Category: 4QM Teaching

Going From “What” To “Why”

History and social studies teachers are used to asking a lot of “W” questions: who, what, where, when, and hopefully why. At 4QM Teaching we contend that the first four of these are actually parts of what we call Question One:” What Happened?” And we believe that good history teaching starts with a good story that tells students who did what, when and where. But you can’t stop there. Well, of course you can, but you shouldn’t. You should use your story as a launching pad to push students to consider “why” questions as well. Question Three, “Why then and there?”, asks why explicitly. But Question Two, “What were they thinking?”, is also a kind of “why” question. In this post I’ll explain the difference between them.

Question Two v. Question Three

Question Two, “What were they thinking?” asks us to get into the heads of some of the key people in our historical story. It’s a why question, but on a very personal level: Why did the people in our story do what they did? What was motivating them? The Question is phrased as “What were they thinking?” to emphasize its focus on the conscious ideas of individual people. We’re not asking about their subconscious, or about the underlying conditions and contexts that made them think the way they did. Question Two imagines that we were able to interview the people in our historical story and ask them why they did what they did, what would they say? Examples of Question Two include, Why did so many white Southerners support secession in 1860 and 1861? Why did the Mau-Mau rebels in Kenya support violence? Why did so many rural voters support Donald Trump in 2016?

Answering Question Two keeps us close to the story. Question Three, “Why then and there?” pulls us back from the story. We’ve blogged about Question Three before; it’s the most abstract and difficult of the Four Questions, and takes the most practice to learn. Question Three thinking doesn’t try to get into the heads of the people in our story. Instead we pull back, and look for changes or differences in underlying conditions that explain why the story was more likely to end up as it did. One useful historical case for understanding how “Why then and there?” is different from “What were they thinking?” is World War One. Most of the common explanations for the outbreak of what contemporaries called The Great War are really answering Question Two. As such, they don’t explain why this particular diplomatic dispute triggered a general European war, when so many others since 1815 had not. We know that Europeans were thinking nationalist thoughts — but they had been doing so for decades (or longer!) without causing a general conflict. What underlying change explains why nationalist thoughts led to military conflagration this time? (Click on the second link in this paragraph to find out!) This kind of “why” thinking requires a broader view, more data, and a more scientific kind of thinking than the personal “why” of Question Two. 

“Why” questions are important, and we owe it to our students to explore them deeply and thoughtfully. Those explorations are more effective and fruitful when we know which kind of “why” we are asking.


4QM Reading: Helping The Reluctant History Student

This week’s post is by guest author Sarah Bassett. Sarah is a college sophomore, and a reluctant history student. She is also 4QM co-founder Jon Bassett’s daughter. In this post she describes how she used the Four Questions to de-mystify some unpleasant reading — a technique that we recommend for social studies students on all grade levels.

A Reluctant History Student

Having to read anything more than one page has always made me groan. Picture books are amazing. But a textbook? Yeah no. So naturally, history class has never been my favorite. That might seem like a normal dislike for a teenage girl, but for me, it feels abnormal. Both of my parents are total history and political science nerds (a fan favorite Harvard poli sci lecturer and a rockstar history teacher/the creator of 4QM), and I constantly wonder how I didn’t end up with those genes. I mean, come on. It would definitely be nice to feel an ounce of interest while studying the American Revolution, but nope. You would have to bribe me with candy to sit through a lecture on that again. High school history was a challenge for me. I associate the memory of it with long nights of reading a giant textbook full of ancient people I had never heard of, wars that seemed to last forever, time periods I couldn’t put in the right order, and constantly asking myself, “why do I even care about this?” My sophomore year teacher asked me once what my favorite historical time period was. My answer? The dinosaur age, which apparently is not an acceptable response.

In an effort to try and avoid ever having to read a long chapter about a war or Karl Marx ever again, I have avoided history classes in college at all costs. I am an early childhood education major, and I adore young children and the idea of becoming a teacher. Child development is my favorite class- I could listen to a peppy preschool teacher lecture about toddler brain development for hours. However, despite all the fun education courses that I get to take, there is one part of my degree that makes me cringe: 9 credits of “social studies.” And since I didn’t dare take APUSH, I don’t have any AP credits rolling in. So all 9 credits are still sitting there, waiting to be awarded. 

