Happy New Year to all our readers! We wish you all the best for 2024. In this post we are looking back to one of our highlights for 2023: a visit to a fifth grade classroom that was using 4QM curriculum. In this post I’ll describe what we saw there and explain how the curriculum made it possible. We’ll be writing even more curriculum in 2024, and it will all follow the same basic structure that made this fifth grade classroom successful.

The visit took place during the 2023 national social studies conference, which was in Nashville in early December. We had a great time at the conference; we saw some old friends and made new ones, we met people who’ve read our book (thank you!), we gave a presentation, we went to presentations — it was two full days of history teaching nerds hanging out and talking all things social studies. Next year’s event will be in our hometown of Boston, and we hope to see you there.

As it happens, Nashville is home to Nashville Classical Charter School, a K-8 charter network that has been working with us to adapt their social studies curriculum to the Four Question Method. On the Friday afternoon of the conference we took a group of social studies leaders from Texas, along with journalist and 4QM Teaching advisor Natalie Wexler, to observe a fifth grade classroom that was using a 4QM unit on Native Americans. 

A Question Four Lesson

The lesson we saw came towards the end of the unit. Students had learned about Native Americans and their history of conflict with settlers, and about the Indian wars of the late 1800s. On the day we visited, students were focusing on Chief Joseph, the leader of the Nez Perce tribe. After a series of battles against U.S. military forces, the Nez Perce were ordered to remove themselves to a reservation. They resisted at first, fighting and trying to flee to Canada. But eventually, when military victory or freedom in Canada seemed impossible, Chief Joseph made the decision to surrender to the U.S. army. Students had read his surrender statement, and were now making their own judgments: did Chief Joseph do the right thing?

In 4QM terms, this lesson is a Question Four: “What do we think about that?” The classroom discussion was robust. Most students thought that surrender was the right decision, since it would almost certainly save lives. But two thought that fighting on would have been a better choice, since surrender might mean the end of Nez Perce culture, and there is honor in sacrifice. One student compared Chief Joseph to his grandfather, who had fought in Bosnia in the late 20th century. All the students wrote full sentences explaining the reasoning behind their judgments, and student engagement was high throughout the class period.

In our post conference with the teachers of the class, they credited the 4QM unit with improving their classroom culture. This was the first 4QM unit the class had used, and teachers reported that their students were noticeably more focused and productive than they had been in earlier history units. The discussion that we saw was a high point for them, and they were definitely looking forward to upcoming 4QM units on ancient Greece and Rome. (One teacher actually got a bit teary as she described the progress this group had made in their ability to learn together.)

Why Did It Work?

What was it about the 4QM unit that made it so effective? We think there are three things. First, we always start a unit by teaching real historical content (regular readers know our unofficial slogan: “Story First!”). Every unit opens with a contrast between the setting, the unit’s start date, and the outcome, the unit’s end date. In this case, the setting was 1492: 100% of the population of North America was Native American. And the outcome was today: 3% of the population of North America is Native or partly Native American. How did that happen? The contrast between the beginning and end of the story piques student curiosity, and motivates them to learn the story that unfolds between those dates. Students need to learn the story before they can be asked to think effectively about it. By the time the students we observed were judging Chief Joseph, they knew a lot about the changes that had happened in North America since 1492.

Second, we ask real questions about the story. Every 4QM unit is based around story-specific versions of the Four Questions that define thinking in history/social studies. First students need to answer Question One, “What happened?” for each part of the unit story as they learn it. We then ask Question Two, “What were they thinking?” about key people in the story. We ask Question Three, “Why then and there?” about an interesting outcome of the story. (The Question Three for this unit is “What three advantages allowed the settlers to finally defeat the Native Americans?”) And we choose an important decision point in the story to ask Question Four, “What do we think about that?” 

When we say these are “real questions” we mean that they define serious intellectual tasks that scholars in our field engage with. One way we know this is that when we do unit preparation with teachers, we are able to discuss all the unit questions seriously as adults. When we prepped the Native Americans unit with two fifth grade teachers at Nashville Classical, they had a deep disagreement about Chief Joseph’s decision. This surprised them both, and illustrated why it was a real Question Four: serious and responsible people can and do answer it differently. 

And finally, the Four Question Method teaches students real thinking skills. In our book we provide rubrics for answering each question, and in our preparation work with teachers we practice the thinking skills associated with each: narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. Because we have defined these skills clearly and provided a clear structure for teaching and learning them, a wide range of students can access them effectively. This means that discussions like the one we witnessed about Chief Joseph happen with more depth and engagement than they would without the method, because the whole class can participate meaningfully and responsibly.

We were proud and happy to see our curriculum working so well with students, and we were gratified to see the teachers’ enthusiasm for the Four Question Method. You can check out the Native Americans unit guide here, and the unit storyboard here. Looking ahead to 2024 we are planning to write more curriculum units, and we will be building a curriculum section of our website to make them available to anyone with an internet connection. Here’s to a great new year for all of us!