Category: 4QM Teaching

J.C. Sharman, “Cinderella,” and Euro-Centrism

If you’re a regular reader or have been to one of our workshops you know that we believe that almost all historical scholarship and debate can be described by our Four Questions. I recently came across a great example of a scholar making a classic 4QM style argument in J. C. Sharman’s short and polemical book, Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of Europan Expansion and the Creation of a New World Order. Sharman is polemical because he’s trying to knock down a dominant thesis about how it is that Europeans came to rule most of the globe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and one of his main arguments echoes an exercise we do in our introductory workshop, where we storyboard “Cinderella.” 

Start With The End

The first step in unit planning is to decide where your unit will end. When we coach teachers to plan with the Four Question Method, we give them a six-box storyboard and tell them to fill in the last box first: What’s the new and notable thing in the world that you wish to explain? What story is it you want to tell? We start this way because choosing your end point influences pretty much everything else about the unit you’re going to teach. It determines how much historical time you need to cover, what prior events will be judged important or irrelevant, and the overall tone of your story as you teach it. It’s impossible to plan a coherent unit without knowing the end point first. 

We illustrate this principle in our workshops by having people storyboard “Cinderella.” You probably know the story: the scullery maid turns into princess via the intervention of a fairy godmother and a persistent prince searching for someone to fit a glass slipper. When we storyboard it in our workshops the last box, the outcome or end of the story, is dated “June,” and filled in this way: 

Cinderella and the prince are married in a beautiful and gigantic destination wedding. Her gown is gorgeous, and she wears glass slippers.”

This is literally a fairy-tale ending, and it makes the story seem like a happy one. The focus of the unit then becomes, “How did we get to this happy state?” 

But we also have an alternate storyboard, in which the sixth box is dated “Five Years Later” and filled in this way:

“Cinderella has three children, ages 4, 2, and 1. The prince is often away fighting expensive wars. Cinderella is often left at home alone with servants, who send regular reports to the prince about her activities; she has no friends or hobbies. The prince often gets perfumed letters that he won’t let Cinderella read.”

The Cinderella story told from five years further on doesn’t seem so happy. Our point with this exercise to make it clear to teachers that the decision of where to end any given unit of instruction has big implications for our teaching. 

When Should The Story of Europe End?

Sharman illustrates precisely this principle in his book, and uses it to make an interesting argument about Europe’s dominance. Sharman notes that, “deciding where to finish a story without a natural ending can make a lot of difference about the lessons drawn” (131). He then goes on to argue that previous historians have looked at the story of European dominance from the point of view of the twentieth century, when European empires were at or near their peaks. Sharman thinks that this is like ending the story of Cinderella on her wedding day. He wants us to take a longer view: “From the perspective of the early twenty-first century we know that the spectacularly rapid [European] empire-building of the nineteenth century was followed by an even more rapid process of imperial collapse in the few decades after 1945” (132). Sharman’s argument is that we’re actually asking the wrong question when we try to explain Europe’s global dominance, because Europe didn’t dominate for long. He claims that historians’ misplaced focus on the brief period when Europeans ruled large empires has distorted our view of world history, and by extension our perception of what’s “normal” in world affairs, in a decidedly Euro-centric way.

You may think Sharman is spot on, or you may not — but it’s fun to see current scholars (Sharman is a professor at the University of Cambridge, in England) providing such a clear example of how the Four Question Method really does define thinking in our discipline. 

So when you plan your next unit, remember to pick the end of the story first, and ask yourself if you’ve really chosen the best ending. It’s fun to look at wedding pictures — but historians know that there’s usually more to the story.


A Storyteller’s Valediction

The most charismatic teacher in my department, Robert G., retired last year. I’m not sure he was ready to go, but his spouse got a great job outside of commuting distance. And as Robert said at the time, quoting an African proverb, “a change is as good as a rest.” 

Robert started at my school in the 1990s — before my time there — and during his tenure won our Teacher-of-the-Year award and the well-earned admiration and affection of his colleagues and generations of students. He even turned a whole bunch of those students into college History majors, for better or worse. 

I attended a belated retirement party for Robert over the Thanksgiving weekend. At his party, we told stories about Robert and he told stories about himself. That’s what we expected. Robert is a storyteller down to his bones. Among many others, Robert told a story about a post-observation debriefing early in our relationship as teacher and supervisor. In his telling, I had just watched him lecture on Andrew Jackson, whom he was particularly fond of imitating. That was one of Robert’s winning techniques: he didn’t just tell you stories about people. He *introduced* you to the actors in the stories he told. Students felt like they were in the room with people from the past. 

In Robert’s version of the story, after the lesson observation, I told him that that was all well and good, but that his job wasn’t to tell great stories. It was to teach *students* how to tell great stories. In fact, Robert was wrong about what I said to him. My feedback came in the form of a story, one I’d recently heard on the radio. A teacher, highly regarded in his own school and district, told an interviewer about a student who approached him after he’d given what I imagine as a Robert-style lecture. “That was awesome, Mr. Teacher. When are you going to teach *us* how to do that?” I suppose it doesn’t matter much which version is true, mine or Robert’s — mine is, by the way — except that teaching with stories is almost always more effective than issuing directives. 

