The old Wordperfect word processing program, from the technological Stone Age — yes, kids, there was competition for Microsoft Word back in the day — had a really cool feature. You could hit a function key and “reveal codes.” That was a great command. It showed you on the screen what the program was doing to your document. It revealed the paragraph breaks and font adjustments and margins and whatnot — all the non-printing characters that the program used to modify and “process” your text. If you wanted to know what WP was up to, you just had to push a button.

It’s likely that word processing has now gotten so complex that revealing codes would simply litter the screen with digital operands. Or maybe there isn’t an audience any more that really cares to see under the hood. In any case, Reveal Codes is still an awesome metaphor for teachers.

By high school, our students are sophisticated enough to understand the choices we make as teachers and (still) curious enough to care. Over the years, as I’ve become more confident and observant in the classroom, I’ve increasingly brought my choices, as well as my problems and dilemmas, directly to my students. I’ve increasingly advised the teachers I supervise to do the same. After almost a decade of classroom instruction, and subjected to a wide variety of teachers’ personalities and techniques in high school, our students know a lot about what works for them and what doesn’t. It’s useful to get their feedback, frequently astute, always revealing. And it’s good for them to see how we think.

I’ve asked students how to grade projects, and how to structure them. I’ve given them choices about what to learn and how to learn it. I now let them choose their own adventure for their “citizenship” grade, structuring that small component of their term score as a kind of SMART goal. And I’ve increasingly taken the time to explain why I’m asking them to learn what I’m teaching.

This transparency is built into the Four Question Method. The fundamental technique, which requires the teacher to know the unit story and to teach it to students — Story First! — is predicated upon the idea that both teacher and students must be clear on and fluent in the unit narrative before they can get anywhere with “higher order” thinking. More important, the language of the 4QM is meant to be student friendly, in accessible English. “What happened? — Tell me the story!” That’s not arcane, and sounds nothing like Ed School. By design. “What were they thinking?” is properly enunciated with a tone of shock or bemusement, and in my personal version, in a Yiddish accent.

Transparency Helps Students

Unfortunately, the usual suspects who coach and direct teachers tend to widen rather than narrow the gulf between teachers and students. Try bringing your state standards to class, or reading the list of thinking skills it contains to students. Ask them if they have any of those skills, or knew they were working on them. For that matter, try explaining to students how you picked this rather than that Essential Question. Even better, ask them to give you an answer to your Essential Question that isn’t question begging.

So here’s yet another reason to use the Four Question Method, besides that it will make your planning better, your teaching better, and your assessments better: transparency. Tell your students what stories you want them to know and why. After you tell them what you’re curious about in the story, ask them — and then let their curiosity lead you both. Tell them the questions they need to learn to answer skillfully if they want to make sense of the world they’ll inherit and refashion. If all goes well, they’ll give you some good ideas about how you can help them succeed.