I was working with a young history teacher on unit questions recently, and she wanted to talk about one that she had used but didn’t like very much: “What changed and what stayed the same during the Protestant Reformation?” She thought the question seemed boring, but she also understood that kids need to know some basic information about the Reformation before they can do any sophisticated (and fun!) thinking about it, and she needed a unit question that held them accountable for knowing that information. When we came back to this question later in our workshop, we agreed that it is boring — but not because it asks for recall of basic knowledge. It’s boring because it asks students to make lists.

Question One of the Four Question Method is “What Happened?,” and the answer is always given in the form of a story. We joke that if the whole method were boiled down to a bumper sticker it would read, “Story First!” The teacher I was working with was right: kids need to get some basic information about their topics before they can do anything else. We provide that as a story. A well told story is exciting and memorable. It draws our attention and it sticks in our minds. By contrast, a list is boring. Lists are actually designed to be boring: they give us discrete items shorn of their context and meaning. We have to write down a grocery list precisely because it’s hard to remember; there’s usually no story connecting a quart of milk to an avocado to double-A batteries. And questions that ask for lists are often a bit absurd. Consider that a correct answer to the question, “What stayed the same during the Protestant Reformation?” could be a really long list of totally irrelevant things: the laws of physics, the number of continents, the preferred habitat of the howler monkey… you get the idea.

Kill The List. Tell A Story.

So we recommend that history teachers kill the list, and replace it with a story. That’s what we ended up doing with this young teacher’s unit question in our workshop. We killed the request for two lists about the Reformation and replaced it with, “Tell the story of the Protestant Reformation.” Now we’ve got a prompt that requires students to know about the major people, events, and ideas of an important historical happening, and does so in a way that makes those people, events, and ideas easier to remember while also highlighting their significance. In a well crafted story, each person, event, or idea has a clear purpose in the narrative, and helps to move the story forward.  

So try it with your next unit: kill the list, and teach your students to tell a story instead. At 4QMTeaching we have a lot to say about how to do that well. You will find that it is indeed more difficult, for you and your students, than simply asking kids to memorize a list of “key terms” from the textbook or unit guide. But the extra effort is well worth it, because your students will actually understand what they’re learning, and why it matters. That’s worth a lot more than a memorized list.