. You’ll acknowledge, as global conspiracy theories do, that what people think they’re doing is rarely the entire story. 

Our explicit knowledge, our conscious awareness, is too limited and partial to actually explain the patterns and anomalies in our own lives. That’s what Salem shows clearly, but it’s always true. Our actions, our lives, take place in a sea of shifting economic, demographic, social, and cultural conditions that shape what we do, what happens to us, even how we think. We can’t know with certainty exactly how those forces operate. But learning a technique for sorting and parsing them will give us the satisfaction of insight, if not power. 

Powerlessness, after all, is the likeliest driver of the temptation to organized paranoia represented by global conspiratorial thinking. Knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, unmasking the diabolical manipulators, is a kind of power-insight. Reality is, alas, stingier with its allocation of both power and insight. Maybe what Q3 practice does best is to remind us that this is always our condition: seeing through a glass darkly, trying to keep our ships afloat in a murky sea that expands beyond the horizon. 


Contested Election, Contested Questions

It’s been an exciting few weeks, news-wise, here in the United States. A few weeks ago Gary wrote a post about 4QM-ing the news, and recent events have me thinking about that too. In particular, I’ve been thinking about which of our questions are most often contested, and which ones are less so. 

The election fracas is interesting in part because the Trump campaign and state election officials are arguing about a Question One: What happened? Trump says there was widespread election fraud, the election officials say there wasn’t. Most of the time in history class we’re not arguing over Question One. It’s more difficult to answer Question One definitively for events in the distant past than for current events, but the process is essentially the same: seek evidence from artifacts and witnesses. Sometimes we can and do argue over what happened in the past, but most of the time the narratives we teach are fairly well settled, as I expect the 2020 presidential race soon will be.

Question Two, What were they thinking? Is more often debated. Was Truman trying to save American lives when he ordered the use of the atomic bombs? Was he trying to impress the Soviets? Was he trying to justify an enormous sunk cost of time and treasure? What motivated the European imperialists of the 19th century? What was Abraham Lincoln’s attitude towards African Americans? These sorts of inquiries are rich and powerful classroom activities that require students to read and think carefully in order to answer well. In my urban Massachusetts blue bubble asking and answering Question Two for President Trump has been a favorite parlor game for years now, and especially during these last few weeks. What is he thinking?

Gary likes to say that the fun of Question Three is mostly in the questioning, because the answers tend to be fairly straightforward. He’s right that Question Three is more cold and scientific than the hot psychology of Question Two. Even when Question Three is contested it’s contested in a kind of social scientific manner that lacks the kind of emotional intensity of Question Two. Why has the Trump phenomenon happened now, and not a generation ago? Our rule for Question Three is “explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference.” The change in economic and social status of non-college educated white men in the last thirty years or so might explain why so many of them find an anti-elitist non-politician appealing in a way that their parents didn’t; the power of new social media might also have something to do with it.

Question Four, What do we think about that? Is always contested. Even if you have a Question Four that’s not contested in your classroom, you can be sure there are people somewhere who see things differently than you and your students do. In my blue bubble everyone I know thinks Trump’s attacks on the election results are shameful, and I entirely agree with my friends and neighbors. But obviously not everyone in the country (or even everyone in my state) thinks like I do. 4QM Teachers strive to take their questions seriously always, so when we’re teaching we want to write Question Fours that will generate some disagreement in the classroom. I’m starting my industrial revolution unit with my tenth graders this week, and the unit Question Four is “What is the best response to industrialization?” In a typical year I get a few communists, a few laissez-faire capitalists, and a nice spread of opinions between those poles. It makes for a great discussion, and a great essay question.

I’m looking forward to some slow news weeks someday, maybe after January 20th. But using the Four Question Method and taking our Questions seriously can keep our classrooms lively, even when current events are mercifully dull.


Helping Social Studies Inquiry With 4QM

There are a lot of ideas for teaching inquiry-based history and social studies out there. That’s because pretty much everyone agrees these days that students should be exploring questions when they learn. But what’s missing from all the inquiry-based curricula we’ve come across so far is a solid understanding of question types. Some of the materials we’ve seen are hopelessly muddled because the authors don’t understand their own questions, or clearly don’t take them seriously. These materials leave teachers and students badly educated at best, and confused or frustrated at worst. Some of the materials we’ve seen are pretty good, but even the good ones could be improved. You get the feeling that the occasional quality is a result of happenstance or trial and error, rather than a systematic understanding of how questions in our field actually work. Without a systematic understanding of how to ask and answer important questions consistently, day in and day out, planners, teachers and students are missing opportunities to make inquiry methods really work in the social studies classroom.