Karl Marx, Again!

This semester, I thought I’d dip my toes in the water and take sociology. It sounded simple and historian-free. The study of how humans socialize and interact with the world? Easy peasy. All was calm until I opened the first chapter of my textbook, and who was on the first few pages? Karl Marx. Memories of sophomore year history flooded back, and as I flipped through more pages, I realized that I really could not avoid the whole history thing. I was going to have to bite the bullet in college at some point. Frantically, I called my dad, who first after laughing at my frazzled state, suggested that I ask myself four simple questions about the “old guys” I was reading about. What happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? 

Obviously, I have heard those questions before. I have watched the video of my dad and Gary bantering about their new teaching method and have giggled at their humor. I am an avid 4QM twitter follower. But, since 4QM was born at the tail end of my public school career, I had never actually put those questions into use, and I decided to try it. I sat down and reopened my textbook to the pages with the old people with confusing sociological theories. I typed up a “4QM for sociology” organizer with a girly font. I started to re-read, focusing on the four questions.

4QM To The Rescue

I may be biased, but the 4QM is genius. Suddenly, reading the pages became much easier. I wasn’t taking sloppy, pointless notes, and was able to actually gain an understanding of these people. What happened? Karl Marx created a viewpoint based on a materialist conception of history. What was he thinking? He thought social change was prompted by economics. Why then and there? He wanted to explain the social changes that were arising from the industrial revolution. What do we think about that? Personally, I don’t really know what I think about that.  I haven’t read enough Marx (and probably never will honestly) to form a solid opinion. However, sociologists today are still influenced by his ideas about class systems. 

I called my dad, and I asked him why this system didn’t exist when I was younger. The 4QM has made history click for me in a way that it never has before. No, I am still not going to sit through a lecture on the American Revolution without groaning and Karl Marx is most certainly not my favorite dude. But this notetaking system makes the information attainable and understandable for me, and I am in awe at how simple and concise it is. I will be carrying this with me for the rest of college and into my teaching career. You better believe my future third graders will be asking the 4 questions when they learn about the Pilgrims and Wampanoags. Oh, and I’ll stop teasing my dad about his introduction video on the front page, because yeah, he’s right, 4QM works.


Got “Planner’s Block?” Just Dump It!

History teachers have a really hard job. I know I’m biased, but I actually think unit planning is harder for history teachers than it is for teachers of other subjects. Unit planning is especially challenging for us because we have an enormous amount of content to cover, and not a lot of guidance about what specifically to teach. Consider a common unit in U.S. history courses: World War One. What about World War One should kids learn? What can you leave out? Is the Lusitania important enough to include? What about Wilson’s 14 points speech? What about women’s roles on the home front? The start of the Great Migration? Poison gas? Sometimes I want to be an English teacher, and just tell the kids to read a book.

At 4QM Teaching, we approach the history unit planning challenge with a six box storyboard. Using a storyboard to plan your units forces you to be thoughtful and coherent. The storyboard is a structuring and limiting device: it forces you to make clear and intentional decisions about when the unit ends (that’s the “outcome” box), when it begins (that’s the “setting” box), and what specific content you can include and what you have to leave out (if you can’t fit it in six boxes, you’ve got too much content). 

“Planner’s Block”

But what if you just can’t figure out how to wrestle all your unit content into a storyboard? That was the dilemma facing a group of teachers at a 4QM workshop in Springfield (Massachusetts) this summer. We were planning a World War One storyboard, and had settled on the unit outcome: the unit would end with the Senate’s final rejection of the Versailles Treaty in March of 1920. The fifth box, right before the outcome, was obvious: the Versailles Treaty conference and the creation of the treaty itself. We agreed on the unit setting: the unit would start with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, and U.S. neutrality. But the group was struggling to figure out how to chunk, or “chapterize” all the content between 1914 and 1919. It was challenging in part because there were some experienced teachers in the group, and they knew a lot. As we talked about all the things that we might include in the unit, one teacher sighed in frustration: “There’s just a lot of layers on it.” We had arrived at the history teacher’s equivalent of writer’s block: Planner’s Block.

