Is the Four Question Method applicable to civics education? Gary and I get this question a lot. As history / social studies people we’re often in contact with civic education advocates and organizations, and as a small organization interested in growing we’re sometimes advised to make a pitch for ourselves as civics educators. As a friend of mine put it to me over drinks a few weeks ago, “There’s a lot of money in the democracy space right now.” We’re not the sort of people who would misrepresent ourselves for money, but I do actually believe that learning history with the Four Question Method is civics education, and in this post I’ll explain why I think so. 


Democracy is an especially challenging form of government, because it requires a lot of its citizens. Every year my tenth grade world history students read John Locke, the English philosopher whose ideas formed the basis for the American Declaration of Independence. And every year they are struck by Locke’s ideas that “the people” will decide when their rulers have infringed on their natural rights, and that such an infringement can eventually justify revolution. Someone always points out that since Locke assigns such enormous responsibility to the people, he must think them wise enough to make important political decisions. And that usually leads the class to conclude, rightly I think, that civic education is of crucial importance to a functioning democracy.

Gary and I agree with those who have argued that defining civil education with a narrow focus on the mechanics of government is insufficient. Instead we think history/social studies curriculum built around the Four Question Method provides students with the information and practice they need to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens of a democracy. Each question is important to this endeavor.


Question One, “What Happened?” teaches students some important stories about human societies in the past. Historical knowledge is a crucial base for civic participation. Knowing the important stories of world history gives us a catalog of human behavior we can refer back to as we decide on our course of action in the present. This point is perhaps best made by the satirical newspaper The Onion, in their 2011 article titled “Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In The Past Before Making Any Big Decisions.” It’s funny, but it’s also true: people use the past as a reference point for what’s possible in the future. Of course, we can only do that if we know something about the past. As we like to say here at 4QM, “Story First!”

Once students have learned an important story from history, Question Two slows down to focus on interesting people in the story who did something that seems important or strange to us, and asks, “What Were They Thinking?” The authorities in Salem Massachusetts in 1692 executed twenty people who they had convicted of witchcraft — what were they thinking? Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, even while he owned human beings — what was he thinking? Question Two asks students to use the thinking skill of interpretation to build “historical empathy,” which means understanding the world of historical actors as they themselves did, especially when their understanding seems different from our own. We look at what these people said and did, and try to figure out what their purposes and assumptions are. 

The same skills that students use to build historical empathy can be applied to civic life in the present day. Politics in a democracy require us to figure out how to work with people who think differently from us, and understanding them is an important step in doing that. We’re not naive: we know that understanding the thinking of our fellow citizens may lead us to even deeper disagreements with them. But we are equally confident that misunderstanding them, or not trying to understand them at all, is always bad for the political discourse and decision-making that democracy requires of its citizens. Question Two teaches us how to listen to our fellow citizens. 

Question Three pulls back from the particulars of a historical story and looks at underlying context and conditions to ask, “Why Then and There?” Question Three is valuable in civics education because it moves our attention away from the particular actors in a story and onto the circumstances that shaped their choices. This means that students who are familiar with Question Three thinking are less likely to ascribe historical outcomes solely to the virtues or vices of the individual people involved in the story, and more likely to consider the context within which those people operated. This is a valuable perspective to have on contemporary civic life as well. It’s easier to work towards policy agreement when you’re thinking about the conditions that will bring it about, instead of the personal qualities of your fellow negotiators.

Every 4QM unit is ultimately a practicum in judgment. Judgment is the thinking skill associated with Question Four, “What Do We Think About That?” In a 4QM history class we ask Question Four about important people or decisions in our story: did they do the right thing? Are they admirable or contemptible? And what do we assume or believe that makes us think so? The Question is phrased as “we” not because we expect our students to arrive at consensus, but because the question is debated and discussed in community. Our classroom community will almost certainly disagree about our judgments of the past, but because the Four Question Method defines and structures our judgment thinking steps clearly, students will know precisely what they disagree about — and why. This is, obviously, good practice for present day disagreements about politics and policy.


The 4QM classroom is a model of civic life in a democracy, and like a democracy, it demands a lot of its citizens. 4QM Teachers and students need a solid understanding of the four questions and the techniques for answering them, which takes practice. But we think that giving students regular practice in historical knowledge, empathy, understanding of contexts, and thoughtful judgment is actually great practice for present day civics.