It turns out that Jeff Bezos, billionaire owner of Amazon, the Washington Post, and tons of other stuff, is a fan of the Four Question Method! 

Well, not really. We assume that he has no idea we exist. (Feel free to re-tweet this at him, or send it to his linked in if you have that kind of access.) But I’m convinced that he would be a fan, because of something I read in the (hard copy!) November issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. 

The article is by Franklin Foer, and it’s called “Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan.” It’s not very flattering; it’s in the tradition of Ida Tarbell and the muckrakers of the Progressive era. But on pages 58-59 I found this nugget: 

“Bezos insists that plans be pitched in six-page memos, written in full sentences, a form he describes as ‘narrative.’ This practice emerged from a sense that PowerPoint had become a tool for disguising fuzzy thinking. Writing, Bezos surmised, demands a more linear type of reasoning. As John Rossman, an alumnus of the company who wrote a book called Think Like Amazon, described it, ‘If you can’t write it out, then you’re not ready to defend it.'”

This is pretty much exactly why Gary and I often use four-sentence stories as a formative assessment tool. For high-ranking Amazon executives, six pages is a limiting device: they have to express their ideas clearly in order to make them fit under the limit. That means selecting what matters and leaving the rest out, which means understanding the idea well enough to know what matters. For our history students, the four sentence story works exactly the same way: they have to really understand the story in order to boil it down to four sentences. And because the story format is ”narrative” it does indeed “demand a more linear type of reasoning.” If our students are doing it well, their four sentences link together in a way that makes clear sense.

I also agree completely with the Rossman quotation. For my students I’d change it slightly to say that “if you can’t write it out, you don’t understand it.” Once you start asking students to write out the stories you think you’ve taught them through lecture or reading or documents or videos, you’ll find that many of them don’t actually understand the chronology, or how events connect to each other. You’ll also find that as they get more practice at writing four sentence stories they get better at it — in part because they start to anticipate the assignment, and they pay attention to the narrative structure of the history they’re learning as they learn it. 

Here’s a good four sentence story one of my tenth graders submitted last year. The assignment was to “Write a four sentence story of the Nazi rise to power between 1919 and 1935. Avoid passive voice, and remember, people do things!”

  1. The economic crisis from inflation and the great depression in the 1920s and 1930s made the German people very angry at the Weimar Republic and drove them toward the Nazis and the communists.
  2. The Nazis appealed to the angry German people by promising nationalism, militarism, and racism which led to the Nazis to get the majority vote at 37% in 1932.
  3. In 1933 Hitler is appointed chancellor and the Reichstag fire hits which led to Hitler calling a state of emergency where they arrested communists for the fire, but he also suppressed freedoms and established the enabling act.
  4. Finally in 1934 the President died and Hitler is appointed Führer and he established the terror system and the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 which restricted the Jews from public life.

This student shifts tenses, which is a common problem, I don’t like the use of “they” in the third sentence, and I had to explain the difference between a majority and a plurality to her. But she’s got the events in the correct order, and makes clear links between the economic crisis and angry voters. She narrates a story that is coherent and meaningful. I’m confident that this student understands how Hitler achieved dictatorial power in Germany.

And while I don’t know what Jeff Bezos would give it for a grade, I’m pretty sure he would approve of the assignment.