We history and social studies teachers know we should be asking our students to think about the history they’re learning, not just memorize it, so we often ask questions that look like thinking questions. But many of these questions don’t actually require the kind of historical thinking that we say we want students to do. Many of them are impossible to answer honestly — so our students fake it, and so do we. Fortunately, there’s a better way. By focusing on the Four Questions that are at the heart of our discipline, students and teachers can practice real thinking every day, and can get consistently better at it over time. 

Fake Questions Are Like Fool’s Gold

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Last week I was digging through some old curriculum materials for my AP World History course (taught to tenth graders at the urban charter school where I work) and I came across a set of slides for a lecture on the Ottoman Empire. The slides were pretty good: well organized, with engaging images, light on text. They outlined a clear narrative of the rise of the Ottoman Empire, from the 1300s through the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. Then the last slide was a classic fake question. It asked students to use their notes to write a short paragraph in response to the prompt, 

“Identify the leading cause of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.”

This looks like a thinking question. We imagine that students would have to review their notes, identify elements of the narrative that “caused” Ottoman expansion, then weigh them against each other and identify one as the “leading cause.” But this question is intellectual fool’s gold: it only looks like the real thing. A few moments’ honest reflection will show us that the question can’t really be answered with the information we’ve provided. The slides tell students that the Ottomans were among the first military forces to use gunpowder weapons, and that their military was very well led during their expansionist phase. Was one of these the “leading cause” of Ottoman expansion? Which one? Let’s imagine a “debate” between two students, one of whom insists that all the excellent leadership in the world wouldn’t result in expansion without gunpowder weapons, and the other  insisting that gunpowder weapons would be useless in the hands of poorly led troops. Both positions seem quite logical.

A typical history teacher move in this situation is to tell students, “There’s no right answer. As long as you can give evidence to support your thinking, you’ll get credit.” But there’s no “evidence” available to students that would demonstrate why either gunpowder weapons or military leadership was more important to Ottoman expansion. So all we’re really asking students to do is to find and repeat back to us one of the things we just told them in the lecture. We’re not asking for rigorous cause and effect thinking. 

When we ask this kind of question we’re asking students to fake it, and when we tell them “there’s no right answer” we’re telling them that we accept their fakery. We’re taking intellectual payment in fool’s gold.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do that. We can use a typology of Four Questions to engage students in real thinking, and help them dig for real intellectual gold.

A Better Way

The “leading cause” question is an example of what we at 4QM Teaching call a “Question Three: Why Then and There?” Question Threes are rigorous and a lot of fun — but doing them honestly is challenging. That’s part of the reason it’s Question Three, rather than one or two: students need to know a lot before they can answer questions about historical causality well. 

My lecture slides on the Ottomans were actually answering Question One, “What Happened?” History and social studies teachers often rush through Question One because it seems like it is not a thinking question. But if you’ve ever asked students to retell a narrative that you just taught them, you’ll find that the thinking skills of chronology, selecting key elements of the story, and accurately showing change over time are actually very demanding. In our book and in our blog we have a lot of suggestions about how you can get students to exercise their narrative thinking skills. One of these would be a good closing activity (or homework assignment) for my Ottomans lecture, rather than asking students an unanswerable question. 

Good Questions

In our book we identify the Four Questions that are at the heart of teaching and learning in social studies, and show teachers how to use them in the classroom. They’re simple and direct, but also intellectually demanding and rigorous. Building lessons, units, and courses around the Four Questions cuts out the fakery and teaches real historical thinking skills. 

We had a gratifying moment at a workshop last summer when a middle school social studies teacher told us, “These questions are MUCH better than the ones I’ve been asking.” She knew she’d been faking it, and was thrilled to have the tools to make thinking real for her students. The Four Question Method can make thinking real for you and your students too — you can stop trading in intellectual fool’s gold, and dig for the real thing instead.