We recently heard from an elementary teacher who admitted to skimping on social studies instruction in her classroom. She explained that she knows it’s important, but “I just don’t know how to do it.” 

This is a common problem. Elementary teachers have lots of ideas and models for teaching math and reading. That’s not surprising, since these subjects get the lion’s share of teaching time, and are what most states test. There are lots of elementary math curricula, and most teachers have an image in their minds of what a math lesson looks like. We demonstrate addition, and have students practice addition problems. Throw in some manipulatives, write some funny word problems, voila – math lesson. The recent push for science-aligned reading instruction (which we strongly support) has certainly made it clear that there is also a wealth of resources and ideas available for elementary reading instruction. 

But social studies in the early grades? Not so much. Elementary schools don’t devote a lot of time to social studies, and there are fewer resources available. But this teacher’s lament goes well beyond a lack of available resources. She’s complaining about her lack of understanding of the discipline itself. She has a planning problem because she doesn’t really know how the discipline of social studies works. 


When this teacher said she doesn’t “know how to do” social studies, she was talking about learning activities. What sorts of things make up a good social studies lesson? What do the students actually do? What’s the equivalent of manipulatives and addition practice in social studies? 

Anyone who’s ever been a teacher has felt this kind of anxiety. And because we conceive of the planning problem in this way (“what are we going to do?”) we often make the error of conceiving of the solution in terms of activities. How am I going to fill my social studies block tomorrow? I’ll show a BrainPop video on Martin Luther King Junior! I’ll have the students make stovepipe hats like the one Abraham Lincoln wore, or make their own flags!

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities. But patching a twenty-five minute hole in your week with an activity isn’t really teaching social studies, and collecting a lot of activities doesn’t actually answer the important question that this teacher is really asking: What intellectual tasks make up good social studies instruction?


The Four Question Method answers that question simply and directly. There are four intellectual tasks in our field: narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. We do these things in response to the four questions that define inquiry in our field: What happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that?

In our book we explain various ways to structure lessons and learning activities so that students of all ages can engage deeply in answering these Four Questions. It turns out that narration, giving a true and accurate answer to Question One (what happened?), is a challenging skill — and one that students really enjoy mastering. Once students know a historical story, they can dive into the minds of the people involved, and use artifacts, images, or the story itself to answer Question Two (what were they thinking?). Question Three (why then and there?) helps young students to begin to understand the myriad ways in which the past differs from the present. And judgment questions (Question Four, what do we think about that?) loom large in the elementary classroom, where student conversation about right and wrong is such an important part of instruction.


We once worked with a fifth grade teacher who called the Four Question Method “the Swiss Army knife of history teaching: it gives me four tools, each with multiple uses. It cuts through all the red tape I have in my head about planning, and gives me and my students a clear and smart way to think about what we’re learning.” 

He meant that by focusing social studies teaching and learning clearly on specific and accessible questions, the Four Question Method solves the social studies planning problem. It gives teachers a clear intellectual schema that guides their thinking, and allows them to define clear learning tasks for students. With 4QM training, both students and teachers can know how to do social studies.