We’re in the process of collecting blurbs for our upcoming book about the Four Question Method. (Blurbs are those little quotations you see on the back cover or inside the front pages, where people who are not the author tell you how great the book is so that you’ll decide to buy it.) It’s been really gratifying — people besides our moms actually have some very nice things to say about our work. One of our favorites so far includes this line:  

“The Four Question Method brings the ‘both and’ approach that all good teaching requires by balancing learning the narrative and facts with developing deep, historical thinking skills that are essential for our students.” 

The writer of this blurb has been a history teacher and school principal, and is now an ed school dean. He identifies something that we think makes the Four Question Method unusual: in the debate between the importance of teaching knowledge and the importance of teaching skills, we’re honestly on both sides.

Story First! (With Two Caveats)

Admittedly, we believe that knowledge comes first. Teaching and learning in our field always starts with a story, because you need to know what happened in the past before you can do any kind of thinking about it. That’s why Question One is “What happened?” (We joke that if we had Four Question Method T-shirts or bumper stickers they’d say “Story First!”) But our emphasis on knowledge acquisition comes with two important caveats. First off, no matter how they learn it, your students need to retell the story themselves. It turns out that narrating an accurate historical story is a cognitively demanding skill. Students can tell the story by drawing pictures on a four-box storyboard, writing four-sentence stories or “because-but-so” sentences, or presenting orally. The process of telling the story forces them to make decisions about what to include and exclude, where to chunk or chapterize the story, and how to ensure that the narrative events connect clearly to each other. All those decisions require both knowledge and skill.

Our second warning about starting with knowledge acquisition is that your students certainly should not stop there. Knowledge alone is not enough. In order to really understand the past, in order to actually learn from it, students need to use their knowledge as the starting point for interpretation, explanation, and judgment. Every important story about the past is full of interesting people who did interesting things, so we pause our narrative from time to time to ask Question Two, “What were they thinking?” To answer this question students practice the thinking skill of interpretation. We study documents, artifacts, and patterns of behavior in order to get into their heads, to try to understand the reasons for their choices and decisions. Those choices and decisions only seem important to us if we know the story first. So knowledge serves as a springboard to new questions and new thinking.

The same is true for Question Three, “Why then and there?” Question Three asks us to step back and look at the story in context as a way of explaining it. Every story takes place in conditions particular to a specific time and place. How did those conditions make this story more likely in this time and place? How were conditions changed from before, or different from conditions in other places? How did those changes or differences influence the story? Question Three is best approached through comparative puzzles that present data about different times and places and ask students to notice patterns. We’ve started writing a series of these puzzles about world history Question Threes, like, “Why did World War One break out in 1914 and not earlier?” And, “Why did industrialization start in Britain and not China?” These questions inspire natural curiosity, but only after students know what World War One or the industrial revolution was – they need the story if they’re going to get curious about explaining it. 

Question Four asks, “What do we think about that?” and gives students a chance to practice the thinking skill of judgment. Once students have worked on the first three questions, they naturally move to judgment: they admire certain people in the story and disparage others, they think a certain decision was good or bad, right or wrong. A well structured Question Four lesson makes that kind of thinking the focus of the class, and teaches students to slow down and take their own judgments (and those of their classmates) seriously. Responsible judgment only comes after students have gained knowledge of the story, the ideas of key people in the story, and the context with which they were operating. Like the other thinking skills, judgment takes practice. It is perhaps the most important of them all, since it directly relates to the responsibilities of citizenship. After all, what is citizenship in a democratic republic but a series of judgments about good, bad, right and wrong? 

The title of our upcoming book is From Story To Judgment. That’s because good teaching and learning in our field always starts with a story, but should demand all four thinking skills. At a recent workshop for teachers where we had just completed a Question Four exercise, a participant said that “Making a judgment really helps me to know the story, and thinking through my judgment makes me know I’m going to remember it better too.” That’s what the Four Question Method is designed to do. We start with knowledge. But it’s only through truly engaging with that knowledge and grappling with important questions about it that we give it meaning.