Gary and I first created the Four Question Method to solve a common problem facing history teachers: how can we teach our mandated content while also teaching students to think about what they learn? Limited instructional time can make these two imperatives seem mutually exclusive. Teaching and learning content takes time, as does thinking about it responsibly. In Massachusetts, where Gary and I teach, there are 180 days in a school year, and the state social studies standards for each grade level specify a lot of content to be learned in those 180 days. How can we teach it all, while also teaching students how to make arguments about the motives, causes, and ethics of historical events?

An Old Dilemma

Anyone familiar with the history of American education or who pays attention to what passes for educational debate on social media (our twitter handle is @4qmteaching) knows that this content v. skills dilemma is an old one, and responses to it tend to fall into two groups. On the one hand are the progressives, who emphasize thinking skills. To them, learning how to think clearly about a topic is more important than memorizing any particular facts about it. They use terms like “higher-order thinking” to describe the kind of cognitive tasks that they want students to learn, and they denigrate an emphasis on content knowledge as “mere memorization.” On the other hand are a group of people who we can define as “knowledge first” folks. These people find the progressive emphasis on thinking skills misplaced, and argue that no one can think critically about content they don’t know very well. They want students to learn facts first.

Cognitive science clearly supports the second group. It’s true that you can’t actually think well about content you don’t know well. In his excellent book Why Don’t Students Like School? Psychologist Daniel Willingham explains that “successful thinking relies on four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If any one of these factors is inadequate, thinking will likely fail” (18). “Long-term memory” refers to things that you know, but don’t keep in the front of your mind. The multiplication tables are a good example. Having them memorized allows you to quickly call up the product of 7 X 7 (49) without taxing the working memory you’re using at the same time to solve a larger problem. If you need to use your limited working memory to figure out what 7 X 7 is, you have less brain power available to address the larger problem.

But if it’s settled science that memorizing information is a necessary prerequisite to thinking, why haven’t the educational progressives simply been argued out of existence? 

Progressives Are Right (About Some Things)

I think it’s because the progressives got some important things right. The original progressive educators were active in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and were fighting against a system of classical education that emphasized memorization almost exclusively. Classroom lessons consisted mainly of “recitations,” in which students would be called on to recite information that they had memorized. I have a textbook that was used to train public school teachers in the early 1900s, and it includes detailed diagrams on how to get each student in a classroom of forty-five children up to the front of the room to recite and back to their seats to copy lessons in an orderly fashion. Such was the pedagogy of that era.

Progressive reformers performed a valuable service by successfully blowing up that system. They were right that a student who can recite the names of all the U.S. presidents in order but can’t make her own case as to why any one might be more admirable than the others has not learned as much as we want her to learn about American history. They were also right that information that is memorized for a recitation, or an exam, without being repeatedly recalled or used for any meaningful thought, is quickly forgotten. Whenever we ask students to write something in their own words, or to create an original argument about the past, we’re reflecting the insights of the educational progressives. They are right that doing things with our knowledge both helps us to remember it and can demonstrate that we actually understand it.

The Four Question Method

So let’s return to the social studies teaching problem that the Four Question Method set out to solve. We know that the “knowledge first” people are right. As Doug Lemov said in a recent interview in Education Week, “facts and higher-order thinking are not opposites. You can only think deeply about that which you know a great deal about.” So we have to take the time to teach historical content. But we also acknowledge the things progressives got right: We want to do more than just teach facts, and we want to engage students in more than just recitation.

The Four Question Method starts with historical knowledge. We joke at our workshops that if we had T-shirts they would say “Story First!” on the back. But we build that knowledge through questioning and active student engagement. Question One is, “What happened?” and we coach students that a good answer comes in the form of a compelling story. We deal with long lists of content by focusing student attention on representative events that drive the story forward, rather than treating all the facts on the list as equals. (Not all the presidents need to be memorized.) 

And the method doesn’t stop at knowing the story — we move from story to judgment. We pick some key players in the story and ask Question Two, “What were they thinking?” The answer to this question comes in the form of responsible interpretation of texts or artifacts left behind. We pull back from the story and ask Question Three, “Why then and there?” We answer this question with explanations that look at data and use the tools of social science. And we choose a key decision point in our story to ask Question Four, “What do we think about that?” We answer this question with our individual judgments, arrived at through a community conversation about  our values, beliefs, and ethics. 

We think we’ve managed to solve the problem of how to teach important content and thinking skills in social studies. We think we’ve done so in a way that’s consistent with cognitive science and is accessible by a broad range of teachers and students. Leave us a comment, check us out at, buy our book, or join the conversation on twitter to let us know if you agree. Thanks for reading!