The Four Question Method is a kind of simplicity. There are a million different things you could teach in a History class, and thousands of different ways of teaching them. Jon and I, through patient observation and years of mutual haranguing, came up with the simplicity of the 4QM. Start with a story that reveals something new and notable (Q1). Plan your unit around that story. Identify the main actors and create opportunities to explore what they were thinking (Q2). Once your students can say what happened — who did what to whom — and what the main actors were thinking, help them to step back and figure out how the context shaped the interactions and ideas that drove the story (Q3). After that, you’re ready to draw conclusions: what do we learn about being people in the world, and more, citizens in custody of a rickety but venerable democratic republic? What do we think about all that (Q4)?
Two weeks ago I shared the correspondence below with colleagues at my high school about a different kind of simplicity. This one is fully compatible, for History teachers, with the simplicity of the 4QM. In fact, 4QM-ing your remote lessons is, we think, a terrific idea. If you’re teaching new content, start with a simple story. Then proceed transparently and methodically through the questions.
Whatever you do, please remember that the disruption we and our students are experiencing now calls for a kind of pedagogical modesty. We know so little and control so little about our current educational circumstances.
Please be simple. I’ve heard this from students, and from the many adults who are working at a near-frantic pace to keep students organized and engaged in remote learning. Consider the problem: all of the typical cues students rely on to make sense of us and our world are missing. Students walk into your class. They know the location, the people around them, your voice, what you write and post on the walls and board. They know what time it is by schedule, location, and proximity. When we tell them something that doesn’t quite make sense to them, they turn to the student next to them and look: what’s this kid doing…?
All of that is gone, and we can’t replace it. This is true whatever grade, level, or subject you teach. I hope you won’t think me excessively vain if I tell you that I was a very good student. I could do almost everything teachers asked me to do in school without a terrific amount of effort. (Granted, high school was easier in the 19th century.) On the other hand, I learned to work independently in my 30s. Before then, I was hopeless trying to manage my time or energy. Left to my own devices, I accomplished very little. You teach honors or AP? Assume I, too, age 17, am in your class. My teenage self is begging you: be simple.
In particular, I ask that you consider adopting the following practices for the duration of remote learning:
- Put all of your weekly assignments into a single document. Collect student work entirely within that single document. That way, I receive one thing from you and return one thing to you. Simple.
- Make your tasks, the items in your document, simple and clear. If your instructions take many sentences to describe, or many actions to complete, then they are too complicated. Ask me a clear question or give me a straightforward thing to calculate, describe, explain, or react to. Simplify.
- Reading and writing are good, simple activities. Watching is fine, especially if your voice is in the soundtrack. (Your voice is familiar and predictable. And I miss it.) Many things we do in real classrooms are no longer viable activities: collaborative projects, simulations, materials-rich production, complex interaction, deep and thoughtful conversation, laboratory experiments. We love these activities and, when they’re done well, our students love them, too. We can’t do them now. We can read, watch, and write.
Our students now have six, seven, or eight independent projects running concurrently. They need predictability and simplicity. Be clearer than you are creative. Be simpler than you’d like to be. We will be very grateful.