I watched a very good teacher ask her students a silly question the other day. The lesson started with a background reading on World War II propaganda in the US. The reading contained information about the Office of Wartime Information (OWI), which FDR established by executive order in 1942 to coordinate the country’s propaganda campaign. The class read the brief, informative article aloud and the teacher clarified and checked for understanding. She then gave groups packets of sample propaganda posters and asked them to identify common themes.
The lesson was a classic Question Two (What were they thinking?) workshop: contextualize and identify meaningful artifacts, then say what the creators of those artifacts were thinking when they created them. The lesson would have been clearer and contributed more to long-term skill development if it had been identified as a Question Two lesson, but that’s a simple fix.
The bigger problem was the guiding question for the lesson. The teacher framed the lesson as an attempt to answer this question:
“To what extent was World War II [US] propaganda effective?”
That’s not at all a silly question, of course. On the contrary: I’d love to know the answer. I’m sure FDR and the OWI administrators would love to have known the answer as well. The problem is that the students who were asked the question couldn’t possibly have known how to answer it.
BAIT AND SWITCH
“Was X effective?” is a bait question. The question is powerfully tempting because it’s so obviously useful. If we knew which of the many tactics and strategies we encounter in our study of history were effective, we’d be well on our way to constructing effective tactics and strategies to pursue worthy goals today. That’s a serious bit of payoff for what might otherwise seem to young people to be an antiquarian enterprise.
The problem is that the effectiveness question is a very difficult one to answer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It does mean, however, that we should stop pretending to try.
The lesson I’ve described provided students with no information at all about audience response to the artifacts students were asked to interpret. Certainly, given the background information they were provided, students could draw inferences, and did. All of those inferences were about the creator’s goals and intentions. The propaganda designers depicted the Germans and Japanese as menacing predators. The poster artists tried to elicit fear and to equate frugality with military preparedness. They divided the world into a somber and committed “us” and a barbaric, violent “them.” That’s how the students interpreted the posters. That was their collective answer to Question Two, What were they thinking?
Was that effective? In order to answer that question, we’d need to use the tools of explanation — the skillful response required by Question Three, “Why then and there?” Ideally, we’d look at data that compared two groups, one that had seen the propaganda and a control group, one that had not (or not yet) seen those posters. Then we’d need to see if viewing propaganda correlated with attitudes toward the war, or actions relevant to it, like adherence to rationing, volunteering to serve, and so on.
TEACH STUDENTS TO TAKE QUESTIONS SERIOUSLY
When we debriefed, the teacher readily admitted that students couldn’t possibly answer the “effectiveness” question she had posed. Nor were they required to do so in order to complete the lesson activity successfully. The teacher asked the effectiveness question because it was interesting and important. She then did what she could with her students in the classroom, which meant, as a practical matter, ignoring the question she had used to open the class.
There’s nothing wrong with asking students hard questions. We describe Question Three explanatory inquiry workshops in our book and have done workshops for teachers on them lots of times. Jon does a Question Three inquiry in pretty much every unit of his 10th grade class. (Gary, teaching 9th graders, is more timid, so spaces them out more.)
The mistake is pretending to ask and answer a hard question, which amounts to not taking questions seriously. That’s not a good thing to teach students to do. On the contrary: taking questions seriously and answering them well is what we mean by skillful thinking. It’s crucial to successful scholarship, and to successful citizenship.
In social studies, there are four kinds of questions we can ask and try to answer. Muddying the waters may make our lessons sound more important and relevant than they are. But that’s just propaganda. Avoid the trap.