C3 Teachers & The New Deal

One of the curricula we hear most about is “C3 Teachers.” Originally focused on New York, the organization now offers inquiry social studies units keyed to standards in many states. Each unit (or “Inquiry”) starts with a “Compelling Question,” followed by three or four “Supporting Questions” that aim to guide students to answer the Compelling Question. The best of these units follow the Four Question Method hierarchy of questions, although without realizing it (as far as we know). The “Compelling Question” in these units is a Question Four, What Do We Think About That? One example is, “Was the New Deal a Good Deal?” This is clearly a Q4, as it asks students to make their own judgment of the New Deal. The first two supporting questions in this inquiry are Question Ones, What Happened?: “What conditions existed at the onset of the Great Depression?” and “What kinds of programs did the New Deal create?” So far so good.  But the next two supporting questions are both ambiguous, combining Questions One and Four: “What were positive effects of the New Deal?” and “What were negative effects of the New Deal?” Asking about the effects of the New Deal is a Question One, but the judgment of them as positive or negative is Question Four. A socialist might find the expanded role for government a positive, while a libertarian might find that a negative. A Keynesian would find large budget deficits a positive, while a fiscal conservative would think them negative. You get the idea. And the sources provided for these questions further muddy the water by bringing in contemporary opinion pieces, which clearly address Question Two, What Were They Thinking? Students pursuing these last two questions as written will either be indoctrinated or confused, and maybe both.

But as widely available inquiry curriculum in social studies goes, the C3 New Deal unit is serviceable. It has a clear Question Four focus, and a 4QM-trained teacher could layer the Four Questions over the existing activity and use the existing materials to address Questions One, Two, and Four in sequence. What happened during the New Deal? What did some people think about that? What do you think about that? (And hopefully, continuing the Q4 inquiry, Why do you think so?)

C3 Teachers and The Versailles Treaty

We’re on shakier ground with the C3 Inquiry on the Treaty of Versailles. Its “Compelling Question” is, “Can Peace Lead To War?” I’m honestly not sure what to make of this. It seems to me to be a question that is meant to sound engaging but not actually taken seriously. Just take a moment and try to answer it yourself right now. You’ll find that since the condition preceding every war is peace, the answer is “yes.” Every time, except when it doesn’t. This question serves more as a cute rhetorical introduction to the inquiry (see how we juxtaposed “peace” and “war?”) than a focus for student inquiry.

The first two supporting questions for this inquiry are more clear. “What did President Woodrow Wilson mean by ‘Peace Without Victory?’” is a straight Question Two. “What did Germany lose by signing the Versailles Treaty? Is a straight Question One, although the formative task for this question implies Question Two as well. The third question is ambiguous: “Why was Germany blamed for World War I?” This question could be asking what Germany did that led people to blame her for the war (Question One), or it could be asking why those who did blame her did so (Question Two). The fourth supporting question is both ambiguous and uncontested: “Did the German reparations payments stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II?” It’s ambiguous because it could be asking Question One, Two, or Three. And it’s uncontested, because no serious scholar of twentieth century Europe would suggest that World War Two was unconnected with German reparations from World War One. The question would be more honest as a straight Question One: “Describe how the German reparations  payments stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II.” 

Contrast this unit with the New Deal unit. In this case, the “compelling question” disappears after we get into the nitty-gritty of what happened at the Versailles Treaty conference and what all the key players at the time were thinking about that. Once we’ve explored that story, “Does peace lead to war?” feels even more silly than it did at the outset.

I’ve recently had a lot of success teaching this topic using this Question Four: “Was the Versailles Treaty fair to Germany?” Notice I don’t ask if it was smart, or if it was good policy. Those questions are generally uncontested “no.” The treaty created bitter resentment in Germany that fueled a fascist movement that unleashed horror on the world. But was it fair, given what Germany had done between 1890 and 1919? Clearly many people at the time thought it was, and many did not. This Question Four makes for a lively discussion in 2020, just as it did in 1920.

