There are a lot of ideas for teaching inquiry-based history and social studies out there. That’s because pretty much everyone agrees these days that students should be exploring questions when they learn. But what’s missing from all the inquiry-based curricula we’ve come across so far is a solid understanding of question types. Some of the materials we’ve seen are hopelessly muddled because the authors don’t understand their own questions, or clearly don’t take them seriously. These materials leave teachers and students badly educated at best, and confused or frustrated at worst. Some of the materials we’ve seen are pretty good, but even the good ones could be improved. You get the feeling that the occasional quality is a result of happenstance or trial and error, rather than a systematic understanding of how questions in our field actually work. Without a systematic understanding of how to ask and answer important questions consistently, day in and day out, planners, teachers and students are missing opportunities to make inquiry methods really work in the social studies classroom.
C3 Teachers & The New Deal
One of the curricula we hear most about is “C3 Teachers.” Originally focused on New York, the organization now offers inquiry social studies units keyed to standards in many states. Each unit (or “Inquiry”) starts with a “Compelling Question,” followed by three or four “Supporting Questions” that aim to guide students to answer the Compelling Question. The best of these units follow the Four Question Method hierarchy of questions, although without realizing it (as far as we know). The “Compelling Question” in these units is a Question Four, What Do We Think About That? One example is, “Was the New Deal a Good Deal?” This is clearly a Q4, as it asks students to make their own judgment of the New Deal. The first two supporting questions in this inquiry are Question Ones, What Happened?: “What conditions existed at the onset of the Great Depression?” and “What kinds of programs did the New Deal create?” So far so good. But the next two supporting questions are both ambiguous, combining Questions One and Four: “What were positive effects of the New Deal?” and “What were negative effects of the New Deal?” Asking about the effects of the New Deal is a Question One, but the judgment of them as positive or negative is Question Four. A socialist might find the expanded role for government a positive, while a libertarian might find that a negative. A Keynesian would find large budget deficits a positive, while a fiscal conservative would think them negative. You get the idea. And the sources provided for these questions further muddy the water by bringing in contemporary opinion pieces, which clearly address Question Two, What Were They Thinking? Students pursuing these last two questions as written will either be indoctrinated or confused, and maybe both.
But as widely available inquiry curriculum in social studies goes, the C3 New Deal unit is serviceable. It has a clear Question Four focus, and a 4QM-trained teacher could layer the Four Questions over the existing activity and use the existing materials to address Questions One, Two, and Four in sequence. What happened during the New Deal? What did some people think about that? What do you think about that? (And hopefully, continuing the Q4 inquiry, Why do you think so?)
C3 Teachers and The Versailles Treaty
We’re on shakier ground with the C3 Inquiry on the Treaty of Versailles. Its “Compelling Question” is, “Can Peace Lead To War?” I’m honestly not sure what to make of this. It seems to me to be a question that is meant to sound engaging but not actually taken seriously. Just take a moment and try to answer it yourself right now. You’ll find that since the condition preceding every war is peace, the answer is “yes.” Every time, except when it doesn’t. This question serves more as a cute rhetorical introduction to the inquiry (see how we juxtaposed “peace” and “war?”) than a focus for student inquiry.
The first two supporting questions for this inquiry are more clear. “What did President Woodrow Wilson mean by ‘Peace Without Victory?’” is a straight Question Two. “What did Germany lose by signing the Versailles Treaty? Is a straight Question One, although the formative task for this question implies Question Two as well. The third question is ambiguous: “Why was Germany blamed for World War I?” This question could be asking what Germany did that led people to blame her for the war (Question One), or it could be asking why those who did blame her did so (Question Two). The fourth supporting question is both ambiguous and uncontested: “Did the German reparations payments stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II?” It’s ambiguous because it could be asking Question One, Two, or Three. And it’s uncontested, because no serious scholar of twentieth century Europe would suggest that World War Two was unconnected with German reparations from World War One. The question would be more honest as a straight Question One: “Describe how the German reparations payments stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for World War II.”
Contrast this unit with the New Deal unit. In this case, the “compelling question” disappears after we get into the nitty-gritty of what happened at the Versailles Treaty conference and what all the key players at the time were thinking about that. Once we’ve explored that story, “Does peace lead to war?” feels even more silly than it did at the outset.
I’ve recently had a lot of success teaching this topic using this Question Four: “Was the Versailles Treaty fair to Germany?” Notice I don’t ask if it was smart, or if it was good policy. Those questions are generally uncontested “no.” The treaty created bitter resentment in Germany that fueled a fascist movement that unleashed horror on the world. But was it fair, given what Germany had done between 1890 and 1919? Clearly many people at the time thought it was, and many did not. This Question Four makes for a lively discussion in 2020, just as it did in 1920.
The point I want to make with this post is that while there’s a lot of social studies inquiry material out there, almost all of it could be better. The Four Question Method offers curriculum planners, teachers, and students an accessible understanding of the questions that define our field. This understanding is what allows us to consistently design and execute successful inquiry lessons. Without it, we’re shooting in the dark.