If you’re a regular reader or have been to one of our workshops you know that we believe that almost all historical scholarship and debate can be described by our Four Questions. I recently came across a great example of a scholar making a classic 4QM style argument in J. C. Sharman’s short and polemical book, Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of Europan Expansion and the Creation of a New World Order. Sharman is polemical because he’s trying to knock down a dominant thesis about how it is that Europeans came to rule most of the globe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and one of his main arguments echoes an exercise we do in our introductory workshop, where we storyboard “Cinderella.” 

Start With The End

The first step in unit planning is to decide where your unit will end. When we coach teachers to plan with the Four Question Method, we give them a six-box storyboard and tell them to fill in the last box first: What’s the new and notable thing in the world that you wish to explain? What story is it you want to tell? We start this way because choosing your end point influences pretty much everything else about the unit you’re going to teach. It determines how much historical time you need to cover, what prior events will be judged important or irrelevant, and the overall tone of your story as you teach it. It’s impossible to plan a coherent unit without knowing the end point first. 

We illustrate this principle in our workshops by having people storyboard “Cinderella.” You probably know the story: the scullery maid turns into princess via the intervention of a fairy godmother and a persistent prince searching for someone to fit a glass slipper. When we storyboard it in our workshops the last box, the outcome or end of the story, is dated “June,” and filled in this way: 

Cinderella and the prince are married in a beautiful and gigantic destination wedding. Her gown is gorgeous, and she wears glass slippers.”

This is literally a fairy-tale ending, and it makes the story seem like a happy one. The focus of the unit then becomes, “How did we get to this happy state?” 

But we also have an alternate storyboard, in which the sixth box is dated “Five Years Later” and filled in this way:

“Cinderella has three children, ages 4, 2, and 1. The prince is often away fighting expensive wars. Cinderella is often left at home alone with servants, who send regular reports to the prince about her activities; she has no friends or hobbies. The prince often gets perfumed letters that he won’t let Cinderella read.”

The Cinderella story told from five years further on doesn’t seem so happy. Our point with this exercise to make it clear to teachers that the decision of where to end any given unit of instruction has big implications for our teaching. 

When Should The Story of Europe End?

Sharman illustrates precisely this principle in his book, and uses it to make an interesting argument about Europe’s dominance. Sharman notes that, “deciding where to finish a story without a natural ending can make a lot of difference about the lessons drawn” (131). He then goes on to argue that previous historians have looked at the story of European dominance from the point of view of the twentieth century, when European empires were at or near their peaks. Sharman thinks that this is like ending the story of Cinderella on her wedding day. He wants us to take a longer view: “From the perspective of the early twenty-first century we know that the spectacularly rapid [European] empire-building of the nineteenth century was followed by an even more rapid process of imperial collapse in the few decades after 1945” (132). Sharman’s argument is that we’re actually asking the wrong question when we try to explain Europe’s global dominance, because Europe didn’t dominate for long. He claims that historians’ misplaced focus on the brief period when Europeans ruled large empires has distorted our view of world history, and by extension our perception of what’s “normal” in world affairs, in a decidedly Euro-centric way.

You may think Sharman is spot on, or you may not — but it’s fun to see current scholars (Sharman is a professor at the University of Cambridge, in England) providing such a clear example of how the Four Question Method really does define thinking in our discipline. 

So when you plan your next unit, remember to pick the end of the story first, and ask yourself if you’ve really chosen the best ending. It’s fun to look at wedding pictures — but historians know that there’s usually more to the story.