During a conversation with a 4QM Teaching client this week he mentioned that, “I know you guys don’t do thematic units.” He’s right. Thematic units, such as one that compares the American, French, and Russian revolutions, are not part of our repertoire. That’s because to actually understand a thematic unit, students need to hold multiple stories in their heads simultaneously. That’s very difficult for most students to do. The Four Question Method gives us a better way to make comparisons across cases: by grounding student learning in a single story and using focused questions for comparisons, the 4QM makes “thematic” thinking clear and accessible in a way that thematic units do not.

“Story First!”

The first argument that Gary and I had when we started to create the Four Question Method was about content. Gary said that specific content didn’t matter, we just needed students to know underlying principles and ideas about how the world works. I disagreed. I remember one debate about the French Revolution. Gary said there was no reason to teach it — students need to know under what conditions revolutions are more likely, or how revolutions tend to unfold, but they don’t need to know the specifics of the French Revolution. I said that the specifics matter, although at the time I wasn’t able to articulate why. 

Gary eventually conceded that I was right, and I eventually came to understand why. Specific content does matter, and students need to learn it because they can’t think responsibly about things they don’t know very well. So if we want students to engage in “higher-level” thinking about history, they need to know the story first.

And it turns out that it takes quite a bit of effort for students to learn even a single story well. Students need to interact with the story and retell it in some fashion in order to actually learn it. Those interactions and retellings are often very engaging and a lot of fun (we describe some techniques for doing that in our book), but they do take classroom time and student effort. Nevertheless, they are crucial to surfacing and correcting misunderstandings and errors. 

Focused Comparisons and Contrasts

In a thematic unit like the one on revolutions I described above, students need to learn at least two complete stories before they are introduced to comparative thinking. This is a cognitive heavy lift. Anyone who’s ever reviewed for a cumulative exam knows that humans tend to forget information that they don’t use regularly. So if we’re asking students to compare two stories, they’ll need time to review the previous story before they can compare it with the one they’ve learned most recently. If you’re actually going to compare three (or more) revolutions, the challenge is even greater.

By contrast, the Four Question Method introduces comparative thinking in each individual unit. We do this with Question Three, “Why Then and There?” We’ve blogged quite a bit on Question Three before (see here, here, and here), so I won’t give a full-blown explanation of how it works in this post. The point I want to make today is that Question Three makes historical comparisons accessible to students by working from the single unit story that they are currently immersed in, and asking about specific contrasts with another story that they don’t need to learn fully. 

Here’s an example from an industrial revolution unit in a world history course for tenth graders. (The link gives you view-only access to a teacher-facing document. Feel free to copy it and use it.) That unit story focuses heavily on Britain, the first country to have an industrial revolution. Then our Question Three for that unit is, “Why did the industrial revolution start in Great Britain, not in China?” We don’t study two or three different stories of industrialization and then require students to compare and contrast across cases — we have them study a single case deeply (Britain), then give them the materials they need to identify relevant factors that explain a contrasting case (China). 

Here’s an example from a World War One unit in the same course. Once students know the story of how World War One began, we ask “Why did a minor diplomatic dispute become a general European war in 1914?” The contrast here is in time, not place. The students know the case of 1914 well, and the contrasting case is the previous century of relative peace in Europe. Again, we don’t study two or three different stories of wars breaking out and then require students to compare and contrast across cases. We ground our thinking in a single story, and then focus student attention on the relevant elements of a contrasting case. 

The last part of Question Three thinking is creating a general hypothesis: Under what conditions does industrialization, or war, (or revolution) tend to occur? If students record their thinking, they can test their hypotheses as they learn different unit stories throughout a course. This course-level hypothesis testing lets students focus on one story at a time, while still making responsible comparisons.

Adults Are Not Students

Planning Question Three lessons is challenging for teachers — you have to know a lot to structure a responsible Question Three puzzle for students. (That’s one reason why we’re writing more of them and making them freely available to teachers.) But this challenge is precisely why we think that full-blown thematic units are so difficult for students to grasp. Grown-ups have an annoying habit of forgetting what it was like to be a kid, when all your academic knowledge was brand new, and when most of it came from your formal education during school hours. Simply put, adults have forgotten how much we’ve learned, and how little our students know. Comparisons across cases require a lot more knowledge than most students will have, even when we’ve taught them well.

So teaching Question Three well is difficult. But doing so is much better than compiling stories from different times and places then turning students loose to find relevant comparisons and contrasts on their own.