The point I want to make with this post is that while there’s a lot of social studies inquiry material out there, almost all of it could be better. The Four Question Method offers curriculum planners, teachers, and students an accessible understanding of the questions that define our field. This understanding is what allows us to consistently design and execute successful inquiry lessons. Without it, we’re shooting in the dark. 


Reading Curriculum

By middle school, students who cannot read fluently and with comprehension need urgent help and attention. Students who cannot read historical nonfiction with fluency and comprehension — most students, when they first encounter it — urgently need the help of their Social Studies teachers. When they first encounter informational text about history and society, beginning readers typically get overwhelmed by the welter of names, dates, and events. It’s hard to keep track of all the information. 

In our 4QM workshops, we show teachers how to coach students in disciplinary literacy skills. Our method is simple and straightforward. Story first! We know that historical nonfiction typically includes an account of something new and notable in the world. Students of 4QM teachers learn quickly how to identify those new and notable outcomes. They also learn to identify settings that precede those outcomes in accounts they hear and read. And they learn how true stories take shape through events, as protagonists act and interact. When you read historical nonfiction, first track the story. 

Once you’ve got the story (and taken good, hierarchical notes), then look for interpretation. How does the author account for protagonists’ actions and decisions in the story? Are the interpretations — the answers to Question Two: What were they thinking? — plausible, compelling, and supported by evidence? Then explanation: does the author make claims about how context informed and structured the shape and outcome of the narrative? How plausible and well supported are those claims? Finally, what judgment does the author appear to make about the protagonists in the narrative, their motives, and the story itself? What exactly does the author think about the story she’s just told? 

Proficient readers of historical nonfiction do all this as they read, mostly automatically. Great readers (and writers) do it with awareness, skill, and versatility. Nobody makes progress in reading informational text without building memory, stamina, and strategies for understanding what questions the author is trying to answer and how the author is answering them. Those strategies can be named and taught to students. That’s the job of Social Studies teachers.

Reading As A Teacher

Social Studies teachers have the same problem their students do. They have standards documents, containing lists of content, historical thinking skills, literacy skills, and sometimes civic and technology skills. They have textbooks and ancillary materials provided by publishers. They have curriculum materials shared by local colleagues and tons more on the internet. They have handouts, worksheets, documents, activities, and advice galore. Like beginning readers of historical nonfiction, they have to learn to sort through an overload of information. 

Social Studies teachers need a framework for reading curriculum intelligently. Jon and I are in the business of teaching teachers to make decisions about what to teach and how to teach it. Think of that as a reading exercise. What do you do with all the stuff available to you? Our claim, substantiated many times over, is that all curriculum materials in Social Studies ultimately address one or several of the Four Questions. (If not, that’s almost always an indication of a problem in the source.) We teach teachers to read and interpret that curriculum intelligently using the Four Question Method. 

The technique is the same as the one we use with students. The beauty of the simple conceptual framework of the 4QM is that it functions as a lens, or better, as a sorting mechanism. There’s tons of stuff in front of me. Story first! Let’s see what I can use for that. (Get your storyboards ready.) Then interpretation: there are meaningful documents and artifacts here. Let’s round up some that fit our story. Information about changes in context and conditions will help us to frame an engaging, tractable explanatory puzzle for our students. Last, we’ll round up some judgments on the protagonists and their decision making in order to provoke some Question Four thinking in our students. 

It’s a notorious fact that people can’t shop effectively when they face too many choices. It’s obvious to us that students can’t read when there’s too much on the page that’s mysterious or opaque to them. Content knowledge and familiarity with the topic open many, many doors for our students — that’s part of why, if their education goes well, they get so much more capable over time. The other part is having a filtering and sorting strategy. We like to tell students to read for purpose. The 4QM names those the constituent parts of that purpose and sequences and scaffolds them. That simplifies the reading task, and so addresses the too-many-choices problem. 

If you’re trapped in your textbook, baffled by your state standards, or out crawling the web the night before a lesson, chances are you don’t yet have a coherent framework to guide your choices. We can help. We’ve been there and have figured out a better way. Drop us a line. 


