History teachers, especially new history teachers, have a really hard job: they’ve got to teach a lot of content, and they’ve got to teach it in a way that gets kids to think actively about it. It’s extremely difficult to do both things well, and anything that makes those tasks easier will be eagerly embraced. As a first year teacher told me last year, “Anything that saves me fifteen minutes of internet searching makes my job better.” 

New York City recently published a 107 page document aimed at saving teachers time by agglomerating over fifty “historical thinking tools” for tenth graders. (Here’s the link. Click “view” to download a Word Doc version: Grade 10 Historical Thinking Tools and Analysis Strategies) I’m teaching tenth grade this year, so I was especially curious. The document does a great job putting a lot of resources into teachers’ hands quickly, and the fact that everything can be easily edited and adapted is great. But I found most of the “tools” to be overly complicated, and I suspect most teachers won’t use them very often. I think that 4QM’s simpler approach would be much more useful to both students and teachers. Here’s an example of what I mean.


Pages 25 and 26 of the NYC document are a “Contextualization Tool” for students to use when examining a source. The top of the document explains that “Understanding historical context is useful when examining a resource because it allows the reader to situate a person, group, or event in the larger narrative of the past.” So far so good. But then the document directs students to identify five “forces” that acted on the person, group, or event featured in the source being studied: intellectual, socio-economic, political, geographic, and “general questions.” Each “force” is to be identified both in the “Immediate View: What forces acted on the person, group, or event close to the time it occurred?” and in the “Distant View: What long-term forces acted on the person, group, or event?” There are bullet points underneath each “force” in both categories, for a total of twenty-one specific questions for students to answer. The document then provides a graphic organizer of some ten boxes to help students organize all those short and long-term forces. The tenth box prompts students to write a paragraph: “Synthesize relevant information from the contextual information and immediate and distant views to contextualize the person, group, or event being studied. The context you draft should include a combination of the different forces as well as a balance between immediate and distant views.”

Whew. I haven’t taught in New York City since the 1990s, but unless their tenth graders are a lot different from the ones I’m teaching this year in Boston, they’re going to find completing this form to be extremely challenging. Try it yourself with a primary source from a unit you teach. Can you address all those categories of context, short and long term? If you can, stop and consider how much expert knowledge you are bringing to bear in actually completing the task, then consider how much of that knowledge you can reasonably expect a tenth grader to possess and be able to recall in class. If I were to use this thinking tool in my classroom, I’d need to budget a lot of time — maybe a whole class period — to coaching my students through it. And that means that I’m probably not going to use it, or at least not very often. 

If I want my students to get in the habit of contextualizing sources (and I do), I need to make contextualization simpler and quicker. It needs to be something they can do every time they work with a primary source. The Four Question Method shows us how to do that.


Question One of the Four Question Method is “What Happened?” and we always start teaching history by establishing a story of the unit, which is in the form of a narrative. The NYC document is right that “contextualization” means “to situate a person, group, or event in the larger narrative of the past.” Where New York City defines that task with twenty-one questions and ten boxes, the 4QM Primary Source Analysis Sheet asks three simple questions: 

Contextualize: What has happened in our unit story at the time this source was created? How is the author or creator related to the story so far? What might you assume about the author given their relationship to the story?

The first question situates the source in chronological relationship to the “larger narrative of the past.” The second question asks students to define the author’s relationship to the narrative, and the third question asks students to consider the implications of that relationship. Our questions incorporate the five “forces” delineated in the NYC document without belaboring the point or requiring students to know technical vocabulary. A tenth grader who knows the story of the unit and not a whole lot more can answer our three questions in a way that prepares them to read the source carefully and critically. And most students can answer these questions in a few minutes of careful thinking, which means we can coach them into the habit of asking and answering them for every source we use in class. 


One of the plugs that we’re most proud of on the 4QM Website comes from Peter Seixas, who is a scholar of historical thinking. He says, “This is a most impressive scheme. I love its elegance, efficiency, and communicability.”  

Historical thinking skills are important, and New York City’s resource recognizes that. But I’m afraid that in their efforts to be comprehensive in defining those skills, the resource writers have created tools that are inelegant, inefficient, and difficult to communicate to students. The Four Question Method offers a more simple, direct, and powerful set of thinking tools to both students and teachers.