“Brain Dump” + Storyboard

We broke out of planner’s block using a fun and simple technique that you can do at home when you get stuck in your unit planning. We started with a brain dump. I told everyone in the group to just call out things that they think of when they think about World War One, and I wrote them all down. (If you’re working by yourself, you just make your list individually, without thinking about it — just write down whatever comes to mind.) It was a pretty long list, but it only took about two minutes. Here’s an approximation of what we came up with:

Submarine Warfare

Zimmerman Note

Archduke Ferdinand

Spanish Flu

Trench Warfare


Sedition Act

Selective Service Act

Russian Revolution

Machine Gun

War profiteering, Capitalism

Trading with Both Sides


Wilson’s War Message

Factory production


Our next step was to look over the list, and see if there were things we could discard because they didn’t really fit in the unit. In this case, we agreed that the Spanish Flu was tangentially related to the war, but came afterwards, and wasn’t really part of the unit narrative. We cut it. The Russian Revolution was trickier: it’s important because it’s why Russia leaves the war. But we agreed that for this unit that was the only reason it was important — so we decided that we would not teach a tangential mini-unit on the Russian Revolution, and instead would simply tell students that there was one, and it took Russia out of the war. Everything else we left.

Our final step was to go back to the storyboard, and see if we could sort the remaining list into chronological chapters with the boxes you have available. In this case, most of the remaining items on the list sorted into one of the three boxes we had left, and we were able to create a pretty coherent story of the unit. The storyboard gave us the structure we needed, and helped us to see that 1917 was really a crucial year for the U.S. in the war.

It’s easy for history teachers to drown in content when unit planning. The most common reaction to “planner’s block” is to throw up one’s hands and just muddle through, planning day-to-day, and then after a few weeks decide that it’s time for a test and call that a unit. But the brain dump method is much better. It honors the mass of incoherent content inside our heads, but doesn’t leave it unorganized.

Give it a shot! We think you’lll be pleasantly surprised at how well the messiness of the brain dump and the discipline of the storyboard can work together to create a strong unit plan.



The Pandemic and the 1950s

When I was a young student of American history and American popular culture, the 1950s were described as a time of conformity. The 1950 sociological analysis The Lonely Crowd and the 1953 novel The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit described a numbing popular culture that valued consumerism and going along with the majority point of view. It was the McCarthy era and the start of the cold war. Middle class women were pushed out of the workforce and into traditional roles as wives and mothers, and toxic masculinity was the norm for boys and men.

This understanding of the 1950s is of course more of a caricature than reality, but it has lived with me for decades as a kind of historian’s shorthand in my head: “Roaring ‘20s, Great Depression, WWII, Age of Conformity, The Sixties.” The pandemic of 2020 has led me to rethink my understanding of the 1950s, and the Four Question Method has shaped my thinking.


I started thinking about the 1950s because I was thinking about what it’s going to be like for us when the pandemic is over. We will have been through a trauma, both as individuals who have lost family members, jobs, apartments and the like, and as a society that has seen economic and social disruption on a massive scale. I was wondering if maybe we’ll all be more cautious when this is over: Will we save more money? Advise our children to take the safe and secure job? Put off purchases that require larger loans? And that got me thinking about my “Age of Conformity” shorthand. Maybe people in the 1950s were more conformist because they had a visceral knowledge that bad things happen. They knew first hand that sometimes very bad things happen, like depressions in which people starve and wars in which civilians are slaughtered. Were young people being told to play it safe because their parents had been through trauma and didn’t want their children to risk experiencing the same thing? It’s easy to advise a child to “find your own path” if you’re confident that most paths lead to good places. What if you’re not at all confident of that? What if you invested your life savings in a restaurant that opened in February of 2020? Would that change the way you see risk?


