We’ve known for a long time that primates like puzzles. In this post Jon explains how the Four Question Method leverages that reality for social studies classes, using examples from the 4QM Teaching book, From Story To Judgment.

Reading About Monkeys

As part  of this year’s back-to-school professional development at the school where I teach tenth grade world history we read about a well-known study of motivation in monkeys. In 1949 some University of Wisconsin psychologists put some mechanical puzzles into monkey cages, and were surprised to find that the monkeys put a lot of effort into solving the puzzles, even though they got no extrinsic rewards for doing so. They seemed to enjoy the puzzle solving just for the fun of it.

The point of the professional development reading was clear: if we can harness intrinsic motivation of our students by giving them fun puzzles to solve, we can motivate learning more effectively than we can by setting up a transactional relationship between work and grades. At 4QM Teaching we agree completely. One of the main advantages of the Four Question Method is that it gives history and social studies teachers a practical tool to turn history/social studies lessons into puzzles. Humans are the most sophisticated primates, and primates like puzzles.

4QM = Puzzle Building

Gary and I joke that if we had 4QM bumper stickers they would say “Story First!” Question One is, “What Happened?”, and 4QM trained teachers coach their students to answer it by telling a true historical story. At first glance it may seem that this question doesn’t offer much opportunity for puzzle-building. It’s true that Question One relies on another powerful feature of human brains in addition to our interest in puzzles: the fact that we really like stories. But when teachers launch a 4QM history unit, we set up the story of the unit as a puzzle. Here’s a common example from U.S. History:

In 1763 the thirteen British colonies in North America were happy and proud to be British, and had just defeated France in a major war. Only twenty years later they had declared their independence and allied with France to defeat Britain in a war to secure that independence. What happened?!? 

It may seem counterintuitive to tell students the ending of the unit story on the first day, but it’s the contrast between the story’s setting and outcome that sparks our puzzle-solving curiosity. For curious students, the story of the American Revolution then becomes much more than a list of names, dates, and “key terms.” It becomes the solution to the puzzle of how such a dramatic change happened in such a short time.

Question Two is, “What Were They Thinking?” Once we’ve established our story, we introduce students to some of the interesting people in that story. Some of these people will do things that we find dramatic, or significant, or confusing — which gives us another opportunity for puzzle-building. Here’s another example from U.S. history:

Jane Addams was a wealthy college educated 19th century American woman who decided to live in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago — the kind of place young ladies like here were most definitely advised to keep clear of. What was she thinking?!?

Good Question Two puzzles activate our curiosity, then take us out of our present world and immerse us in the past. Addams had some ideas about helping the poor that we would recognize today, and had others that we would probably find unfamiliar. When we start to understand Jane Addams on her own terms we’re really learning something new.

Question Three is, “Why Then and There?” This Question pulls back from the story and the people who made it happen, and asks about underlying conditions and context. In our book we explore a classic Question Three from world history about the age of imperialism.

In the mid-19th century both China and Japan were forced open to Western trade, and had to reckon with their military and political weakness compared to the industrialized imperial powers. Modernizing reformers existed in both places, but by the early 20th century only Japan had become an industrial power. What factors explain why modernizers failed in China but succeeded in Japan? 

A full Question Three puzzle gives students documents and data that allow them to compare and contrast two different places or two different times, so that they can identify relevant factors and hypothesize about how those factors might explain the different outcomes. (Our answer to this question focuses on the political power of the landowning classes, who tended to oppose modernization and were stronger in China than in Japan.) But you can engage students’ curiosity around Question Three without curating a full document and data set — once they understand how Question Three puzzles work, they can identify them themselves, theorize about possible explanations, and describe the data they’d need to support them. Most students genuinely want to know why wars are lost or won, why some countries are rich and others are poor, why movements succeed or fail. These are all examples of Question Three puzzles.

Once students know a story and have explored the thinking of the people in the story and the context in which they made their decisions, they are ready to answer Question Four: “What Do We Think About That?” Question Fours are puzzles of self-reflection. Students judge someone or something from the story, and have to say if they find them admirable or not — and why. If we’ve set the question up well, the answers aren’t easy, and students will disagree. The point of a Question Four puzzle is not to arrive at “the” answer; it’s to understand ourselves, and to understand how different people might arrive at different judgments from ours. In our book we ask about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, people who had committed political violence during apartheid were offered a kind of bargain: make a full confession for the public record, and be released from any possible prosecution or punishment. This process is known as “restorative justice,” and it contrasts with the most common form of justice in Western societies, which is called “retributive justice.” We ask students,

Was restorative justice a good choice for post-apartheid South Africa?”

In answering this Question students need to understand the history of South Africa, but they also need to develop an understanding of their own beliefs and values, and to begin to articulate some general principles that they would be willing to stand by in their own lives in the present day. Good Question Four classes become examples of civil and civic discourse, something that seems to be sorely lacking in our current climate.

Grades and Puzzles

In whatever format they are given, grades are an important tool for communicating whether students are mastering the knowledge and skills we want them to learn, and as such they can be a positive motivator. But if the intellectual tasks that lead to mastery of knowledge and skills are set up like puzzles (and stories), our students are much more likely to find enjoyment in the work that leads to mastery. After all, primates like puzzles.


Click Here to Order From Story To Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies