History and social studies teachers are used to asking a lot of “W” questions: who, what, where, when, and hopefully why. At 4QM Teaching we contend that the first four of these are actually parts of what we call Question One:” What Happened?” And we believe that good history teaching starts with a good story that tells students who did what, when and where. But you can’t stop there. Well, of course you can, but you shouldn’t. You should use your story as a launching pad to push students to consider “why” questions as well. Question Three, “Why then and there?”, asks why explicitly. But Question Two, “What were they thinking?”, is also a kind of “why” question. In this post I’ll explain the difference between them.

Question Two v. Question Three

Question Two, “What were they thinking?” asks us to get into the heads of some of the key people in our historical story. It’s a why question, but on a very personal level: Why did the people in our story do what they did? What was motivating them? The Question is phrased as “What were they thinking?” to emphasize its focus on the conscious ideas of individual people. We’re not asking about their subconscious, or about the underlying conditions and contexts that made them think the way they did. Question Two imagines that we were able to interview the people in our historical story and ask them why they did what they did, what would they say? Examples of Question Two include, Why did so many white Southerners support secession in 1860 and 1861? Why did the Mau-Mau rebels in Kenya support violence? Why did so many rural voters support Donald Trump in 2016?

Answering Question Two keeps us close to the story. Question Three, “Why then and there?” pulls us back from the story. We’ve blogged about Question Three before; it’s the most abstract and difficult of the Four Questions, and takes the most practice to learn. Question Three thinking doesn’t try to get into the heads of the people in our story. Instead we pull back, and look for changes or differences in underlying conditions that explain why the story was more likely to end up as it did. One useful historical case for understanding how “Why then and there?” is different from “What were they thinking?” is World War One. Most of the common explanations for the outbreak of what contemporaries called The Great War are really answering Question Two. As such, they don’t explain why this particular diplomatic dispute triggered a general European war, when so many others since 1815 had not. We know that Europeans were thinking nationalist thoughts — but they had been doing so for decades (or longer!) without causing a general conflict. What underlying change explains why nationalist thoughts led to military conflagration this time? (Click on the second link in this paragraph to find out!) This kind of “why” thinking requires a broader view, more data, and a more scientific kind of thinking than the personal “why” of Question Two. 

“Why” questions are important, and we owe it to our students to explore them deeply and thoughtfully. Those explorations are more effective and fruitful when we know which kind of “why” we are asking.