In our book, we claim that social studies teachers have the hardest and most important job in education. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already convinced (or you’re one of our close friends or relatives). 

Though admittedly rhetorical — lots of things we teach in school are important — learning about both history and politics is and should be high on our collective agenda right now. We’re in the midst of another public reckoning about race and inequality and, simultaneously and relatedly, witnessing a not-so-slow-motion assault on our basic institutions of democratic representation. Helping young people, the inheritors and future custodians of those institutions, to figure out how they work (and don’t) and how we got here should be a high priority for all schools. 

The first claim, that our job is the hardest, deserves at least a bit of elaboration. 

We Don’t Know Much When We Graduate

If you’re a math major in college and become a math teacher in middle or high school, you already know as much about mathematics as you’ll ever need to know. You can and should learn your subject more deeply. And, like everyone else in the teaching profession, you still have to acquire pedagogical content knowledge, what effective teachers know about how students learn their subject. 

By contrast, if you’re a history or social sciences major in college and become a social studies teacher in middle or high school, you’re not even close to mastering your content knowledge. In part that’s a result of misalignment between training programs and the jobs they’re supposed to be training for. Ed Schools should teach their candidates the exact courses they’ll be expected to teach when they start work. They should teach those courses — US history, world history, and some social science electives, including civics — at an adult level, aiming at content mastery. 

Of course, even then there would be lots more content to know. For one thing, history itself piles up all the time! 

But that’s not the root of the problem. The main trouble is that our knowledge lacks structure. Math and science undergraduates learn both content and structure in their majors. They acquire the basic, school-ready knowledge essential to their fields. And they learn structure: the core concepts and procedures mathematicians and scientists use to generate that knowledge in the first place. They learn both salient facts and a framework that makes them useful for further inquiry. 

Because there’s general agreement not just about essential content but about the structure of knowledge in those fields, math and science majors graduate from their own academic training ready to move on to the next challenge: the best way to teach those subjects to children. World language training is the same: a major in Spanish will equip you with both post-secondary knowledge of vocabulary and semantic context and an adequate grasp of the structure of grammar and syntax in the language. What’s left is pedagogical context knowledge. 

We Have No Structure 

Social studies, by contrast, is a hot mess. There’s a story to be told about the fragmentation of the disciplines that study human societies, past and present, from the time of the founding of the American Social Science Association (1865) to the modern configuration of majors and disciplines we encounter in universities today. There’s another story to be told about the interest of professors of history, and later geographers, in school curriculum and the relative disinterest of economists, political scientists, and other social scientists. The interest of these professionals in what we do in primary and secondary education is inversely related to the popularity of their majors in post-secondary education. Historians recruit among us, lately unsuccessfully. Political scientists and economists hardly try and don’t have to. 

The result is that even where we have rough consensus on the key stories worth telling in our classes — and we do, more than your news feed would lead you to believe — we have very little clarity on the intellectual operations of our enterprise. We lack consensus on what the key questions are in our multi-discipline of social studies and, naturally, on the concepts and procedures necessary for answering them well. We lack structure. 

Jon and I have made two contributions to our field, or at least tried to. The first is by way of a reminder. We teach stories, not “facts.” Stories comprise facts, of course, and the best teachers in our field have always embedded facts in narrative and taught them that way. We’ve proselytized for the storyboard both as a way of visualizing stories in planning and in the classroom and as a reminder to teachers: story first!

That observation, about the primacy of narrative, is rooted in our own pedagogical content knowledge. Students need to know things in order to think about anything in particular, or in general. Students can’t intuit what people have done in other times and places. We need to communicate all that to them. Narration is the most effective way to do that. Teach kids stories. And teach them how to tell those stories themselves. That will make knowledge stick, and therefore available for yet more thinking. University historians, by the way, generally get this right. They practice narration themselves and model it for their students. 

Our second contribution is more contentious and challenging. It is, put bluntly, that what currently passes for the structure of inquiry in our field is incoherent. If you look back over the blog posts in this space, you’ll see that they do one of two things: they promote specific techniques for teaching the skills associated with the Four Question Method, or they identify and lament the confusion and ambiguity we encounter regularly in our resources (here, here and here, for example) and classrooms (here, here and here). We see poorly formulated questions, unsupported claims, and incoherent arguments wherever we look. 

4QM = The Riddle of Structure Solved

The Four Questions, and their attendant skills and standards, are the riddle solved. They offer what social studies practitioners have lacked: a clear structure for thinking in social studies. People who’ve internalized and adopted the framework ask better questions in the classroom. Their students learn and make fewer bad arguments. I’d like to think they get better at spotting the ones they encounter in school sources and in real life. 

In real life, however, most teachers don’t have the time, energy, or material resources at hand to purge and revise their sources and replan their curriculum to align it with our framework. Many veterans of our workshops experiment with narrative planning and teaching. Fewer have created a wholesale curriculum that tracks the Four Questions, and so prepares students to ask and answer the questions that drive coherent thinking in our field. 

Hence our new year’s resolution, announced last September: 4QM Teaching is writing curriculum. We’re already written pilot units for 4th and 7th grade (the Renaissance and the Roman republic, respectively). We look forward to feedback from real classrooms and real classroom teachers this spring. We’ll report back soon!

Our goal over the next couple of years is to build our MA standards-aligned curriculum for grades four through eight. If the curriculum works, students who learn it will enter high school having internalized the logic of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. They’ll be able to identify the intellectual task that an inquiry question in social studies requires of them and will be able to spot a fake question or claim when they encounter it. 

Whatever your approach to teaching social studies, your students are unlikely to know more and think harder than you, their teacher, do. That’s why the Four Question Method requires teachers to ask and answer their own unit questions (planning!) before teaching students how to do the same thing (teaching and learning!). Having a curriculum that addresses each question clearly in each unit should help. Equally helpful would be teacher training that genuinely prepared us for the hardest, most important job in education.