Social studies teachers love a lively student discussion: “The kids were really into that discussion about whether or not we should have school uniforms!” But I suspect that most of us don’t do a great job of letting students know if their lively discussion was actually backed with clear and rigorous thinking. Too often we let an exciting activity be an end in itself, rather than a practice session for historical thinking skills. 

In the Four Question Method, exciting discussions are often focused on Question Four, “What do we think about that?” With this question we are explicitly asking students for their own judgments about something from the past, usually a decision that someone (or some group of people) made. Did President Truman do the right thing when he ordered the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Was Martin Luther King’s non-violent Christian movement the best way to achieve racial justice? But if we’re going to teach students to give us more than “hot takes,” we need to define the thinking skills that make up responsible judgments and teach students how to demonstrate them.

Last week Gary wrote a blog post that identifies two elements of responsible judgment: articulateness and application. “Articulateness” means that students can clearly explain their reasons for their judgments, and “Application” means that students can consistently apply their principles to a different case. As it happens, I led two discussions today about a classic judgment question, and I’d like to use my experience to illustrate how these two thinking skills can be applied in the classroom.

Today’s class was about the Versailles Treaty, and the judgment question I asked students was, “Was the war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty fair?” The Versailles Treaty was the peace treaty that ended World War One, and the “war guilt clause” was the part of the treaty that stated that Germany was solely responsible for causing the war, and thus would be held responsible for paying damages (“reparations”) to Britain and France. My students knew the story of the pre-war era, the war itself, and the story of the treaty negotiations. They had studied, in other words, Question One (“What happened?”), and Question Two (“What were they thinking?”) for all the key players of the story. We had also done a Question Three (“Why then and there?”) puzzle about the start of the war. They were ready to render their judgments.


In my first class, the majority of students started out by saying that the war guilt clause was not fair. “Articulateness” requires them to be able to explain their reasons, and they did pretty well. The student leaders of this position argued that first, the real cause of the war was the unwillingness of Britain and her allies to face the reality of growing German power. From here they argued that Britain and her allies were being unreasonable in their opposition to Germany, since the Kaiser’s demands for empire and an increased share of world trade were entirely in line with his country’s size and economic might. They saw the specifics of the outbreak of war in summer 1914 as less relevant than this underlying conflict, and thus considered placing all the blame on Germany to be unjust. There were several students who said that in fact Britain bore primary responsibility for the war, because she did not accommodate Germany’s rise peacefully.

The opposing side in that first class was more strongly represented in my second class of the day: there the majority started out by saying that the war guilt clause was fair. These students argued that Germany had been unreasonably aggressive in its rise, and that it was perfectly reasonable to expect Great Britain to try to prevent Germany from threatening its top spot in the world economy and geopolitical balance. These students emphasized the German invasion of France (through neutral Belgium!) as evidence of Germany’s untoward aggression, and thus considered placing all of the blame on Germany to be just. There was even one student who argued that Britain’s major error had been in not attacking Germany first and earlier, before she got so strong!

There were proponents of both positions in both classes, so the discussion was lively. And there were also students who articulated a position based almost entirely on the events of the summer of 1914; these students cared less about the contextual conflict between Britain and Germany, and more about the fact that Germany had invaded France without provocation. They saw the war guilt clause as fair.


In the last few minutes of each class I pressed students to apply the principles they had articulated to a different case. I suggested that the United States today is similar to Britain in 1914, a dominant economic and military power, and that China is similar to Germany, as a rising economic and military power. Would the students who suggested that Britain should have accommodated Germany’s rise agree that the U.S. should accommodate China? And would those who suggested that Germany was unduly aggressive and had earned a harsh response from Britain and her allies feel the same way about China and the U.S.?

Unfortunately I didn’t have the time I needed to play this out very far in either class. But the student who had suggested that Britain should have attacked Germany earlier did actually say that he would not support war against China today, and he saw immediately that this was a contradiction to his earlier position. He then publicly changed his mind and said that he was now going to have to reconsider his entire position on the war guilt clause. 

I praised that student for doing what we hope all of our students will do every day: thinking. Knowing the two elements of judgment thinking made it easier for me to plan a discussion class that pushed students to do both.