Robert told that story — close enough to the truth — in a spirit of gratitude, which I deeply appreciate. It says a lot about him that a guy who was already secure in his job and quite confident in his abilities was willing to hear and accept a challenge to get even better. And so he did. 

Robert never stopped telling stories in the classroom. But he also did new things, too. Once he discovered “Facetube,” a discovery he announced with much glee at a departmental lunch, he created a virtual soundtrack for his US History course. The parent of a student who learned the history of rock and roll from Robert spoke at his party, and said that her son had become a more serious student as a result. (Something that *real* could be *studied*?!?) Robert also became, more in imitation of his younger colleagues than in response to anything I said to him, much more “student centered.” His students worked in groups on documents and gave each other comments on essay drafts. They debated and presented. 

Robert was also in on the ground floor of the 4QM. He was the first one to put up posters of the questions on the wall of his classroom. And as I’ve mentioned in this space and say frequently at workshops, Robert was the audacious soul who told his 9th graders to read about and then “4QM” the Crusades on their own. I remember coming into his classroom and seeing groups of them working on storyboards and dividing up questions to research. 

Some teachers like the 4QM because it helps them to make planning decisions more rationally and efficiently. Others really like using storyboards in the classroom. Robert was a quick study and a long-time veteran. In any case, he was done worrying about curriculum planning by the time I met him. (His enormously strong narrative sense also made the task relatively straightforward for him. He always knew what story he wanted to tell.) He liked the storyboards well enough. What he really liked was getting students to think with categories. He liked seeing how sharp they felt when they were able to distinguish between a Question Two and a Question Three, say. And he liked challenging them to think that way. 

Robert was also, for all his stories, an anthropologist at heart. He loved teaching anthropological concepts to students, and was the one 9th grade teacher who refused to relinquish the Neolithic Revolution and cede it to our middle school History colleagues. Robert needed to be the one to teach broad explanatory concepts like kinship and affinity and descent and, especially, race and culture. Last year we hired a new teacher who had studied with Robert as a 9th grader. Those culture and race lessons were among his most vivid memories of high school, and part of the reason he became a Social Studies teacher. 

I think Robert saw in the 4QM that we were, in fact, naming and documenting what he did with apparently effortlessness: he told stories and trained students to think conceptually, with categorical clarity. Our documentation, and a little prodding, made it possible for him to see how he could include his students not just in his audience but also enlist them in the meaning-making enterprise as co-conspirators. 

Robert taught me a bunch of things about teaching. Almost all of them have to do with fear. Robert had (and has) none, at least none related to the classroom. In pursuit of knowledge and understanding — and, for sure, a good story — there’s nothing Robert wouldn’t try. The fact is, I was a pretty good and Jon an unusually good teacher before we started figuring out the 4QM. The conversation that became the idea that became our consulting enterprise has also forced us to rethink and relearn what we thought we’d figured out. That’s been a hard process, though undoubtedly worth every calorie of effort and worry. Robert showed me how to learn as an adult with grace and humility. For that, I’ll always be in his debt.


The Q2/Q4 Problem

Gary and I stack up blog post ideas in brief notations of one or two phrases to come back to later, and this week an experience in my tenth grade AP World History class brought me back to a file labelled “Q2/Q4 Problem.” This is a very common problem that happens in discussion classes and results in students avoiding difficult thinking; hopefully after reading this post you’ll be better prepared to deal with it in your own classes.

This week we are studying the French Revolution, and on Thursday we were discussing Robespierre’s speech on Justification for the Terror. I love this document because it’s such a clear illustration of radical Jacobin thought, it demonstrates Rousseau’s idea that sometimes government will “force people to be free,” and it sets us up nicely for future conversations about radicals who believe they know how to create justice and are prepared to use violence to achieve it (Lenin and Mao, for example). My lesson plan follows a classic “Q2, Q4” structure: students start by interpreting Robespierre, taking plenty of time with this difficult text to make sure they understand what Robespierre was thinking. Then in the second part of the lesson we shift to Question Four, and I ask the students if they think Robespierre did the right thing. That’s where the Q2/Q4 problem often arises, as it did in my class last week.

Here’s how this problem shows itself. We’ve established that Robespierre believed that he was part of a global struggle between the forces of democracy and the forces of tyranny, and that violence was the only way to remove the enemies of democracy. He admits openly to using the methods of tyrannical governments, but justifies that by saying that it’s alright when he does it, because he’s using tyrannical methods in order to create justice, not to enforce more tyranny. (His actual sentence, which I find both elegant and chilling, is “The government of the revolution is liberty’s despotism against tyranny.”) So far, so good: this is all Question Two (“What were they thinking?”). Then we move to Question Four (“What do we think about that?”), and ask if Robespierre did the right thing. This discussion is often very powerful, as students grapple with their own beliefs and assumptions. If you believe that democracy is better than monarchy, should you support Robespierre? Do methods matter if the end goal is just? What if the methods seem to directly contradict the goal? Could it be that democracy is not always the best form of government? 

