Ms. R came to me with a problem. She teaches Social Studies in an alternative program at my school. Her students are an extraordinarily diverse group, but all have this in common: they’ve traveled a complicated road to get to her program.

At the end of a unit on the American Civil War, Ms. R gave her students an essay question: “What’s the most important cause of the American Civil War?” Along with the question, she gave them an article that described five “causes” of the war. She told them to pick one and defend it as an answer to the essay question.

The task sounded straightforward enough, but the results were alarming. None of Ms. R.’s students was writing. In the past, there were students who resisted writing. But this time, *all* of them were stuck, even the high flyers.

Ms. R is a savant about kids and their emotions. She’d thought through the social and psychological aspects of their resistance. She was stuck.

Ambiguous Questions Mean Puzzled Students

I had a hypothesis. Jon and I do sometimes do an “Ambiguous Questions” activity at our workshops. First we explain the logic of the Four Question Method, and our basic argument: there only four questions we ask and answer in History classes. Things go well when teacher and students know which of these four questions they are asking and trying to answer.

In our Ambiguous Questions activity, we show participants a collection of classic, confused questions — questions that are a mashup of several or all of the Four Questions — and ask them to identify the various questions embedded in each one.

I did the Ambiguous Questions activity with Ms. R. She saw the first problem with her essay question immediately. Like most “What caused X?” questions (where X is a major historical event), her question conflated a bunch of different thinking tasks. Sorting them out looks like this:

  1. What were the major events that led to the American Civil War? (Narrate!)
  2. What were the protagonists thinking on the eve of the War? (Interpret!)
  3. What changes in economics, politics, and demography made a violent constitutional crisis more likely in the middle of the 19th century than early or later? (Explain!)
  4. Who is to blame for the American Civil War? (Judge!)

The beauty of sorting the questions is that you can then begin to answer them coherently. The injunctions in the parentheses tell you, and more importantly, your students, what thinking technique is appropriate for answering each type of question.

Ms. R’s source document contained some “causes” that were part of the story of the Civil War — Lincoln’s election, for example. Some were descriptions of what people were thinking, though the list included both a change (Abolitionism) and a constant (States’ Rights). (Jon wrote about this error in last week’s blog post.) And though the list of “causes” referred to the history of territorial compromises, from Missouri through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, there was in fact no cause called “Territorial Expansion.”

Beyond ordinary conflation of questions, Ms. R’s essay prompt had a second problem as well. In pursuit of what felt like argumentative rigor, Ms. R had required her students not only to compare “causes” but to rank them. If Ms. R were a biology teacher, she’d never ask, “Which system in the human body is most important: the respiratory system, the circulatory system, or the digestive system?” But that’s essentially what Ms. R asked her students to do with their “explanation” of the Civil War: to rank order the factors.

Any student who took Ms. R’s essay prompt seriously would need to complete a number of challenging intellectual tasks. They would need to distinguish narration and interpretation from causal explanation. Then they would need to compare factors. Then they’d have to rank them in order of importance. The first two tasks are quite difficult. The third is impossible.

My hypothesis was that Ms. R’s students couldn’t write because their brains froze. They literally did not know what to do. So they stopped.

Clear Questions Mean Engaged Students

By the time we were done with our Ambiguous Questions discussion, Ms. R knew what to do. She went back to her class the next day and told them that she’d gotten the question wrong. She told them that they would now answer a different question: Pick a “cause” and say how it contributed to increasing tension between North and South.

The solution wasn’t perfect. Students basically had to write a narrative about how, say, the Abolitionist movement made Southerners increasingly nervous. Not perfect, but coherent and comprehensible. And it worked. Students started writing. The Ambiguous Question had been removed from their path.

Because the task made no sense to them, Ms. R’s students got stuck. The puzzling thing, however, is that we history teachers get away with ambiguous essay prompts all the time. Why do we get away with it? And why didn’t Ms. R get away with it this time? I suspect that more robust and confident students react the way all of us do when confronted by complexity and ambiguity: they use the substitution heuristic: “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution” (Kahneman, 2011).

When we ask ambiguous questions of the “What caused X?” type, our students typically recapitulate a story. If it’s a good story — a proficient narrative — we may give them a good grade. If not, we tell them they need to make an argument. If they do, it’s typically not a great one, or even a coherent one. But since our “causes of X” prompts don’t compute for us either, we’re likely to substitute right back. Not having answered the question doesn’t mean you can’t get an ‘A’.

Our most vulnerable students don’t have the wherewithal to forge through our muddle. That’s what Ms. R and I learned from her experience. Take your questions seriously. If you can’t tell which of the Four Questions you’re asking, assume you’re not clear yet. Whatever question you ask, try answering it yourself, conscientiously, before you ask your students to try it. The stakes are high.