Some stories are easy to tell. An identifiable person or group of people does something overt and instigating, which triggers other people to react. One manifest action leads to another, and before you know it, something New and Notable has happened in the world. King Louis XVI called the Estates General. Before you know it, Napoleon is conquering Europe!

Our core curriculum is full of stories like that. They’re the easiest for us to teach our students. The challenge for teachers is pruning the story down to its core essentials. We at 4QM use storyboards to coach teachers in planning clear, concise narratives of this sort. We use storyboards with students, too, to help them sift through details and identify major turning points in the narrative.

Classic, “Cause-and-Effect” Stories

Let’s call these cause-and-effect stories, since that’s what most historical thinking skills documents seem to mean by this category: a story in which people interact, and in which that interaction culminates in a new and notable state of affairs.

No matter what we narrate in history class, we’re interested in some kind of change over time. In other words, narratives are always answers to Question One, What happened? And there are always humans involved, of course. The classic cause-and-effect story glosses Question One as asking, in effect, How did that happen? It seeks to satisfy our curiosity-craving for an account of how one thing led to another that led to… Napoleon!

A Different Type of Story

Some of the stories we want our students to learn, however, take a different shape. Some of our answers to “What happened?” focus not on how something happened, but on how much. For example, our 8th-grade team teaches a unit on the long Civil Rights movement. Their storyboard has boxes for Abolitionism and the Civil War, for Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and for the Civil Rights movement. They tell a story about each episode, but make no attempt to narrate the actions that led from one episode to another. That’s not the point. The point is to show, in each case, how Americans struggled over race and equality, and to compare and contrast the results over time. Continuity and change, not cause and effect.

Likewise, we now have American Studies courses at our high school in both Social Studies and English. Student must take both conjointly, and the teachers plan together. Not only do they tell the same stories in both courses, but “the stories we tell ourselves as Americans” is the explicit theme of the course. Like the 8th-grade team, the Social Studies Am. Stud. teacher tells episodic stories on themes like migration, money, and race and identity. The goal is to reveal how Americans’ thinking about these topics changed over time. What happened? Some ideas changed — in some cases dramatically. Others remained remarkably consistent. Continuity and change.

Many of our unit stories, even the classical cause-and-effect ones, contain ellipses. We skip connecting tissue in a linear narrative sometimes because, after all, we’re more interested in the outcome than in every step of how we got there. In other words, the classical story and the thematic one — the one that narrates linear cause and effect and the one that reveals changes and continuity over time — are ideal types. Some units, like the typical industrialization unit, seem to split right down the middle. We narrate in linear fashion from invention to entrepreneurship to factories and cities. Then we contrast ideas and politics at discrete periods, from the beginning and end of the process, say. We post-hole Adam Smith at the beginning and end with socialism and the origins of the welfare state. The point is simply to show how deeply industrialization transformed politics and ideas, not to describe how it did so. (That is, in any case, a Question Three enterprise.)

Thematic “Story First!”

Although some of our stories are hybrids, distinguishing between these two types of narrative is still crucial, for several reasons. First and most obvious, we tell both types, and should know what we’re doing, especially if we’re going to teach our students to do so, too. Second, schools that offer thematic courses in history often struggle to organize their units in a way that makes sense to their students. We have repeatedly heard from teachers of such thematic courses that their students express frustration and confusion. Without a story as an anchor, both students and teachers struggle to keep track of what they’re learning.

The answer, as always, is Story first! In this case, teachers need to tell a clear thematic story. They need to select episodes for their unit storyboard that reveal change over time, typically in ideas. The point of the “theme” is to identify the ideas in question, the ones we want our story to reveal and illuminate. That means that the heavy lifting in constructing such a narrative is getting clear about what each episode reveals. Contrast that with the heavy lifting intrinsic to classical cause-and-effect: telling the leanest version of action and reaction that gets us from onset to outcome.

This distinction between classic and thematic, or between cause-and-effect and continuity-and-change storytelling, also helps us to see what the received wisdom about historical thinking skills is really about, and how to use that wisdom, improbably, in actual classrooms. Cause-and-effect and continuity-and-change are the names of two kinds of narrative. If you adopt our strategy of putting the story first in planning and teaching, you can then teach students both, in an organic way that generates genuine curiosity.

Finally, teaching thematic stories well gives us another way to foreground ideas in our teaching. We’re building a new 9th-grade course around themes of power, status, community, and identity. Our units will have base narratives, of course. Stories are how we learn and remember, and even Big Ideas have human histories. Moreover, by allowing ourselves to focus on how much ideas changed, rather than tying ourselves to the mast of how they changed, we’re better able to compare our own. Ideas and judgment are always a part of 4QM teaching, and all good History teaching, 4QM or otherwise. Thematic stories — narratives of continuity and change — are great ways to highlight them.