In this post Gary observes that we sometimes design lessons that look productive — like a busy beehive — but aren’t, and explains how the Four Question Method’s definition of intellectual puzzles can make sure that students really are thinking.

A Well-Planned Cooperative Activity is a Thing of Beauty 

At its best, a cooperative activity is a thing of beauty. Your classroom is an energetic hive. Students are talking, writing, working, maybe moving from station to station. You’re involved, checking in, probing, problem solving, but mostly the activity moves on its own. Your students are in charge and the lesson runs by itself. 

There aren’t many better feelings than watching your students successfully execute a plan you made for them that worked as you intended. If you do this routinely, you know how hard it is to make it look easy. Here’s what it takes: 

Students have a clear task to accomplish. Students have clear instructions about how to work together to accomplish that task, including well-defined norms and roles they understand and have internalized. The materials they need are accessible and ready for use. There are lots of opportunities for you, the teacher, to monitor both group progress and individual contributions. The timing is specific and reasonable, with lots of visual cues to guide the process.

And, amazingly, all this can be true and the activity can still flop. Your hive can be lethargic, or busy with distraction rather than production. Or, most insidious, things can look and sound great and, well, signify nothing, or very little. Sometimes the bees make noise but not honey. 

All Dressed Up and No Place to Go

The technical challenges to planning a successful student-centered activity are formidable enough. Planning in the way I just described is arduous, and teaching students to inhabit an activity plan takes patient practice and careful feedback. Even if you meet those challenges, the honey-less noise problem is real and persistent. 

As friends of teachers like Daniel Willingham have taught us, we remember what we think about. So, even if you meet all the technical challenges, the hazard of the honeyless hive is a real one. Learning to work cooperatively and collaboratively is important, for sure. If your students spent their hive time thinking about how to converse effectively, that’s great. But if your goal is to teach social studies along with conversation skills, you need more. The task or tasks you define as objectives for your activity have to require thinking about something real and pertinent to skillful study of the human world, or what we sometimes refer to pejoratively as “content.” 

Puzzles Drive the Train

The Four Question Method can help with one of the most persistent problems in activity planning: proceduralism, or the exclusive focus on procedures to the exclusion of meaningful learning goals. It takes so much thinking and planning to design a first-rate cooperative activity that it seems almost petulant to complain about empty calories. But there it is: sometimes the task is just that, a thing to do. If the task is clear and your students willing, you can make an activity appear productive. The goal, of course, is to make it actually so.

Bees don’t think about honey. They focus exclusively on the task in front of them. So let’s switch metaphors. Let’s try to get to a meaningful destination. Let’s hop on a high-speed train. 

The engine that drives the train in social studies is a puzzle about real people. There are four kinds that work to drive thinking (and therefore long-term memory, which enables even more thinking) in social studies. 

In 4QM lessons, we always frame all of our puzzles with a story. Story first! And our stories themselves always have a puzzle framework. People start in one condition, the “setting,” and end up in another one, the “outcome.” How did that happen?!? Who did what to get our story from setting to outcome? 

Storyboarding is an obvious and terrific cooperative activity for rehearsing a story so that students really understand it and so that it lodges in memory. So is image sorting. Here’s a version from a 4th grade classroom at Nashville Classical Charter School. What you see is students matching descriptions to images. That’s step one. Next, they’ll arrange those images in the correct chronological sequence. Then they’ll use those images to help them tell the story of the Renaissance out loud! 

As Willingham notes, stories make us think (and therefore remember) through anticipation. They make us wonder, in light of what’s happened so far, what will happen next? That’s puzzle logic at work. We have expectations about what actors in a story will do, or should do. Sometimes we guess right, which is gratifying. Often we’re wrong, which surprises us. That’s even better. It makes us want to know more. 

We design narrative puzzle activities that harness the power of anticipation. They can be really simple: stop at a turning point in your story, and then ask your cooperative teams to predict what will happen next. In other words, practice making anticipation explicit. Shots have been fired at Lexington Green. Now what!?!?

Or, add more structure. Mansa Musa, the emperor of Mali, is considering making the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca. We know about the Keita rulers of Mali and what Musa has done to restore and expand the empire. We know his back story, including Sundiata’s founding of the Keita line, the gold-salt trade that drives the empire’s economy, and the spread of Islam to Mali. Now, let’s appoint a team of advisors, each of whom has a focus or area of expertise: politics, economics, or religion. What do we advise? Should he go? If so, what should Musa aspire to accomplish for Mali on his Hajj? How should he do it — what and whom should he take with him — in order to accomplish those goals? 

Or, simply tell the story and then frame an interpretive puzzle so that students can dig into it. Tell students what Musa actually did and then ask: Why did he do it? Why did Mansa launch such an elaborate and expensive expedition? Why did he give away so much gold in Cairo on his way to Mecca that he disrupted currency markets for years afterwards? What was he thinking?!? Here, we imagine how Musa might have staged that advisory board, in real life or in his head. And we use the facts as we know them, what he did and decided, to test whether we’ve got him right. 

You get the idea. The Four Questions are all designed to launch meaningful puzzles about real people doing real things. Harness your activities to a puzzle question. That way, when your hive is buzzing, your honey will get delivered.