A few weeks ago Gary and I were talking with a client who is responsible for history and social studies curriculum and instruction in grades 5 – 8. She was explaining why social studies has to fight for instructional minutes with ELA, and one thing she said really struck me. She reported that some curriculum supervisors criticized history teaching by saying, “It’s not rigorous. The things you have kids read are too short.” This criticism resonated with me because I’ve heard it before, but applied to writing: “That assignment’s not rigorous. You’re only having the kids write five paragraphs.” Maybe you’ve also run into people who conflate word count and intellectual challenge. But the correct measure of the rigor of an intellectual task isn’t the number of words consumed or produced, it’s the difficulty of the thinking involved. The Four Question Method clearly defines the thinking skills of history and social studies, and that clarity allows us to demand true intellectual rigor of our students, sometimes in very few words.

Four Sentence Stories

Question One of the Four Question Method is “What Happened?”, and answers take the form of a story. It’s Question One for a reason: if you and your students can’t say what happened about whatever content you’re purporting to study, then you can’t really claim to know anything significant about it. And it turns out that answering Question One with a good historical story is very demanding, and doing so in a limited number of sentences is even more so. 

We’ve created a rubric to define good historical stories; you can see it here. We often challenge our students to demonstrate their story-telling skills by assigning them to tell an important historical story in just four sentences. Doing so requires them not only to know the story well enough to select important elements and discard less important ones, it also requires them to use complex sentence structures so they can pack as much information into each sentence as possible. If you grade each sentence on a binary score, error/no error, this assignment becomes quite rigorous indeed. Here’s a four-sentence version of a famous story in American history: 

In early 1692 a group of young women in Salem Village began acting strangely and claimed to be bewitched. Pressed by adults to identify the witch(es) responsible, the girls initially identified three women, then broadened their accusations to include over 100 people. That summer judges held trials, and “spectral evidence” led to the deaths of twenty people, the confessions of over fifty, and accusations of witchcraft against over 150 people. In early October a group of fifteen Massachusetts ministers condemned the use of spectral evidence, and the governor called a halt to the trials; the accusations subsided by spring.

Writing a compact story like this is hard! Pick an historical topic that you know well and try it yourself. See how many minutes it takes you to write an error-free four sentence story that scores well on the rubric. Then imagine one of your students working on the same task. We’re producing a very short story, but the thinking involved in writing it well is rigorous indeed.

Reading Hard Text

Question Two of the Four Question Method is “What Were They Thinking?” We often approach this Question through the reading of primary source documents, and many of these are very challenging for students even when they are short selections. In their excellent book on reading instruction, Reading Reconsidered, Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway identify “The Five Plagues of the Developing Reader,” and plague number one is something social studies teachers deal with all the time: “Archaic Text” (29). The intellectual demands of reading documents that are more than fifty years old, and that were written for adult readers in their own eras, are significant for our students. If we actually require students to demonstrate that they understand these documents by contextualizing them, summarizing or paraphrasing them, then interpreting them to figure out what the author was thinking, even a short reading becomes rigorous.

In my imaginary conversation with the ELA-favoring supervisors described at the start of this post, I give them our Question Two rubric and ask them to interpret this single paragraph of Thomas Hobbes’ famous book on government, Leviathan

The finall Cause, End, or Designe of men, (who naturally love Liberty, and Dominion over others,) in the introduction of that restraint upon themselves, (in which wee see them live in Common-wealths,) is the foresight of their own preservation, and of a more contented life thereby; that is to say, of getting themselves out from that miserable condition of Warre, which is necessarily consequent (as hath been shewn) to the naturall Passions of men, when there is no visible Power to keep them in awe, and tye them by feare of punishment to the performance of their Covenants, and observation of those Lawes of Nature set down in the fourteenth and fifteenth chapters [of this book].

This is a short reading. It’s 116 words, and it’s actually just one sentence. But even reading it for plain meaning is clearly rigorous, and actually interpreting it is even more so.

We don’t actually use this text with students. (Although Gary did once, with ninth graders!) We use it in teacher workshops so that teachers will know what their students feel like when we assign them to read primary sources. We want to make it clear that students who do a good job interpreting primary sources are executing a rigorous intellectual task.

Rigor Means Thinking 

The point here is that a “rigorous” assignment should be defined by the thinking required, not simply by voluminous reading or writing. A few years ago we worked with a high school that was very proud that their ninth grade history students all wrote twelve page research papers. I guess that’s a good indication of those ninth graders’ stamina and tolerance for school, but I don’t think that large page count is evidence of anything more than that. 

The Four Question Method promotes rigor by clearly defining the thinking skills of history and social studies. Demonstrating those skills consistently is intellectually demanding, even if the reading and writing involved is not especially lengthy. Our hope is that more people will come to recognize this distinction.