Students Duck The Hard Questions

The problem comes when students duck all of those hard questions by saying, as one of my students did this time, “I think he did the right thing because his intentions were good.” Variations on this include, “His heart was in the right place,” “his goal was admirable,” and “he cared about the people.” The problem is that all of these statements describe Robespierre’s thinking, not the student’s. This student is avoiding a difficult Question Four by answering a much easier Question Two. 

Of course there are many ways to respond to this in the moment. If your students are aware of the Four Questions you can simply point out the shift: “You’re answering Question Two: you’re telling us what he was thinking. I’m asking you a Question Four. Of course he thought he was right. Do you think he was right?” One way to make the difference between the two Questions clear to students is to ask the “monuments” question, which is an obvious Question Four: should Robespierre get a monument in Paris? What should it say? Bruce Lesh’s book, Why Won’t You Just Tell Us The Answer? has a chapter on this question, and it’s a great way to make kids see that making judgments about history is not the same thing as interpreting the thinking of historical figures. (For the record, Robespierre has no monument in France, just a metro stop named for him in a Paris suburb.)

My students all know the Four Questions, so this past week I pointed out to my student that she had confused Questions Two and Four. She then reconsidered, and decided that while she admired Robespierre’s passion for democracy and justice, she thought he had done wrong. She could not agree that terror, violence and suppression of individual rights would in fact produce democracy and justice. 

Hopefully this post has helped clarify the difference between these Questions for you as well, and given you some guidance on how you can push your students to do that hard thinking that makes history class engaging, rigorous, and fun! 

J. B.

What New Teachers Need

New teachers need a lot. There are lots of ways to know that. Start by asking one. I sit down with the newbies in my department each week for a one-on-one supervision session. I ask how they are. They tell me they’re tired. 

I like to think that our rookies are well supported, but still: every day, they take in a flood of new information and make more decisions than they had in the month before they started teaching. And many of those decisions will turn out to be wrong. 

Nationally, lots of teachers don’t make it to Year Two. That’s especially true for teachers in high-poverty schools. We also know that rookie teachers, wherever they teach, are typically less effective than those with three or more years of experience in the classroom. 

So what do new teachers need in order to become effective and preserve their health and sanity? Besides the obvious — decent pay and working conditions, adequate academic preparation for the kind of teaching they’re doing — what kinds of support and guidance do new teachers need in order to become proficient, happy professionals? 

Apprenticeship or Scripting? 

For curriculum support, there are two standard models, apprenticeship and scripting. The suburbs usually opt for the apprenticeship model. New teachers, budding artisans, learn their craft from an experienced mentor, who shares curriculum and shows them how to use it. That’s how I learned (at age 39) when I started teaching in a large suburban high school. 

The success of the apprenticeship model depends entirely on the quality of the materials and mentorship provided by the experienced teacher. That quality varies greatly. If running a consistent program with aligned curriculum and pedagogy matters to you, the apprenticeship model is not the way to get it. And in many cases, particularly in high-need schools with lots of teacher turnover, the model simply isn’t viable — there aren’t enough master teachers available to train the apprentices.

Some districts and charter networks have tried to address the demands on new teachers by providing them with scripted curriculum. The logic is clear enough. Newbies have an awful lot to learn and think about. If you can take curriculum planning off their hands, they’ll have more energy and brain space to devote to getting to know their students and learning how to manage them. Supervisors can then focus on classroom management and school culture, which is the priority for many high-poverty schools. 

Our friends at Uncommon have done about as well with scripted curriculum as I can imagine an organization doing. They coach teachers to “spar” with the questions posed in the lesson. They give lots of feedback on lesson delivery. They write their own lessons, so that they’re pitched at the right audience, their own Uncommon students. Still, the problem we were called in to help them with was the problem of internalization. Just because you’re reading from the script doesn’t mean that you’re actually playing the part. An actor who doesn’t understand the character or the play won’t give a very convincing performance. A teacher who is not knowledgeable about and engaged by the lesson content is unlikely to move and educate an audience of captive young people. 

A Better Alternative

It’s unrealistic and, frankly, irresponsible to think that students in a class will learn and think more deeply than their teacher. In the apprenticeship model, there’s no guarantee that the apprentice will actual learn what the lessons are about, or even that the mentor really knows. Lots of what passes for curriculum training is in fact activity sharing. Likewise, scripting does guarantee some common practices, activities, and utterances in the classroom. But if the point is to get kids thinking in increasingly sophisticated ways about history and society, there’s no reason to expect even a thoughtful script to train a new teacher to assume that responsibility.

So what’s the alternative to apprenticeship and scripting? It’s what at least some new teachers actually say they want. I recently did a workshop for middle school teachers at an urban network. All the teachers in their first few years were hungry, even desperate for guidance. They had access to scripted curriculum, but didn’t really understand it. They told me explicitly: the thing they needed most was to know what they were supposed to teach. They didn’t want scripts. They wanted to know what their students were supposed to learn and why and how they were supposed to learn it. They wanted what Lee Shulman dubbed “pedagogical content knowledge.” 

