We just completed a 4QM curriculum pilot at Nashville Classical Charter School. Nashville Classical uses Core Knowledge curriculum in the elementary grades. They give it high marks in K-2, where history is integrated into a top quality literacy curriculum. In upper elementary, grades 3-5, the CK materials they have are good, but not great. They mostly consist of readers on historical topics with questions for teachers to ask students. Teachers and students read, and students answer the questions. Students were learning, but lessons weren’t particularly engaging and didn’t transmit a framework for thinking more deeply about history and society. It was not clear, in the end, how much students were actually understanding and retaining.

Emma Colonna, the chief curriculum writer for the school, discovered us a few years ago and saw that we could help with both problems, engagement and thinking, and that addressing those would almost certainly help understanding and retention. (As Daniel Willingham explains, “memory is the residue of thought.”) That led to a series of conversations about when and how to integrate the 4QM approach into history instruction. We settled on the experiment we ran: a fourth-grade unit on the Renaissance built on Core Knowledge materials. 

Emma recruited a skilled fourth grade teacher, Lynn, and enlisted her supervisor, Lucy, to support the project. The school has piloted other curriculum projects before, so this wasn’t a heavy lift for them. (The Doug Lemov / Teach Like A Champion “Reading Reconsidered” curriculum had a pilot there, too.) We wrote an eleven day unit, using the Core Knowledge Renaissance reader and designing and writing our own additional materials as needed. Lynn attended two online workshops with us in the fall, and then we did an additional ninety minutes of remote training with her directly, using the unit materials we had created. This spring she taught the unit. We followed up with a post-teaching debrief with the whole team: Lynn, Lucy, Emma, Jon and Gary. 

Purposeful Engagement, Rigorous Assessment

All in all, the unit was a smashing success. Lynn reported, and classroom video clips confirmed, that students were highly engaged and were thinking purposefully about the history they were learning. The unit opened with a Question One reading lesson about the Renaissance in the Italian city-state of Florence (Story First!). But instead of simply answering questions about the reading, students then had to retell the story by sorting events and images into the correct order. When they were done, they had to use the images to guide an oral narration. Lynn told us about groups that got the story wrong, and then had to use their understanding of cause and effect chronology to get it right. (Rich wool merchants can’t patronize artists until after they make their fortunes!) We watched videos of students poring over their materials, talking through events as they helped each other to sort the story cards correctly. It was engagement with purpose. 

In subsequent lessons students learned about perspective, and how it made Renaissance art different from medieval art. They speculated about why Renaissance artists signed their work (Question Two: What were they thinking?), and had their own debates about when it’s OK to boast (Question Four: What do we think about that?). Lynn reported that the Four Question Method provided both structure and variety to the lessons. She told us that “having something different every day was exciting and engaging for the kids, and they learned a lot every day.”

We also found some things that we can improve on. We can do more with biography. The unit had students learn about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, but we didn’t do enough to create strong connections between the stories of these artists’ lives and their work. Our Question Three lesson (“Why did Renaissance thinking thrive in some places but not others?”) was too challenging — we need to design those lessons to be more accessible for fourth graders. And Lynn noticed that while students enjoyed the conversation about when it’s OK to boast, she wasn’t sure the connection to the Renaissance was clear to them. We can make those links between the past and present stronger and more explicit.

Lynn also wanted an extra day or two for the unit, which we think was a very good sign. The Core Knowledge materials we started with include nine chapters of reading totaling over eighty-five pages; the teacher guide recommends assigning all of it over twenty two lessons (not counting a day for an assessment). We used about fifteen pages of the reader in ten lessons, with the eleventh day for the assessment. We believe that the fact that we jettisoned so much reading, but Lynn still felt that the unit needed more time, is evidence that we were asking students to think much more deeply about what they were learning. When students are actively practicing the skills of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment they need more time with less content. Our choice to focus on Florence as a “representative event” allowed us to give students most of the time they needed to actually engage in rigorous thinking about the Renaissance.

The summative assessment we designed was more comprehensive and rigorous than what students had previously done as well. One of the principles of 4QM teaching is that every activity can be an assessment; we’re always practicing the four thinking skills. So this unit assessment asked students to tell the story of the Renaissance, to identify some Renaissance art, to interpret a painting and some text to say what the creators were thinking, and to judge contemporary video of sports celebrations, saying if they thought the athletes’ boasting was justified or not. Results were strong, but difficult to compare to previous years when students had just answered multiple choice questions.

We’re continuing our work in Nashville next year. We’re planning to write more curriculum, with a goal of having an entire year of units for fourth grade so that students can practice thinking skills repeatedly and internalize the method. Assuming that goes well, we’ll continue the partnership until we’ve built out grades 3-5. 

We’ve been really lucky so far. We’ve gotten to work with urban and suburban district schools, independent schools, large charter networks, and stand-alone charters like Nashville Classical. In almost every case, these folks already had “stuff” — textbooks, lessons, handouts, and assessments. In fact, most teachers and most schools already have those things, or have access to them. What makes Nashville Classical and our other clients different is that they have vision. They see that their social studies instruction could be so much better than it is.

G.S. & J.B.