Let’s Keep “Historical Thinking Tools” Simple

History teachers, especially new history teachers, have a really hard job: they’ve got to teach a lot of content, and they’ve got to teach it in a way that gets kids to think actively about it. It’s extremely difficult to do both things well, and anything that makes those tasks easier will be eagerly embraced. As a first year teacher told me last year, “Anything that saves me fifteen minutes of internet searching makes my job better.” 

New York City recently published a 107 page document aimed at saving teachers time by agglomerating over fifty “historical thinking tools” for tenth graders. (Here’s the link. Click “view” to download a Word Doc version: Grade 10 Historical Thinking Tools and Analysis Strategies) I’m teaching tenth grade this year, so I was especially curious. The document does a great job putting a lot of resources into teachers’ hands quickly, and the fact that everything can be easily edited and adapted is great. But I found most of the “tools” to be overly complicated, and I suspect most teachers won’t use them very often. I think that 4QM’s simpler approach would be much more useful to both students and teachers. Here’s an example of what I mean.


Pages 25 and 26 of the NYC document are a “Contextualization Tool” for students to use when examining a source. The top of the document explains that “Understanding historical context is useful when examining a resource because it allows the reader to situate a person, group, or event in the larger narrative of the past.” So far so good. But then the document directs students to identify five “forces” that acted on the person, group, or event featured in the source being studied: intellectual, socio-economic, political, geographic, and “general questions.” Each “force” is to be identified both in the “Immediate View: What forces acted on the person, group, or event close to the time it occurred?” and in the “Distant View: What long-term forces acted on the person, group, or event?” There are bullet points underneath each “force” in both categories, for a total of twenty-one specific questions for students to answer. The document then provides a graphic organizer of some ten boxes to help students organize all those short and long-term forces. The tenth box prompts students to write a paragraph: “Synthesize relevant information from the contextual information and immediate and distant views to contextualize the person, group, or event being studied. The context you draft should include a combination of the different forces as well as a balance between immediate and distant views.”

Whew. I haven’t taught in New York City since the 1990s, but unless their tenth graders are a lot different from the ones I’m teaching this year in Boston, they’re going to find completing this form to be extremely challenging. Try it yourself with a primary source from a unit you teach. Can you address all those categories of context, short and long term? If you can, stop and consider how much expert knowledge you are bringing to bear in actually completing the task, then consider how much of that knowledge you can reasonably expect a tenth grader to possess and be able to recall in class. If I were to use this thinking tool in my classroom, I’d need to budget a lot of time — maybe a whole class period — to coaching my students through it. And that means that I’m probably not going to use it, or at least not very often. 

If I want my students to get in the habit of contextualizing sources (and I do), I need to make contextualization simpler and quicker. It needs to be something they can do every time they work with a primary source. The Four Question Method shows us how to do that.


Question One of the Four Question Method is “What Happened?” and we always start teaching history by establishing a story of the unit, which is in the form of a narrative. The NYC document is right that “contextualization” means “to situate a person, group, or event in the larger narrative of the past.” Where New York City defines that task with twenty-one questions and ten boxes, the 4QM Primary Source Analysis Sheet asks three simple questions: 

Contextualize: What has happened in our unit story at the time this source was created? How is the author or creator related to the story so far? What might you assume about the author given their relationship to the story?

The first question situates the source in chronological relationship to the “larger narrative of the past.” The second question asks students to define the author’s relationship to the narrative, and the third question asks students to consider the implications of that relationship. Our questions incorporate the five “forces” delineated in the NYC document without belaboring the point or requiring students to know technical vocabulary. A tenth grader who knows the story of the unit and not a whole lot more can answer our three questions in a way that prepares them to read the source carefully and critically. And most students can answer these questions in a few minutes of careful thinking, which means we can coach them into the habit of asking and answering them for every source we use in class. 


One of the plugs that we’re most proud of on the 4QM Website comes from Peter Seixas, who is a scholar of historical thinking. He says, “This is a most impressive scheme. I love its elegance, efficiency, and communicability.”  

Historical thinking skills are important, and New York City’s resource recognizes that. But I’m afraid that in their efforts to be comprehensive in defining those skills, the resource writers have created tools that are inelegant, inefficient, and difficult to communicate to students. The Four Question Method offers a more simple, direct, and powerful set of thinking tools to both students and teachers. 



