History teaching is hard to do well. But it’s relatively easy to describe: teach your students to tell true stories and make reasonable arguments about the human world. You can do that by teaching them to ask and answer the Four Questions. Teach them this method, and how to recognize when others are doing so. Do that, and they’ll get smarter.
Jon and I didn’t make this up. We observed it. We saw that successful teachers and classes posed clear and interesting questions that students were equipped to answer. We witnessed the results: students engaged in telling stories and making arguments about things that mattered. Classes built around no particular questions or around boring or ambiguous ones left no residue other than confusion. We gathered up and sorted the questions that worked and named and numbered them. That’s about it.
Of course, if teaching and learning were as simple as describing a method, all of our students would become proficient scientists and mathematicians by age 14. Thinking techniques aren’t algorithms. On the contrary: mechanical application of a technique is an efficient way to avoid thinking rather than practice it. If you’ve ever given instructions for an essay, you know exactly how this works. Our writing instructions to our students can be super clear, and our students’ writing will still turn out muddled. It’s the same with any complex thinking task. Proficiency in thinking takes disciplined practice, and a lot of it. There is no royal road to geometry, or any other subject mastery.
This warning applies to professionals, too. We’ve described bad questions in this blog space repeatedly. The College Board and SHEG ask ambiguous questions all the time. Most essential questions aren’t essential, and some aren’t even questions. Jon and I pose lousy questions or give lousy answers all the time. Thinking well is hard work. Our brains were designed for quick thinking, not for rigorous consistency.
So beyond learning to recognize, ask, and answer the Four Questions that animate our field, we and our students have one more important task: to develop the habit of taking our questions seriously. That’s the only way we’ll ever get good at answering them.
We have to go first. If teachers are not taking their questions seriously, it’s highly unlikely their students will. If you have your students practice answering bad questions or answering questions badly, you’re training them to be bad thinkers. Shooting at the basket and missing every time is practice for losing.
Build Lessons Around Good Questions
So what should you do to develop the habit of taking your questions seriously? For starters, build every lesson around a clear and explicit question. Ditch the SWBAT and get right to the point: what question(s) will your lesson equip students to answer? And what kind of question(s) is it (or are they): narrative, interpretive, explanatory, or evaluative? At the end of every day, take stock. Your lesson question is your exit ticket. That’s the question we were working on. How did we do?
Framing every lesson with questions makes every day an opportunity for disciplined practice. Assessments should be aligned with your questions, too. That’s what shows your students that you want them to take your questions seriously. If you’ve done our introductory unit planning workshop, you know that our student-facing unit guides always contain unit questions, sorted by type. Those questions are our guides for planning, and our students’ guide to assessment. They’ll have mastered the unit when they can answer those questions well. Don’t wait till the summative assessment to practice, either. Formative assessment is another form of disciplined practice.
Answer Your Own Questions
In addition to framing lessons and assessments with questions, it’s crucial that teachers answer their own questions. I confess: I’ve assigned essays to students that I haven’t attempted to write myself. That often ends badly. The point isn’t that you should give students your answer, or expect yours and none other in response to your essay prompt. The point is that we teachers need to know what our students need to know to answer our questions. We can’t be prepared to help students with a task we’ve never tried. And, fundamentally, asking questions you haven’t grappled with is how you end up asking bad ones. Take your questions seriously by answering them yourself.
One more recommendation, though it has nothing (obvious) to do with teaching. I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation on and off for the past ten years. (I can hear the chastising words of an imaginary blog post in my head: “Take Meditation Seriously”…) Even my somewhat haphazard practice has yielded benefits. I can slow myself down and increase my awareness just by breathing and paying attention to my thoughts, rather than getting swept up in them. The vast majority of the time, I’m swept up. But it’s nice to know there’s an alternative.
A classic mindfulness meditation technique is to bring awareness to the breath. As you sit and your mind wanders, draw it gently back to what’s always there, just outside of consciousness: your breathing. It occurred to me several months ago that, by asking myself two simple questions, I could enter that condition of awareness I found by drawing my attention back to my breath in sitting meditation. But this this alternative technique only worked if I took those two questions seriously. Here they are:
- Where are you?
- What are you doing?
These are ridiculously simple and obvious questions. (Just like, say, What happened…?) That’s the point. Asking and answering, Where are you?, required me to return to my body and take stock of, well, where I was. Right now, for example, I’m sitting at a desk in my study, facing my computer screen, a window to my left and another behind me. I’m bathed in sunlight, and the glow of the screen. What am I doing? I’m typing, writing, thinking. Communicating, I hope.
These are good questions for increasing awareness, just as the Four Questions are good for thinking about history. Taking these questions seriously, asking and answering them regularly and with discipline, is good practice. Where are you? What are you doing? Take those seriously, and you’ll know where you are and what you’re doing. And you’ll realize how unusual it is to be aware of such simple things. That, in turn, may make you wonder where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing all this time. In the classroom, ask and answer these questions: What happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? Take them seriously, and you’ll start to wonder what you were teaching before you started asking then.