To check my theory about what people were thinking in the 1950s I’d have to read the sorts of sources that get me into individuals’ heads: diaries, letters, memoirs and the like. But I could also test my “social trauma leads to social conformity” hypothesis using Question Three methodology. Did we see similar social conformity after the Civil War? After the economic crises of the 1890s? In order to make these comparisons I’d need to establish some standards for measuring social trauma and social conformity, then I’d have to measure to see if I’ve identified a recurring phenomenon or not. Under what conditions does social trauma lead to social conformity? When we phrase the question that way we can immediately see that an alternative hypothesis seems plausible: perhaps social traume tends to lead to social upheaval instead. After all, the “Roaring ‘20s” followed World War One and the flu pandemic of 1918-19. Maybe my hypothesis about the reasons for 1950s conformity is entirely wrong – or maybe if I developed good measurements and applied them faithfully I would find that the “Roaring 20s” were not so roaring, and/or the “Age of Conformity” was not so conformist. No matter what, I’d have a better understanding of the country’s past than my historian’s shorthand implies.


“The Age of Conformity” is a pejorative label. I imagine that for most of us who came of age after the dramatic changes that we summarize as “The ‘60s,” the 1950s are easy to look down on: Leave It To Beaver, Ike’s golfing, Levittowns, and so on. I find myself much more sympathetic to the people who called out that world’s hypocrisy, especially on matters of race, than to the people who built and celebrated that world. But the pandemic has changed my thinking a little bit. After this is over, what do I think I’m going to want for myself and my children? A secure job, a house or apartment that won’t disappear with one economic crisis, social stability. I’m a little more sympathetic to the depression-scarred WWII vet who doesn’t want to rock the boat at the office so he can keep making payments on his Levittown cottage on Long Island. 

Of course the structural problem with the society built by those depression-scarred WWII veterans was that it was designed so that only white people could address their anxieties. Levittown was segregated, black women often worked raising white people’s children because their husbands’ wages were depressed by racism, and “social stability” was created through Jim Crow laws and customs. While the pandemic makes me a bit more sympathetic to the people who made the 1950s an age of conformity, the murder of George Floyd makes me a lot more sympathetic to those who made the 1960s a time of great tumult. 



Why Live Teaching Matters

Remote teaching and learning is boring. I don’t get to see much of my students, and some of them I don’t see at all. We teachers plan together as a 9th-grade team, and our “lessons” — defined now as “tasks” — are pretty clear and accessible. Students read, watch, write, reflect. Occasionally we post a video lecture, with cues to pause and write at manageable intervals. We keep it simple because we have to. Students need to be able to complete our tasks independently. Real-time formative assessment is an erstwhile dream. 

Several teachers have complained to me that what’s left of school is the worst part: the homework. Personally, what I miss most is the opportunity to sell a story. All the real-time theatrics and interaction are gone. Our instructions and videos convey as much enthusiasm as we can muster, but they are, in the end, literally and figuratively flat. My worst nightmare feels true: History class is boring. Again. 

I Was Bored With High School History

This is where I started with History as a subject. I have no recollection of it earlier than 10th grade, in the first of my two high schools. (We moved during the summer between my sophomore and junior years.) I had a commanding teacher for US History that year. He required us to stand every time he mentioned the name Alexander Hamilton, which was often enough. My friend Joe refused to do it one time. Nothing happened to him. In fact, I think the teacher praised him. The rest of us continued to obey, as best I can recall. 

Despite his intensity and charisma, I didn’t really get much from that teacher’s class. I have vague recollections of trying to write an essay on the Mayflower Compact, but I didn’t see the point and, unsurprisingly, didn’t do very well on it. Interestingly, I can’t remember the teacher’s name. I enjoyed math and liked science well enough, to the extent I liked anything academic in high school. Mr. Krivitsky’s Geometry class involved real thinking. That I remember, along with his name. 

The argument between me and Jon that led to the Four Question Method started when I kept asking what our courses were really about. He kept telling me that they consisted of true and important stories about what people did. That, and “ideas.” I was sold on the ideas part. By age 39, when Jon hired me, I’d decided that history (but not History) was interesting after all. I’d gotten a degree in political theory and taught ideas about politics and society to university students. So ideas, for sure. Stories? Not so much. It seemed to me that our courses, configured as stories, were just one damned thing after another. Why not just go right for the concepts? 

Puzzles About People

It turns out that there are several good responses to that question, which I have since learned. The most persuasive one is the same as for serious questions about teaching: relationships first. Stories are accounts of the crazy, exotic, heroic, befuddling, and always surprising things people did in the past and continue to do all around us. What’s interesting about *any* class is a puzzle that we have enough tools to solve. What’s gripping about history — History, done well — is that it’s a set of puzzles about people with whom we can engage, to whom we are in some way related. They, like us, are a bit crazy, exotic, heroic, befuddling — and always surprising. Ideas? That’s an answer to the second question, once we know the story: What were they thinking…?