Jon and I have begun to create 4QM materials that address this need directly. We’re writing MA standards-aligned storyboards and unit guides for core history courses in grades 6-11. If you’re a veteran of our workshops, you know that the storyboard provides the outline of our unit story, the answer to the big Question One of the unit: What happened? Our unit guides contain the specific versions of each of the Four Questions that we’ll expect our students to ask and answer during the course of the unit. The unit guide also previews the unit assessment and identifies key actors, events, and ideas. 

Knowing the story and questions for a unit helps a ton. So does knowing the answers. So Jon and I are providing model answers for each of our unit questions. Teachers will still need to spar with the questions themselves, but they’ll see what proficiency looks like when they practice. These unit guides with model answers provide enough guidance for teachers to begin to acquire pedagogical content knowledge.

Finally, we’ve created a playcard for matching learning goals and pedagogical techniques. Every NFL coach consults a laminated playcard on the sidelines during games. Third and long? The coach checks the playcard to see what plays they’ve practiced that would work in this situation. For us, the 4QM Playcard lists techniques for teaching and assessing each of the four questions. Working on a Question Two with a group with a wide range of literacy skills? We’ve outlined the options for teaching students how do interpretation and then for assessing and giving feedback on their performance.

The Power of Appropriate Scaffolding

Our 4QM apparatus scaffolds curriculum for teachers the same way expert teachers scaffold assignments for students. Students don’t learn from copying. They learn from making decisions with guidance, constraint, and feedback. Our materials provide the guidance and constraint for teachers, who ultimately have to make choices about curriculum and pedagogy, informed by the students they teach and the circumstances in which those students learn. We insist on providing training for teachers who will use our unit guides and playcard. Teachers need to internalize the 4QM framework in order to be equipped to make sensible choices about how to use our material. In the end, though, there’s no substitute for supervision and real-time feedback. That’s why we like supervisors to do our training with their teachers. 

Dropping new teachers into the deep end doesn’t do them or their students any favors. Neither does handing them a script. Being a new teacher is hard. Since the learning curve is steep, there’s no time to waste: teachers need to start learning right away. They need help, guidance, and support. For content and curriculum for history teachers, we think we’ve got exactly what they need. Give us a call and we can set up a time to show you. 


Jeff Bezos Loves 4QM!

It turns out that Jeff Bezos, billionaire owner of Amazon, the Washington Post, and tons of other stuff, is a fan of the Four Question Method! 

Well, not really. We assume that he has no idea we exist. (Feel free to re-tweet this at him, or send it to his linked in if you have that kind of access.) But I’m convinced that he would be a fan, because of something I read in the (hard copy!) November issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. 

The article is by Franklin Foer, and it’s called “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan.” It’s not very flattering; it’s in the tradition of Ida Tarbell and the muckrakers of the Progressive era. But on pages 58-59 I found this nugget: 

“Bezos insists that plans be pitched in six-page memos, written in full sentences, a form he describes as ‘narrative.’ This practice emerged from a sense that PowerPoint had become a tool for disguising fuzzy thinking. Writing, Bezos surmised, demands a more linear type of reasoning. As John Rossman, an alumnus of the company who wrote a book called Think Like Amazon, described it, ‘If you can’t write it out, then you’re not ready to defend it.'”

This is pretty much exactly why Gary and I often use four-sentence stories as a formative assessment tool. For high-ranking Amazon executives, six pages is a limiting device: they have to express their ideas clearly in order to make them fit under the limit. That means selecting what matters and leaving the rest out, which means understanding the idea well enough to know what matters. For our history students, the four sentence story works exactly the same way: they have to really understand the story in order to boil it down to four sentences. And because the story format is ”narrative” it does indeed “demand a more linear type of reasoning.” If our students are doing it well, their four sentences link together in a way that makes clear sense.

I also agree completely with the Rossman quotation. For my students I’d change it slightly to say that “if you can’t write it out, you don’t understand it.” Once you start asking students to write out the stories you think you’ve taught them through lecture or reading or documents or videos, you’ll find that many of them don’t actually understand the chronology, or how events connect to each other. You’ll also find that as they get more practice at writing four sentence stories they get better at it — in part because they start to anticipate the assignment, and they pay attention to the narrative structure of the history they’re learning as they learn it. 

Here’s a good four sentence story one of my tenth graders submitted last year. The assignment was to “Write a four sentence story of the Nazi rise to power between 1919 and 1935. Avoid passive voice, and remember, people do things!”

  1. The economic crisis from inflation and the great depression in the 1920s and 1930s made the German people very angry at the Weimar Republic and drove them toward the Nazis and the communists.
  2. The Nazis appealed to the angry German people by promising nationalism, militarism, and racism which led to the Nazis to get the majority vote at 37% in 1932.
  3. In 1933 Hitler is appointed chancellor and the Reichstag fire hits which led to Hitler calling a state of emergency where they arrested communists for the fire, but he also suppressed freedoms and established the enabling act.
  4. Finally in 1934 the President died and Hitler is appointed Führer and he established the terror system and the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 which restricted the Jews from public life.

This student shifts tenses, which is a common problem, I don’t like the use of “they” in the third sentence, and I had to explain the difference between a majority and a plurality to her. But she’s got the events in the correct order, and makes clear links between the economic crisis and angry voters. She narrates a story that is coherent and meaningful. I’m confident that this student understands how Hitler achieved dictatorial power in Germany.

