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

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

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

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

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

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