4QM The News

I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of my phone. Email is fine, and phone calls from people I know are always welcome. But I’m in the habit of checking the news pretty much every time I pick up the phone. The habit is ingrained, so hard to break. Right now, reading the news feels like swallowing shards of glass. I keep clicking, and keep swallowing. My throat is sore. 

The fact is, I’ve been reading news for far too long to stop. For at least 35 years, I’ve followed the stories around me, both domestic and international. I feel connected to the ongoing stories, and moved by sudden and surprising events — typically natural and human-made disasters. Some stories are both, and so I feel both shock and connection. 

I’m on leave this year, writing the book manuscript for the Four Question Method. I took the month of September off to go hiking with a friend in Sequoia National Forest in California. He and I have been backpacking together for as long as I’ve been reading the news. This time, the news caught up with us. We were three days into the forest when the smoke blew in from the southwest. We woke in the morning to a spectacular alpine basin covered in ash, the air thick, heavy, and aggressive. We wore masks for the next two days as we made our way out of the forest, part of a steady stream of hikers. If it hadn’t been for the disaster of pandemic, the disaster of wildfires would have scorched our lungs. 

One of the great things about wilderness camping is getting off the grid. No phones, no messages, no news. The break is always refreshing. This time, the news caught up with us. We knew about the California wildfires, but didn’t know they’d get so close to us, or us to them. 

There are two stories about those fires, actually. One is a story of natural disaster and its immediate consequences. Our interrupted trip is the least of it. People have been killed. Many homes have been destroyed. People are breathing air filled with hazardous particulates all up and down the coast. And Sequoia and the High Sierras: large parts of that stunning landscape have been ravaged. 

The second story is longer and slower. The wildfire season, predictable enough — a regular pattern — is much worse this year, and in recent years, too. Something’s changed: the climate is hotter and drier, more extreme. Hundred-year fires, like floods and hurricanes, need new names: “ten-year,” or “frequent.” That story isn’t about lightning and house construction in wooded areas. That story is about the consequences of petroleum-based industrialization, and our political incapacity to address those consequences. 

The climate-change story is not a happier story than the wildfires-are-burning story. Both are true and important, and both are upsetting. But the reality is, right now, that the climate-change story is the perspective I need in order to be able to click through to the news sites on my phone. Climate change, global warming, is about changes in conditions. It’s a Question Three topic, in 4QM terms. 

Climate change is a game changer. But it’s one we still have time to address. The future of that story is still unwritten, which means we still have the opportunity to try to write it. 

Same with the daily news of the Trump Era. The President, who mocked mask-wearing and lockdowns, is, as I write, in the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. I’m an educated person living in Massachusetts. The odds that I’d find Donald Trump a credible reporter on news of the day are low, and in fact I don’t. But I know Trump supporters, even at this late date. I find it profoundly unedifying to debate news of the day with them. We have startlingly misaligned sensibilities about who we can trust and what we can believe. 

But I can talk to my political adversaries in a time of great and deep polarization because I can track Question Two. As I told a neighbor, we’re not trying to persuade one another. We’re trying to understand one another. That, right now, will be the best we can do. 

So: if the news is important to you — if following the ongoing stories in the news is important to your sense of the story of your life — some advice: now is a time for Questions Two and Three. You need to know what’s happening. That’s what daily news is all about. But that alone will drive you to distraction. And you need to judge. Question Four is the point of knowing and thinking, after all. But Questions Two and Three, the true inquiry questions, are where I need to be right now, and I recommend them to you as well. 

In a time of polarization, redouble your efforts to understand. You need not agree, or even judge. Question Two: What are you thinking? That question is enough. Take it seriously enough to gather the evidence that will get you a convincing answer. Working out an answer will build empathy and agency. 

And Question Three: Why here and now? What’s happening now, I’m willing to wager, is epochal. The ground is shifting beneath our feet. Our republic is on trial; our society is fractured; our country is burning. We answer Question Three with “factors, not actors.” There are lots of factors to consider about our political predicament: the shape of contemporary media; the systematic rewards and failures of our economy; the pace of cultural and demographic change. In any case, it is, as always, the questions that matter most. 

Now is a time to interpret and explain, to ask and try to answer Questions Two and Three. And, if you get a chance, I strongly encourage you to get off the grid for a while. My friend and I ended up in New Mexico in the Santa Fe National Forest. Ten days when our boots hit the trail and our phones did not function. Every day, the news of the day was auspicious.