At our 4QM workshops, we coach teachers on unit planning. We tell them that the first decision they need to make is about what unit story they want to tell. Then we show them our technique for making that decision in a way that allows teachers to plan coherently and students to have lots of opportunities for thinking.

One of the questions we often get — and we got it again last week at a Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies one-day conference — is this: if the teacher decides on a single unit story to tell, then what happens to multiple perspectives? Can we tell a single story and still include multiple perspectives?

Multiple Perspectives and Question Two

The simple answer is, of course! Question Two — What Were They Thinking? — is where we dig in and explore the world from the point of view of the actors in the story we’re telling. We try, where possible, to consult documents that convey the words and ideas of those actors. Always, we strive for historical empathy — to see the world as the actors did, on their own terms.  

In the classroom, I often ask my students to tell a story from the point of view of various actors. For example, my students describe the outcome of the French and Indian War from the point of view of George Washington and then again from the point of view of Pontiac, the Odawa (or Ottawa) leader. They read and interpret the results of the Elections of 1860 and 2016 from the point of view various partisans and interested onlookers. They read selections from Frederick Douglass’s eulogy of Lincoln, a masterful exercise in interpretation in its own right, which never fails to generate passionate deliberation.

In fact, every meaningful story contains multiple perspectives. Question Two is predicated upon the observation that human actors have different points of view, and that ours as interpreters is likely to be different still. Most of narrative history, for teaching purposes, is an account of conflict, and all of it a chronicle of interaction. The parties to the conflict or interaction bring different perspectives to bear on it. Disagreement and mutual misunderstanding make the human world go around. When we ask Question Two, we acknowledge that.

The Single Unit Story

But that’s not what the multiple-perspectives question is really after, I suspect. The question isn’t about the perspectives in the story. It’s about the story itself. The complicated question we have to answer is, Is it safe to tell a single story?

This concern is reflected in the claim made by Chimamanda Adichie in her rightly famous TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” (More than 16 million views, and counting!) Adichie glosses her claim this way: “Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Adichie’s college roommate is amazed that an African knows how to work a stove. She assumes that all Africans are the same; that all are poor; that all are unfamiliar with modernity and its devices.

Our students all come to us with their heads filled with stories like this one. They, like us, are ignorant of so many things. But ignorance, if it were a blank mental space, would be easy to cure. Fill the bucket, problem solved. But as educators, most of us have lost faith in the empty-vessel model of the child’s mind. On the contrary, we can see that their heads are filled with simple, or “single” stories and other heuristic devices. There’s so much to explain in the world. Ignorance has never stopped a human brain from trying to explain it.

The danger of a single story is really the danger of a story unexamined, a heuristic device posing as knowledge. The right response to that danger is not to eschew storytelling, of course, or even to abandon the enabling structure of the “unit story.” On the contrary: the number one cause of teaching failure at the unit level is losing track of the story we want our students to learn. (At the lesson level, the number one cause of teaching failure is not knowing what question we’re trying to ask and answer.)

A better response to the problem Adichie warns us about has three parts. First, choose unit stories that disturb and dismantle the stories in your students’ heads. Figure out what they think they know, and tell a unit story that confounds it. We teach the Kingdom of Mali in our 9th-grade class with that in mind. Africans are poor? Not Mansa Musa… After immigration emerged as a wedge issue in the last Presidential Election, I rewrote my Progressivism unit to focus on the debate and the reality around the great wave of immigration in the early 20th century. I wanted my students to see Harvard-educated, New England xenophobes mustering bad science to keep out the immigrant hordes. That’s a complicating narrative in my home district. The main point: to the extent you can, pick stories that provoke, that cut against the grain of what your students think they know, or didn’t didn’t even know they were thinking.

Second, when we build a unit story, we have choices to make about how to narrate the change over time we’re interested in revealing. In particular, we choose both the actors and the events that drive our story. We can’t do so willy nilly. We can’t force a story to conform with our wishes. But we can simplify — a necessity in narration — in a way that includes portraits of actors that disturb stereotypes. Native Americans fought on both sides in the American Revolution. So did African Americans. That can be part of our unit story of the American Revolution. Including those actors in this way shows them as people thinking through complex choices. As they were, and as it should be.

Finally, we need to reveal codes. We don’t include all possible actors and events in the stories we choose to tell, naturally. And we can’t tell all possible stories. But we can share our choices with our students, and teach them to make their own. We can tell and show our students, for example, who some of our unit stories were told in the past. We can tell and show them how and why our choices are different. We can share controversy rather than ignoring or avoiding it. Most important, we can show students how starting with a straightforward narrative and then taking it apart with Questions Two, Three, and Four can lead to a richer, more thoughtful story about other times and places. In other words, we can bring them into our thinking as we do 4QM planning.

The danger isn’t, after all, a single story per unit. The danger lurks in our hidden stories, the scripts that rule our fast thinking. Don’t eschew the unit story. Instead, choose your story well, reveal the human complexity of your actors, and show your students how you made these choices so that they can learn to make them, too.