And while I don’t know what Jeff Bezos would give it for a grade, I’m pretty sure he would approve of the assignment.


4QM in Context: China’s History and Politics at MCSS 2019

Jon and I regularly present at two conferences a year, MCSS in the fall and NERC in the spring. For the past few years, the conference organizers have graciously allowed us to present in each of the available workshop slots. Our first presentation is always an introduction to the 4QM. (If you’ve storyboarded Cinderella and puzzled over the Salem witch trials with us, you’ve attended a version of this workshop.) Then we do focused workshops on as many of the questions as we have time to address. 

China Trade War & “Soft Persimmon”

Last Friday, at the most recent MCSS conference, we repeated our overview workshop and then introduced two brand new presentations. For the second of our three sessions, Jon focused on Questions One and Two. First, he gave a narrative lecture on China’s “Century of Humiliation” — imperialism from the Opium Wars to the Boxer Rebellion. Then he posed a great Question Two, ripped from the headlines:  What was Xinhua, the party-line newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, thinking when it editorialized as follows this past spring? 

“If anyone today regards China as the China of old, prey to dismemberment, as a ‘soft persimmon’ that can be squeezed at will, their minds are stuck in the 19th century and they’re deceiving themselves.”

That would be the 19th century Jon had just lectured on. Once you know that story, as everyone in the room did, Xinhua’s statement opens up like a, well, some kind of ripe fruit, anyway. It becomes meaningful and engaging. So we engaged: we paraphrased, then talked purpose and audience. Interpretation — the mental act required to answer Question Two — pursued seriously, typically raises a variety of plausible alternatives. So, should we read this statement as aggressive posturing in the China/US trade war? Or does the statement betray sensitivity and insecurity about an ignoble past? Or maybe the domestic audience, bearing the costs of a protracted trade war, could do with a reminder that the Party had redeemed China from abject victimhood…? 

Hong Kong Protests

For the third workshop, I demoed how to 4QM a contemporary topic. It seemed sensible, after Jon’s presentation, to rip another big China story from the headlines: the Hong Kong Protests of 2019. I’d been keeping track of the story on my own, but for preparing this model lesson, I read overview articles and briefings from a handful of news sources: The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Financial Times, the South China Morning Post, and the Hong Kong Free Press. Naturally, I checked to see what Wikipedia had to offer on the topic. 

Once I had the lay of the land, I made a storyboard to answer Question One, present-tense version: What’s happening right now in Hong Kong? My storyboard has the following headings: 

  • One Country, Two Systems (1997)
  • Article 23 (2003)
  • Umbrella Movement (2014)
  • Extradition Bill (June 2019)
  • Protests and Standoff (June 2019 – October 2019)  
  • Resolution?

For the purposes of the workshop, I told the story lecture-style, with a handful of images. For closer-to-full independence, I’d write a brief narrative for my students and chunk it exactly I storyboarded it. I had also culled six short news excerpts describing the main events of the protests from June to October — Box Five in my storyboard. I’d have given my students that chunked source and directed them to storyboard that on their own. The source is easy to read and pretty dramatic. (The last episode is the shooting of a young protester in the face by Hong Kong police.) At the workshop, for the sake of time, I just told that story, too. 

The coolest way to let students lead on Question Two is to have them nominate targets of inquiry: identify the actor in the story whose decision or action is the most complicated, peculiar, or puzzling. Depending on time and student ability, you could let students gather their own primary sources and try to interpret them. In fact, I prepared two document packets, one excerpting statements by protesters, the other containing passages from two speeches by President Xi Jiping related to Hong Kong, once very recent, and one from a 2017 speech on the twentieth anniversary of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy that has governed Hong Kong, at least until now. At the workshop, we focused on Xi’s most recent comments. 

For Question Three, always the most challenging to prepare and teach well, I was lucky to find a terrific short article in the Financial Times called “Hong Kong since the turnover in charts.” Charts and graphs: those are solid clues that you’re in Q3 territory. That part was rich and efficient in the workshop. Participants came up with lots of ideas about the implications of changes in the economic relationship between the mainland and Hong Kong. As one participant noted, the economic dependency has shifted pretty dramatically. A less-dependent mainland could plausibly be expected to pursue a more muscular policy of integration. Meanwhile, there’s a housing crunch in Hong Kong, largely driven by the influx of mainland investment in the Hong Kong real estate market. The young people protesting in defense of their independent legal institutions may have literally been squeezed onto the streets. 

We concluded, as I would in class, with a discussion that, ideally, students could run themselves. The issues are clear enough: the protesters are defending their civil rights and staking a claim for political voice in running the territory they view as their homeland. The Chinese Communist Party considers Hong Kong an integral part of China and the British legacy of rule of law a vestige of imperialism. What do we think about that? At the workshop, it took a little prodding to get past interpretation and into judgment. (It’s always tempting, particularly in a room full of strangers, to avoid first-person arguments and instead offer up what others might think.) Once we broke the ice, we mostly supported the Hong Kongers’ demand for rights and democracy. But, as a room full of history teachers, we were aware that the “Century of Humiliation” is real to the Chinese leadership, and Hong Kong a key symbol of that history. The point, in any case, is less to settle the question than to cultivate a keener sense of the issues involved in the judgment. Judgment is easy — too easy — when we reduce conflicts to a single value or principle. The trick is to acknowledge the right level of complexity.    