So Jon was right. History is fundamentally the discipline (actually, a set of disciplines) devoted to unraveling puzzles about people. And we start work on those puzzles by learning a story about what those people did, a story that is itself the resolution of a puzzle: How did *that* happen…? Once you know a story, you can ask and answer a whole series of animating questions that will deepen your relationship with the people you’re studying, that will make them more flesh-and-blood for you — and more puzzling! 

Through years of practice, I’d gotten pretty good at selling a story to students. Jon and I taught ourselves how to stem-wind a narrative puzzle. Jon and I teach that stem-winding technique to teachers in workshops now. We contrast the outcome, the world after the puzzling action, with the world before it. We introduce the protagonists who move the action, their ambitions and the obstacles they face, and we then launch a tailored Question One. Framing a new and notable outcome is a way to generate a puzzle about a person. That’s the kind of puzzle a young person can get excited about. I know. I’ve seen it happen, over and over. 

Not so much these days, though. Every so often a student reflection — we include one in every weekly assignment — will show traces of genuine curiosity or enthusiasm. Some of my students may be getting to the point where their native curiosity and acquired skills can sustain them. Our aspiration as History teachers is ultimately for all of our students to have the capacity to learn independently. With good training, we hope that their activated curiosity will lead to skillful inquiry. That’s what the Four Question Method is meant to accomplish.  

But right now, most of my 9th graders are just doing their homework. They are still in training. And they have plenty to distract them, too. Who doesn’t these days? The fact is, my students still need a teacher to connect them to the people in the stories they’re learning. They can get the basic narrative without me there to sell it, but in my absence I can see that they are both cognitively and emotionally hazy who did what and why it matters. For sure, in order to get to the animating ideas in the story, they still need a teacher to model passionate inquiry and careful reading. They still need me in the room to help them to both see and feel, say, Luther’s anxiety and rage when he discovered Tetzel selling Indulgences with a promise of immediate salvation. Ultimately, they still need the Platonic eros of teaching and learning: they watch me engage and see how much fun I’m having. That makes them want to try it, too.

On the other hand, I suppose a virtual story with glimpses of real ideas is better than the usual options: serial facts — one damned thing after another — or an “engaging” activity that arrives from nowhere and then returns there. Much better still would be teachers and students in the room together. I miss it.

G. S.

AP Exams, 2020: Redefining Rigor

This year the College Board is being forced to rethink its definition of “rigor.” Because of the coronavirus pandemic, AP exams will be given online for students to take at home, and they will be forty-five minute open note tests. The history exams will be a single document-based question (DBQ), and a shortened one at that. On the full World History AP exam, the DBQ takes sixty minutes and counts for 25% of the test; a typical question has seven documents. This year’s DBQ will have five documents (to account for the forty-five minute time frame) and will be 100% of the test. 

So Why’d We Do All That Stuff, Anyway?

The College Board has made a tremendous push to reassure teachers and students that this year’s exam will be worthy of their efforts. They’ve got an impressive list of colleges and universities to commit to granting credit for this year’s results just as they have in the past, when students took the full exam. All of which causes me to ask: if a forty-five minute DBQ is really just as good as the three hour and fifteen minute full exam, why were we doing all that other stuff in the first place? 

Two Reasons

I think there are two answers to this question. The first answer is that the forty-five minute DBQ is not as good as the full exam at finding out what students can narrate, interpret, explain, and judge in world history. There’s no way a five document DBQ can give students the opportunity to demonstrate breadth of knowledge across the times and places covered in the AP World History course (or even the ⅔ of it that will be tested this year). Some students will succeed on this short DBQ while knowing a lot of world history that they won’t be tested on, some students will succeed on this short DBQ without knowing much more world history than what the documents reveal, and doubtless some students who know quite a bit of world history will not succeed on this DBQ. I think the College Board is doing the right thing here — I support their decision to test this year and to test in this manner — but I don’t believe that this exam will provide the same evaluation of an individual student’s learning of world history as a full exam would. 

The second answer to the question is that the College Board has always had to present its Advanced Placement courses as especially rigorous, and one way to do that is by giving tests that require students to remember a lot of stuff. In our own teaching and in our work with 4QM clients Gary and I think a lot about “rigor.” Everyone agrees that history lessons should have “rigor,” and that classes should be “rigorous.” AP classes typically assign many pages of textbook reading, provide long lists of “IDs” or “key terms,” and test students on all of it. That’s one kind of rigor, and we’re sympathetic to it. You can’t think about history that you don’t know, which is why the Four Question Method starts with Question One, “What Happened?” Students have to know that before they can explore any of the other questions responsibly. Content matters, and pretending that students can practice their thinking skills without a solid grounding in historical facts is progressivist piffle. 

Balanced 4QM Rigor

But I’m not confident that the full AP world history exam is a balanced test of historical knowledge and historical thinking. I’ve complained in a previous post about the College Board’s ambiguous free response questions, and I think there’s a case to be made that the exam as a whole does not ask students to narrate, interpret, explain, and judge in an optimal ratio. I’m not opposed to a rigorous course with a rigorous external exam to validate it. I’d just like to see “rigor” defined more carefully, and tested in a more balanced way.



For Simplicity

The Four Question Method is a kind of simplicity. There are a million different things you could teach in a History class, and thousands of different ways of teaching them. Jon and I, through patient observation and years of mutual haranguing, came up with the simplicity of the 4QM. Start with a story that reveals something new and notable (Q1). Plan your unit around that story. Identify the main actors and create opportunities to explore what they were thinking (Q2). Once your students can say what happened — who did what to whom — and what the main actors were thinking, help them to step back and figure out how the context shaped the interactions and ideas that drove the story (Q3). After that, you’re ready to draw conclusions: what do we learn about being people in the world, and more, citizens in custody of a rickety but venerable democratic republic? What do we think about all that (Q4)?

Two weeks ago I shared the correspondence below with colleagues at my high school about a different kind of simplicity. This one is fully compatible, for History teachers, with the simplicity of the 4QM. In fact, 4QM-ing your remote lessons is, we think, a terrific idea. If you’re teaching new content, start with a simple story. Then proceed transparently and methodically through the questions. 

Whatever you do, please remember that the disruption we and our students are experiencing now calls for a kind of pedagogical modesty. We know so little and control so little about our current educational circumstances. 


Dear Colleagues: 

Please be simple. I’ve heard this from students, and from the many adults who are working at a near-frantic pace to keep students organized and engaged in remote learning. Consider the problem: all of the typical cues students rely on to make sense of us and our world are missing. Students walk into your class. They know the location, the people around them, your voice, what you write and post on the walls and board. They know what time it is by schedule, location, and proximity. When we tell them something that doesn’t quite make sense to them, they turn to the student next to them and look: what’s this kid doing…? 

All of that is gone, and we can’t replace it. This is true whatever grade, level, or subject you teach. I hope you won’t think me excessively vain if I tell you that I was a very good student. I could do almost everything teachers asked me to do in school without a terrific amount of effort. (Granted, high school was easier in the 19th century.) On the other hand, I learned to work independently in my 30s. Before then, I was hopeless trying to manage my time or energy. Left to my own devices, I accomplished very little. You teach honors or AP? Assume I, too, age 17, am in your class. My teenage self is begging you: be simple.

In particular, I ask that you consider adopting the following practices for the duration of remote learning: 

  1. Put all of your weekly assignments into a single document. Collect student work entirely within that single document. That way, I receive one thing from you and return one thing to you. Simple.

  2. Make your tasks, the items in your document, simple and clear. If your instructions take many sentences to describe, or many actions to complete, then they are too complicated. Ask me a clear question or give me a straightforward thing to calculate, describe, explain, or react to. Simplify.

  3. Reading and writing are good, simple activities. Watching is fine, especially if your voice is in the soundtrack. (Your voice is familiar and predictable. And I miss it.) Many things we do in real classrooms are no longer viable activities: collaborative projects, simulations, materials-rich production, complex interaction, deep and thoughtful conversation, laboratory experiments. We love these activities and, when they’re done well, our students love them, too. We can’t do them now. We can read, watch, and write. 

