If 4QM Teaching had a t-shirt it would say “Story First!” on the front (and “What’s the Question?” on the back). That’s because we know that students can’t do any serious thinking about history until they have answered Question One, which is “What happened?” Good answers to Question One come in the form of a historical story, and telling an accurate and true one is actually quite challenging. In our book we devote a whole chapter to teaching Question One, and we include specific ideas about how to assess it: can your students actually tell the story you think you’ve taught them? We’ve also blogged on Question One assessment before.

But we know that good history teaching doesn’t stop with Question One. We also want students to answer Questions Two, Three, and Four: What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that?In this post we’re going to share a brief video clip from a first year teacher teaching a Question Two lesson. But before he can get there, he needs to make sure his students know the story. In this clip he does a great job assessing Question One really quickly, with a technique you’ve probably used before: a turn and talk. We’ll show you what he did, and explain why it’s so effective.


This clip is from a fifth grade unit on Native Americans that we wrote for Nashville Classical Charter School. Nashville Classical uses Core Knowledge History and Geography (CKHG) for elementary social studies (it’s available for free download). The curriculum is knowledge rich and well written, but it has a fairly limited pedagogy (mostly reading and answering questions that are based directly on the text), and doesn’t engage students in rigorous historical thinking. We’ve written three new units (with more on the way) that build around the Four Question Method while using a lot of the CKHG materials.

In this lesson first year teacher Graham Delano is teaching a Question Two (“What were they thinking?”) about Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Chief Joseph fought a series of battles against the U.S. Army, before formally surrendering in 1877. The focus of this lesson is interpreting that decision: 

  • What was Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe thinking when he abandoned his struggle against the American government?

But before students can answer that question, they need to know the story of the Nez Perce wars. Graham’s students learn that through reading the CKHG text aloud during the first ten minutes of class. 


Once they’ve read the story, Graham checks their understanding of it by asking them to “turn and tell your neighbor what decisions were made that led to the war. Go!” He’s a first year teacher, and he quickly realizes that his students need a bit more scaffolding, so he calls their attention back to himself. He clarifies who will be talking to whom, and then he gives them a more specific version of the question: 

“It could be decisions made by the Native Americans, and decisions that were made by the U.S. Army. What decisions were made that led to the outbreak of war?”


Graham’s reset gives the kids what they need, and they quickly get down to work. Even more importantly, the new wording incorporates one of the key elements of good historical narration: it identifies the actors in the story. One of the most important things we want students to learn in history class is that historical events don’t just happen. People make history by making decisions. In this particular case, Graham is teaching his students that the Nez Perce war didn’t just “break out” by itself. It was the result of decisions made by the U.S. government and army, and decisions made by the Nez Perce. (You can access the 4QM narration rubric here.)

When the students share out, they identify two key decisions that led to war: the army’s decision to order the Nez Perce to a reservation in Idaho (despite the fact that they had signed no treaty giving up their lands), and the decision of some Nez Perce warriors to fight that order. So the students demonstrate that they understand the story, and the role of actual people in driving it. Graham is now ready to move on to Chief Joseph’s decision to surrender, and students’ interpretation of his thinking.


We’ve seen a lot of history classes go badly when teachers skimp on teaching “What happened?” because they want to get to questions that they think are more interesting or more demanding. But if students don’t have a solid base of knowledge to work from, they can’t answer those subsequent questions well. Graham shows us that building Question One knowledge can be done quickly, effectively, and in a way that puts students at the center.