The takeaway of the day for me and Jon was that people want to see the 4QM in action. Content lessons help people see what we mean when we say that history teachers should teach students to ask and answer the Four Questions. And doing new material increases the likelihood that keep old friends coming back for more. So stop by and visit us at the next NERC or MCSS. We promise to have something new to share!

More On “Essential Questions”

Last week Gary wrote about the persistence of “Essential Questions” in our field, even though we know that they don’t help teachers plan or students learn. I’m going to tag along here with a short post on the same topic. During our recent workshop day with curriculum planners at Uncommon Schools I had a similar experience to the one Gary described last week. I was working with a pair of teachers, and we were finalizing the narrative for a unit in world history when one of them suggested, “Maybe we should connect it back to an essential question to tie it all together.” So I asked, “What did you have in mind?” She suggested, “Does religion impact culture, and does culture impact religion?” 

I think this experience epitomizes two problems with essential questions. First of all, teachers reach for them out of a sense of obligation. The unit we were working on was coming along fine — there was nothing wrong with it. But I think the teacher who suggested the essential question did so because she felt that the unit was somehow incomplete, or lacking. So many of us are conditioned to think that if we’re not teaching about some hugely important overarching concept we must not be doing a good job. We don’t want to be the history teachers who “just teach facts.” We don’t want to be boring. We want to be teaching about Big Ideas — and essential questions seem like Big Ideas. 

Second, the actual question that this teacher suggested is so generalized that it is in fact boring. “Does religion impact culture?” Yes. “Does culture impact religion?” Yes. The question, if taken seriously, is meaningless. Wiggins and McTighe, the inventors of the essential question, have some doozies in their classic Understanding By Design: “To what extent do we need checks and balances on government power?” “In what ways does art reflect, as well as shape, culture?” (p. 115). Try to answer these questions seriously, right now. You’ll find that without a specific narrative to give them shape, they become meaningless. Under what circumstances are we making a judgment about the need for limited government? Art reflects culture in lots of different ways in different times and places — which art in which time and place are we asking about? And why do we care about either question anyway? Give us a specific story to bring these questions to life, and all of a sudden they feel vital. “Should Trump be impeached?” “How and why did Lutherans use printed illustrations to spread their ideas?”

The solution to these two problems is straightforward, but requires some courage. First of all, don’t be afraid to claim your content. Assuming someone has made a good decision about what historical stories to tell (you might be the one making those decisions yourself), Big Ideas will be embedded in the stories. Your students can’t grapple with those ideas until they know the stories that bring them to life. There’s nothing wrong with teaching students the facts of history, so long as we don’t stop there. Math teachers are not embarrassed to teach the multiplication tables, because knowing the multiplication tables  is a prerequisite to thinking effectively about more advanced mathematical questions and concepts. Our discipline is the same: stories are our multiplication tables. There’s no need to dress up your story with the costume of an “essential question.” Once your kids know what happened, they’ll have plenty of important and engaging questions to deal with as they wonder about what the key people in the story were thinking, why the story happened when and where it did, and what they think about all of it.

Second, make your essential questions specific to your story. The 4QM typology of questions is a guide to writing strong and engaging questions that come directly from your story. Last week one of our twitter followers took issue with Gary’s dismissal of essential questions and wrote to suggest some of his own: “An EQ should usually be rooted in the discipline, so: What caused the Great Divergence? Who is most to blame for WWI? Were Germans Ordinary Men and women or Hitler’s Willing Executioners?” I replied that his questions were excellent, and easily categorized using the Four Question Method: they are a Q3, a Q4, and a Q2. They’re also good because each one grows out of a specific story. We could rewrite them in the typical generalized essential question style, and then they’d become lifeless and dull: “What causes some societies to advance while others stagnate? Is someone always to blame for war? Can ordinary people do evil?” 

So we’re all in favor of giving students engaging, important, “essential” questions. We just think that you can do that consistently and effectively if you tell a story first and use the 4QM typology as a guide to what you want to ask next. 


Why the “Essential Question” Persists

Jon and I had another excellent day with our friends at the Uncommon Schools charter network in Newark last week. It was particularly gratifying to see how deeply the Uncommon middle school team has embedded the 4QM and, in particular, storytelling into their planning and teaching. Uncommon History teachers in the middle grades now charge their students to demonstrate knowledge in a way that makes sense to *them*: “Tell the story of…” That’s a lesson objective that a fifth grader can relate to. 

I’m confident that’s true because we saw visual evidence. At a previous meeting, we reviewed footage of a brilliant fifth-grade teacher leading her students in a collaborative exercise that required them to sort four name cards into proper chronological order and to justify their choices. The students did so with garrulous energy. My favorite moment was when a boy named Maurice pointed out to his teammates that John Locke *had* to have come before Thomas Jefferson, because Jefferson had used his ideas when writing the Declaration of Independence. Fifth grade, and already tracking Enlightenment ideas in history. 

