In our introductory 4QM workshops, we say that every unit in history class is a practicum in judgment. Question Four, our judgment question — “What do we think about that?” — is the ultimate payoff for all the hard work we do when we teach and learn Questions One, Two, and Three. Our students will inherit the world (of trouble) we ourselves inherited and contributed to. They’ll have to figure out what they think of it and then what to do about it. The goal of Question Four in particular, and of social studies in general, is to get them ready for that awesome and daunting task. 

You’d think, after all that build-up, we’d have had more to say about Question Four in this blog space. I’ve found two posts that make more-than-passing references to it, one from Jon and one from me. We’ve had plenty to say about the other questions. Question Four, not so much. 

I don’t think that’s accidental. Question Four appears more straightforward than it is. Asking students what they think about things — what could be more easy and obvious? The tricky thing about Question Four is that you can make it look like it’s working even when it isn’t. Ask a contentious question, get the kids arguing passionately, and there you have it: an exciting class with engaged students. Success, right? 

Not necessarily. Here’s a quick gut-check to see how wrong that impression can be. Do you assess judgment? If you do, can your students say what judgment skills they’re being asked to demonstrate? Are they learning to exercise those skills better over time? As a classroom teacher, I haven’t always been able to answer yes to all three of those questions. If you can’t now, you’re not teaching judgment — yet. 

Define It To Assess It

The key is to treat judgment like any other thinking skill. Name the skill, practice it purposefully, and assess it regularly. 

The thinking skill of judgment has two key components, articulateness and application. When you answer Question Four skillfully, you need to articulate the reasons that support whatever judgment claim you make. For our purposes, the claim is less important than the reasons. (We assess the reasons, not the claim.) Those reasons will typically take the form of general statements of principles and core values applied to the specifics at hand (established by answering Questions One, Two, and Three) in a coherent, logical way. 

The second component of skillful judgment, application, requires that you apply whatever principles and core values you articulated in considering a particular historical case to a new but related case. That will show whether you know how to apply principles skillfully when the facts vary. It will also reveal whether your principles are robust — that is, whether or not they really are the general principles you claimed them to be, or were really just ad hoc rationalizations for a judgment you made by instinct or intuition. 

An Example: The American Revolution

Consider a classic: The American revolutionaries declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776 and gave lots of reasons, general and specific, for doing so. Some people, both in the colonies and Britain, agreed with both the claims and the reasons. Some people in both places disagreed. What do we think about that? Were the revolutionaries justified in making that declaration — and in taking up arms in defense of it — or were they disloyal and ungrateful insurrectionists? Was their argument persuasive or not? 

We pose that question so that our students can practice doing what those revolutionaries themselves did: making judgments about real-world issues and dilemmas. This is what we mean by a practicum in judgment. As I said, we care more about our students’ reasons than their claims. The Revolutionaries have already made their decision and acted on it. The results are in and definitive. We’re using this practicum as an opportunity for our students to practice and get feedback on their skills in articulating and applying principles. 

The American Revolution is a good starter practicum, since the people whose actions we’re judging were themselves quite articulate. They actually created a now-famous “Declaration” in which they announced their general principles and took pains to apply them to the specifics of their case. That’s a helpful reminder to our students that we’re looking for principled reasoning from them as well. Once they’ve done that, they should be equipped to answer this general version of our Question Four for themselves: Under what conditions does a group of people have the right to reject the authority of their government and to attempt to establish their own independent one?

Answering that general Question Four is no mean feat. Some students will be attracted to the revolutionaries’ own argument to avoid having to formulate an alternative. Others may find their argument attractive for sentimental reasons. Still others may argue with them for the sake of being contrary. That’s where application comes in. 

For better or worse, history is full of test cases for our students’ revolutionary principles. In US History, our students can try their principles on a range of cases from the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, to the Confederacy, to the modern-day Tea Party — to say nothing of the ill-fated attempts of Staten Island, my home borough, to secede from the state of New York. In world history, they can test the application of their principles to anti-colonial independence movements around the globe. That will have the salutary effect, by the way, of introducing them to other kinds of principles than the 18th-century social contract argument of the Americans. 

Students’ judgments regarding the revolutionaries of 1776 need to square with their judgments of these other would-be and successful revolutionaries. That doesn’t mean, of course, that their judgment claims need to be identical. On the contrary, relevant differences between cases may lead us to apply our principles in different ways. Or perhaps we’ll come to see that our principles need to be adjusted or elaborated in light of what we’ve learned about the world. Either way, we want to do our best to avoid putting our thumbs on the scale in favor of people we just happen to like and then removing it when the subjects of our judgment simply aren’t our cup of revolutionary tea. In other words, we want to practice making skillful judgments. 

Generating Heat, Not Light

Sometimes it’s easier to notice a skillful practice by its absence. If the Question Four conversations in your classes generate lots of opinions but very few articulate reasons to support those opinions, then your students are not practicing articulateness, and will certainly not be able to apply and test principles in comparable cases. They’ll generate heat, but not a lot of light. 

For what it’s worth, that’s an endemic hazard in our profession. When my students are animated and engaged, whatever the reason and whatever the product, I am deeply grateful. It sure beats that sullen look, or worse, a blank square on a Zoom screen. Sometimes, that feels like enough for me.

Moreover, assessing — that is, judging — judgment is, ironically, fraught with its own hazards. We want students to believe that our assessments of their work are fair and principled. When we assess their performance at rendering judgments, we strenuously want to avoid the appearance that we’re debating our students on the question at hand. In the absence of articulated standards applied judiciously — communicated through a rubric, say — neither we nor they can be sure that we’re teaching rather than preaching. In that case, it feels safer to avoid the whole issue of assessment and just enjoy the rollicking debate. 

Unfortunately, the judgment tasks we’ve bequeathed our students in the real world don’t really afford us that luxury. They’ve got important work to do when we’re done with them. Whatever your judgment on the issues of the day, you must agree with this one: we ourselves have important work to do in the meantime.