One of our favorite testimonials on our website is from a tenth grade student: “The Four Question Method makes history more clear and helps me think.” That’s exactly the point of the whole project. Our big insight is that there are really only four questions that students can ask and answer in social studies, and knowing them clarifies thinking for everyone. This allows teachers to design engaging and meaningful lessons, and students to learn more efficiently and effectively.

Unfortunately, intellectual confusion often reigns in the social studies classroom. Here’s an example I came across just last week.


This year I’m teaching tenth grade world history, and our textbook (which I quite like) is the fourth edition of Strayer and Nelson’s Ways of the World. Each chapter closes with a feature called “Reflections” about how historians do their work. The reflection at the end of chapter thirteen is called “To Judge or Not to Judge.” It starts by posing a question: “Should historians or students of history make moral judgments about the people and events they study?” The authors then go on to lay out the two sides of this debate. Some people argue that historians should be detached observers, focused on the task “to describe what happened and to explain why things turned out as they did.” Others point out that “all of us…have values and outlooks on the world that inevitably affect the way we think about the past,” and say that historians should go ahead and judge, rather than striving for “some unobtainable objectivity” (610).

The Four Question Method shows us that this debate is unnecessary. The two sides aren’t actually disagreeing — they’re just addressing different questions. The Four Question Method teaches students the thinking skills of narration, interpretation, explanation, and judgment. We want our students to do all four things — but we also want them to recognize that each one is different. When we’re answering Questions One, Two and Three we’re trying to figure out what happened (that’s the skill of narration), understand the thinking of the people involved in the story (interpretation), and use comparative data to explain why things happen when and where they do (explanation). When we answer these Questions we do our level best to put aside our own prejudices and values, and follow the evidence where it leads us. Often our evidence is incomplete, and reasonable people will often disagree about what conclusions our evidence supports. But at least in principle, these questions are subject to rules of evidence and reason.*

But Question Four introduces the thinking skill of judgment. It asks, “What do we think about that?” Question Four cannot be resolved with more or better evidence, because it is an ethical question about right and wrong, good and bad. Our answers depend on our own beliefs and values. In writing our book we realized that the best classroom examples of Question Four focus on a particular historical decision that can then be generalized: Should Christopher Columbus have a statue in a waterfront park in Boston? Who gets a statue?


In writing their reflection on chapter thirteen, Strayer and Nelson don’t see the distinction between Question Four and the first Three Questions. This leads them to pose a series of confusing questions, like this one: “Was Stalinism a successful effort to industrialize a backward country or a ferocious assault on its moral and social fabric?” (610). 

Strayer and Nelson intend this as an example of a judgment question. And it looks like a judgment question, but it’s not. In fact it asks Question One, “What happened?”, twice. Did Stalin’s policies industrialize the Soviet Union? And did his policies dramatically change the moral and social fabric of the Soviet Union? Strayer and Nelson make these questions look like judgment questions by using value-laden language like “success” and “assault,” but in reality neither one asks about right or wrong, good or bad. 

This question has the added problem of being a false dichotomy. We see these a lot in social studies, because phrasing questions in this way is fun and makes them sound more complex than they are. But they’re almost always bad questions. In his classic book Historian’s Fallacies David Hackett Fischer gives this example: “‘Basil of Byzantium: Rat or Fink?’… Maybe Basil was the very model of a modern ratfink” (10). Strayer and Nelson do exactly the same thing with their question. Stalinism was both a successful industrialization effort and an assault on the moral and social fabric of the Soviet Union, but the question seems to preclude this answer.


The judgment question that Strayer and Nelson are really trying to ask is, I think, “How should we publicly remember Stalin?” Our answer to that depends on the answers to Questions One, Two, and Three, but it also depends on our own values and beliefs. And while professional historians may choose to shy away from explicit judgment, citizens cannot and should not. That’s why we like to think of every 4QM social studies unit as a practicum in judgment. Almost none of the students we teach will become historians, but all will be citizens. They need practice in making judgments about the past we all share so that we can build our common future together. 

The Four Question Method helps students, and citizens, to do that. It makes history more clear and helps us all think.


*I know that there is an argument in academia (and on social media) about whether rules of evidence and reason actually exist. At 4QM Teaching, we believe that they do.