Our students now have six, seven, or eight independent projects running concurrently. They need predictability and simplicity. Be clearer than you are creative. Be simpler than you’d like to be. We will be very grateful. 


Pandemic Questions Two & Three

Since our school buildings closed in March, Gary and I have gone through several stages in thinking about “History Questions,” the 4QM Teaching blog. Now that Massachusetts schools are officially closed for the rest of the year, the current situation feels less like a temporary accommodation to crisis and more like a new normal. Given that, we’re going to try to blog more or less regularly through mid-June. So here’s our first entry in the “new reality” pandemic series of blog posts.

Historiography and Questions 2 & 3

Reflecting on my own feelings at this time, I find myself making analogies to other historical crises, like World War Two or the Great Depression. Like the people who lived through those tragedies, I feel myself being swept along by a huge historical event over which I have no individual control. My choices are constrained by decisions being made by powerful people who are themselves constrained by events beyond their control. But because my history teacher brain never shuts off, this train of thought brings me to ruminations on historiography and the tension between Questions Two and Three. 

Historiography, because I think of the arguments between historians who focus on the role of particular individuals in making the world, and those who focus on the role of large forces of economic, social, or political change. Did the Mongols create the world’s largest land empire because Genghis Khan was a political genius who figured out how to unify the Mongol tribes? Or did the empire rise because the Song Dynasty and the Abbasid Caliphate were in decline at the same time that a change in climate reduced the yield of the traditional Mongol pasturelands?

Of course the Four Question Method is designed to acknowledge both explanations (it’s the Four Question method after all, not the One Question method). Genghis Khan was a political genius whose success was enabled by a particular context. Question Two (What were they thinking?) recognizes his genius, while Question Three (Why then and there?) recognizes the context that made that genius more likely to succeed so spectacularly in thirteenth century Asia. 

A historic crisis like the current pandemic throws the power of huge forces that change the world, outside of any individual’s control, into high relief. We are powerless in the midst of the pandemic, and when it is over our world will be changed in myriad ways. We will all think and act differently than we did a few months ago, because the economic and social context for our individual lives will be dramatically changed by a pathogen, not by a person. 

But at the same time, the crisis highlights the importance of individuals in positions of responsibility and power. While it may be historiographically fashionable in some circles to  dismiss the study of powerful leaders as irrelevant “Great Man” history, the current crisis makes it impossible to argue that leaders don’t matter. Just consider the different decisions made by Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, for instance. Both are national chief executives operating in the same historical context, but their performances have inspired very different responses. 

Before March of 2020, I enjoyed historiographical debates about the relative importance of Question Two and Question Three in an abstract and intellectual sense (How much credit should Lincoln get for the North’s victory in the Civil War?). But now I feel the urgency of both questions in a visceral way. On days when I’m obsessively checking Massachusetts infection rates it can feel like historical context is the only thing that matters. But every state and national press conference reminds me that individual leaders matter too, and maybe today as much as ever.

Good historians ask and answer all four questions, and good history teachers coach their students to do the same thing. I’m looking forward to getting back that as soon as we possibly can.



Community In Adversity

We, Jon and Gary, typically alternate writing blog posts every Sunday. We each have our take on things, and we take seriously the idea that ongoing dialogue is the best way to generate ideas. The Four Question Method really is the result of a decade of our arguing about the best way to teach history. Besides, taking turns gives each of us a weekend off. 

But this week’s blog post is a joint product. We’re not arguing right now. We’re talking together and thinking together and writing together, because right now we want to talk about what we share, and what we hope we share with you. 

Things aren’t normal right now. The health consequences of the current pandemic are frightening. In the developed world, medical care is on a knife’s edge. If we “flatten the curve,” we might avoid massive mortality due to shortages of skilled care and equipment. In the developing world, the consequences are likely to be far worse. That bitter truth applies doubly to the consequences of freezing the global economy. In the developed world, inequalities are already being exacerbated. In the developing world, mass starvation is a real possibility. The political and cultural consequences of this pandemic are uncertain, but frightening enough. Everything from the handshake greeting to voting needs to be reimagined. 

The news is not all awful. Shared adversity can bring out the best in people. For sure, it makes many of us appreciate what we share beyond adversity: our common interests, values, projects, and humanity. 