One thing I noticed at our breakout sessions, though, got me wondering. In the morning, we’d focused on Question One, and in particular on how to get students talking and thinking in response to historical narrative — like they did in the video of Maurice’s class, but at all grade levels. The charge for our breakout groups was to redesign the opening lesson of a cycle or unit so as to make it hook students and get them engaged in questioning and conversation, or, as the Uncommon folks like to say, to set them up to spar with a story. So far, so good. 

I worked mostly with two US History high school teachers. We focused on a cycle on the Mexican American War. We started with a lesson on the topic already written by one of the Uncommon planners (also a teacher, as is everyone on the planning team). After sparring ourselves over where to start and end the story, the other team member suggested that we define an essential question to help us decide. That gave me pause. 

Now, figuring out where your story begins and ends is definitely “essential,” and our decisions about those endpoints must clearly reflect our understanding of what the story is about and what kind of thinking we want our students to do about it. On the other hand, we 4QM people don’t talk about “Essential Questions” anymore, for very good reasons. If you want to teach students to ask and answer discipline-specific questions in a thoughtful, coherent way, you need to teach them how to identify question types pertinent to our field. We contend that there are four of them. What the old EQ did was to encourage teachers to conjure a generically debatable question and tack it onto a predigested unit. It identified no specific thinking skills. Very, very few teachers could give a coherent account of how they arrived at their essential question. The impact on students was, so far as we could tell, negligible. 

There are four essential questions in History. We’ve numbered them for easy reference. I wanted to say that in response to our teammate’s recommendation, but I didn’t. (I’m the gentle one. Jon’s the efficient one.) I let the conversation play out for a bit. The original planner and the EQ recommender batted around ideas for a few minutes. Then I suggested that we abandon the enterprise and return to our original charge: design a lesson that tells students a compelling and engaging story, and then cook up some ways to get them talking about it. 

In our small group, our essential question was clear. It was a Question One: What happened? Until we had the story down, any attempt to abstract from it was likely to be barren. In fact, the “Essential Question” conversation added nothing memorable or notable to our conversation. Of course, once we completed our planning process, our Q3s (Why then and there?) and Q4s (What do we think about that?) would end up looking a lot like what typically passes for EQs. But the point of getting the story down first — of answering Q1 first — is that embedding broad, debatable questions in a story makes them more meaningful and actually answerable for students. The helicoptered EQ is almost always either trivial or unanswerable without narrative context. Hence it’s systematic failure in practice. 

So why is the EQ such a powerful temptation? The tool doesn’t work very well, but people reach for it repeatedly. How come? Though it sounds immodest, part of the problem is that there isn’t, besides 4QM, much of an obvious alternative. But that explanation doesn’t work for this particular group. Everyone in the room had been trained, directly or indirectly, in the 4QM. 

But it turns out that planning the 4QM way is fairly arduous, in two ways. First, our method for designing curriculum is a discipline. It requires both training and practice. The steps are easy enough to enumerate — create a storyboard, find Q2 opportunities in the story, identify Q3s and Q4s, revise. But that summary is deceptive. Each of those steps requires lots of decision making and, well, thinking. “Create a storyboard” means defining the beginning and end of the story you want your students to learn, narrowing down to the key actors and events, and chunking and sequencing in a way adds up to a coherent story. If you don’t know your story well, or haven’t thought through the dynamics it contains very deeply, this turns out to be a difficult exercise. And that just gets you started — three more questions to go, then revision. Then you still have documents to find, edit, and scaffold, activities to plan, and lots, lots more. 

Learning a discipline is hard. Thinking constantly is hard. The human brain is poorly designed for both operations. Mine is, at any rate. Nonetheless, teaching well requires disciplined thinking. Learning well requires it as well. We can settle for “Essential Questions” that aren’t actually essential. To their credit, the Uncommon people don’t settle. That doesn’t make the work any easier…


4QM Reading Is For Teachers Too!

I’m working with an MAT (Master’s in the Art of Teaching) student this year. She’s assisting in two of my classes, and in the spring she’ll take primary responsibility for one of them part of the time. She’s terrific: smart, engaged, thoughtful, and dedicated; I think she’s going to be an awesome teacher. One of the projects she worked on recently was designing some lessons on the Haitian Revolution. I sent her off on this task knowing that it’s challenging: the Haitian Revolution is really complicated. It would be convenient for history teachers if the story were simple: The French Revolution calls for popular government and equality of all people; the enslaved people of Saint Domingue, the French sugar colony in the Caribbean, hear about it and demand to know why revolutionary ideals don’t apply to them; they rebel and create a republic, establishing a democracy that recognizes all races of people as equal. The reality was much messier than that. It involves at least three different social and racial groups, foreign intervention by Britain and Spain, French flip-flopping on the legality of slavery, and lots of infighting among the would-be founding fathers of Haiti. 

My MAT student eventually came up with a great activity for our class (I’ll describe it shortly), but what’s relevant for this blog post is how she did that. When we were talking about her planning process she reported that, “the Four Questions were really helpful while I was reading through all this stuff. They really grounded me as I was researching, and kept me from going down rabbit holes that would have taken me really off track.” As she was researching, clicking on links and reading articles, getting sucked into the complications of the story, she would regularly pause to ask herself, “What Question is this thing that I’m reading right now trying to answer?” Once she determined that, she could then make a thoughtful decision about whether it was worth reading on or whether she should stop and get back to something more relevant. She was primarily interested in getting the story down, for herself and for our students. So if she found herself chasing a Question Two (“What were they thinking?) for an obscure minor participant in the story she’d stop and get back to something more directly connected to the narrative. Question Three (“Why then and there?”) is really interesting, but was not going to be the focus for this lesson. And Question Four (“What do we think about that?) has to wait until kids know something about the first three Questions. So by keeping the 4QM in mind as she read, she was able to make efficient use of her time and resources.

She ended up designing a great Question One lesson. The culminating activity was built around a series of paintings about the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture by Jacob Lawrence. She made laminated color copies of six of the paintings, and after kids had done some reading about the Revolution she gave them the paintings and had them put them in the correct order and use them to tell the story of the Haitian Revolution out loud. It was a challenging activity, because the story is complex, and putting the paintings in the right order required accurate knowledge of both the revolution and L’Ouverture’s role in it. 

We’ve often said that the Four Question Method can be a reading tool for students. Of course it works well as reading tool for teachers too.


Three Ways to Tell (and Retell) a Story

Here are three ways we can teach our students a story about something interesting or important that happened in the human world: 

  1. We can give them a reading (or video) that contains the story and teach them how to find that story in the reading (or video)
  2. We can tell them the story ourselves, out loud, with props and dramatic devices
  3. We can do both at once — reading and telling — by framing a narrative puzzle and then curating documents that allow students to reconstruct the story on their own. 

All three methods are most effective when the teacher gives clear guidance and instruction, naturally. No matter what the format — reading, lecture, or DBQ — we need to model for students how to identify the key actors and major events and then to connect those events (or identify missing connections) in a coherent sequence. 

For both reading and lecture (1 and 2 above), the first step is typically note taking. “Take notes” and “find the main ideas” are cop-out directions. Show students how to track the action in a narrative by marking up the text for actors, decisions, and events. Make their notes look like a storyboard-in-training. For narratives, that’s what notes are. 

For document-based storytelling, the trick is to frame the narrative enterprise — give students the setting in advance — and then to provide enough description in primary, secondary, and tertiary excerpts for students to reconstruct a chain of linked actions and events. 

These techniques for transmitting stories to our students are not mutually exclusive. In real life, history teachers use all three, and the first two are staples in most history classrooms. For each, it helps a ton to tell students what they’re doing and why: they’re answering Question One. They’re trying to get the story of what happened, so that they can start to understand how people think, why things happen when and where they do, and how to make complex, thoughtful judgments when confronting real-life problems. 

Do Your Students Know The Story?

So let’s say your students have learned a story through reading, lecture, DBQ, or some combination of the three. Do they know it? Unlikely. And for sure, if they haven’t practiced it, they won’t know it for long. 

Here are three ways of getting your students to tell (and retell) a story. 

  1. Storyboard it
  2. Tell it
  3. Write it, in character

Once your students are done reading, listening, or both, put them to work on a storyboard. The storyboard, as we show and tell in our workshops and as we’ve explained in blog posts, forces us to make lots of salutary, brain-stretching decisions. How do we chunk the story? How much detail do we include? When and where, exactly, do we begin and end? Which version of the story will we tell? What images will make the events in our storyboard vivid and clear? The mental exercise involved in making these decisions trains our brains and consolidates our memories. That’s good, important work for our students. 

Once you’ve got a storyboard, you’ve produced the script you need to tell the story orally. In fact, once you’ve made your storyboard, you’re probably ready to narrate without it. So try it. Telling a story to a classmate, or telling a chunk of a story and handing it off to another classmate, with or without verbal or visual cues, is terrific practice. It makes the logic of the story clear and memorable. And stumbles are good. They mean either that you need to practice more, or that you’ve actually stumbled upon something that doesn’t (yet) make sense to you. 

You can write a story, but flat-out omniscient narration in writing can be a hazard for students. My students find it hard not to write boring encyclopedia entries in this format. And sending them home to work on standard written narration is an invitation to consult, without attribution, said boring entries. Instead, having students write in character animates the human sensibility that they deploy almost effortlessly when they tell their own stories in their own, non-school voices. 

So instead of, “Tell the story of the Reign of Terror,” try, “You are a sans culotte, or a friend of Marie, or a pious peasant, or a Girondist. Describe Robespierre’s rule in a letter to a trusted friend.” Perspective makes the task harder, but also more personal. Your students need at least a provisional answer to Question Two for their character — what were they thinking? — before composing their facsimile narration, but that’s an integral part of the learning in any case. 

When my daughters were young, I was amazed by their appetite for stories. The exuberant command came as soon we we finished the last page of a picture book: “again!” The clever retort, which I discovered far too late: “you tell me!” Precious wisdom, for parents and history teachers alike.