Our aspiration with 4QM Teaching has always been to help foster a community of like-minded people: fanatics about history teaching. If you’re dedicated to the challenge of teaching young people to know and think about how people in other times and places have lived, you’re our kind of people. If you’ve been reading our blog, thank you for sharing virtually in our community. We have always wanted to build that community and make it real. Enforced separation makes us want that even more. 

G.S.  J.B.

Rewriting An AP Essay Question

Right before my school was shut down two weeks ago I assigned my AP World History students to write the 2015 World History AP exam DBQ, which is about the flu pandemic of 1918-1919. (At the time the coronavirus was still just a major current events story, not a full blown global crisis.) As I’ve been working with them (virtually) on it, I’ve had more time than ever to reflect on the problematic nature of many College Board free response questions. Too many AP exam questions are unclear about what they want students to do, intellectually. The College Board knows they want students to demonstrate historical thinking, but like most history teachers (including Gary and me before we argued our way to the Four Question Method), they’re not clear in their own minds about precisely what that looks like. Because they lack good epistemological categories for their questions, the questions are often unclear. The result is that students have two intellectual tasks to complete if they are to score well: first they have to figure out what the question is asking them to do, then they have to succeed at doing it. I think that students, teachers, and exam graders would all be better off with clearer questions — then everyone involved could teach, practice, and assess historical thinking directly. Let me use the 2015 DBQ to show you what I mean.

“Analyze” Means “Identify”

The 2015 prompt tells students to use nine documents to “analyze responses to the spread of influenza in the early twentieth century.” What does “analyze” mean in this context? At our workshops we tell teachers that if you’re not sure what question you’re asking, take a look at an exemplar answer. If a good answer is a narrative, you’re asking a Question One; if a good answer is describing someone’s thinking, you’re asking a Question Two, and so on. Because the verb “analyze” itself doesn’t give us any guidance about what kind of historical thinking this prompt requires of students, we need to turn to the exemplars provided in the scoring guide to see what the question is really asking. The first exemplar earned a perfect score, in part because “The thesis of this essay is found in consecutive sentences in the introduction where the student identifies three responses [to the flu pandemic]” (emphasis added). This tells us that the College Board is asking a Question One. Students need to read all nine documents, then identify different responses to the flu pandemic that appear in the documents. This may seem prosaic, but in fact answering Question One well requires considerable skill at reading and categorizing, which the scorers acknowledge: this student gets points for understanding all nine documents, using evidence from all nine documents, and effectively grouping the documents into three categories of responses in three separate paragraphs identified with clear topic sentences. All of these points are awarded for a narrative intellectual task: reading the documents to tell us “What Happened?” during the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919.

 “Analyze” Means “Interpret”

The top-scoring exemplar essay also gets points for doing more than identifying responses to the pandemic. The student earned points for noting the different points of view of the authors of two of the documents, suggesting that they might not be entirely accurate, and for noting that one document is a recollection of events from fifty years earlier. This is not terribly deep thinking, but it does go beyond the surface meaning of the documents and shades over into what we at 4QM call interpretation, or Question Two thinking. In this case, “analyze responses to the spread of influenza” means, “interpret some of these documents about responses to the spread of influenza.”

Re-Writing The Prompt

There is a missed opportunity here: if the prompt were re-written to clearly define the two types of historical thinking demonstrated in the exemplar, more test-takers would have the opportunity to demonstrate their skills as historians. I’d revise the 2015 DBQ to be a straight up Question One, Question Two essay, like this:

“Use the documents below to describe at least two different responses to the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 [Q1]. For each response you describe, interpret at least two documents to show what the people who took those responses were thinking when they did so [Q2]. Essays that are well organized and well written will earn top marks.”

Gary likes to say that the verb “analyze” is usually a sign that the question writer doesn’t know what they mean to ask, and this prompt is a perfect example. In the context of the AP exam students faced with “analyze” need to first solve the mystery of what the question is asking before they can work on their answers. I’m in favor of taking the mystery out of exam questions. Too much College Board “rigor” is obtained by forcing students to guess at what will actually be graded. Let’s make the questions clear so that we can grade students’ history skills instead.