We often hear from schools and teachers that we work with that one of their main goals is to increase or improve the quality of student discourse. This is indeed a worthy goal: we want history and social studies classrooms to be active places where students are doing the intellectual work of our discipline, and often that work is best done in conversation with peers or with a teacher or both. There are not many teachers who disagree with this goal — but there are many teachers who don’t know exactly how to achieve it. The Four Question Method can help.


If our goal is simply to get kids talking in class, it’s not actually that difficult to achieve. But of course that’s not all we want. We want students to be having meaningful conversations about the subject. We want them to be listening to each other. We want them to be moving forward in their thinking. And we want them leaving the classroom conversation feeling like they actually learned something from it. 

I once participated in a professional development session in which we watched a video of a class of about fifteen eighth graders sitting in a circle talking about the U.S. constitution. The video was meant to be an inspiring example of excellent student discourse: every student in the circle spoke, and the pace was fast and energetic. I wasn’t especially inspired though, because no student responded to anything another student said, and some of the things they said about the constitution were quite outlandish, and one student made a critical error of content which was never corrected. There was plenty of talking, but not a lot of high quality discourse. 

The Four Question Method gives teachers a way to structure student conversations that are not just energetic, but also academically meaningful. Because students know the goal of their conversations and get repeated practice with the thinking skills associated with each question, 4QM classrooms are able to consistently achieve high quality student discourse. Each of the Four Questions lends itself to strong academic conversation.


We always start our teaching by answering Question One, “What happened?”. Students need to know a story before they can move on to the next three questions. But teachers often overlook an opportunity for student discourse and formative assessment when they don’t ask students to tell the story back to them. 

We’ve written and blogged extensively on storyboarding, which is an excellent tool for engaging students in discourse while answering Question One. Once you’ve taught them a historical story (whether through lecture, reading, video, or some other technique), put the students in small groups and tell them to make a 4-box storyboard of the narrative. They must agree on date ranges and descriptive titles for each box, and then draw their own individual pictures to describe the events that go in each box.

The student conversations that happen in these small groups are excellent examples of meaningful student discourse. Students debate about what events are important enough to include and what can be left off the storyboard. They debate about the date ranges and turning points in the story. They try out ideas for descriptive box titles. They pore over their materials and correct each other when events are out of sequence or misunderstood. It’s energetic and fun, for sure — and it’s also academically focused, and requires real conversation among students.


Once students know a story, they can slow down and dive in on some of the interesting people in that story and ask Question Two: “What were they thinking?” The thinking skill associated with Question Two is interpretation, and in high school we’re usually interpreting a primary source document. In the earlier grades we are often looking at a pattern of behavior or an artifact. But the intellectual task is the same: we want to get into the heads of the people we’re studying and try to understand their purposes and assumptions about their world.

These conversations can be done in small groups, or whole class. Our Question Two interpretation sheet takes students through the steps of responsible interpretation: identify and contextualize the source, paraphrase or summarize it, then interpret the thinking of the author. This last step is where the richest discourse happens. Interpretations differ, and must be supported with evidence about and from the source — so students end up debating the question with reference to the historical document, artifact, or behavior in question. If the subject of our interpretation is well chosen, students are genuinely curious about the people they’re studying, which encourages energetic and meaningful discourse.


Question Three is “Why then and there?”, and it is the most difficult and abstract of the Four Questions. We’ve built a series of Question Three Puzzles for high school students that work extremely well as small group projects. (Here’s one you can download about the industrial revolution.) The dynamic in these small groups is similar to what we see with storyboarding: students are deeply engaged in a challenging intellectual task, and they work together to understand the puzzle. In this case they’re exploring data, looking for comparisons and contrasts, and trying to explain how the changes and differences they find in the data can explain the outcome we’re curious about. Calling on groups to explain their thinking to the class is a great way to highlight student success and illustrate common errors.


Question Four is “What do we think about that?” and it’s the question that everyone recognizes as being made for student discourse. The thinking skill that goes with question four is judgment, and judgments are best honed and expressed in meaningful conversation.

The Four Question Method makes student discourse about judgment richer and more powerful through a simple technique: we postpone it until we’ve studied the other questions. If you ask students to make a judgment about a historical topic before they understand the story, what the people in the story were thinking, and how the context and conditions influenced the events, you’ll get irresponsible judgment. And you won’t have a meaningful conversation back and forth among students, because they won’t have a rich store of common knowledge from which to draw as they argue their positions. Jumping too quickly to Question Four can generate a lot of talking in class, but it tends to be like the video of eighth graders I described above: everyone makes their own point, without really listening to anyone else. 

Meaningful Question Four conversations take more time to prepare for, but they’re worth it. One of my favorite moments in class is when students recognize the challenge of a Question Four. It usually sounds like someone saying, “Wait, I think I just changed my mind,” or “Gosh — that’s a hard question!” Meaningful discourse, indeed.


The big insight of the Four Question Method is that every question we deal with in history and social studies is a specific variant of one of four questions: What happened? What were they thinking? Why then and there? What do we think about that? 

And it turns out that increasing and improving student discourse is much easier when everyone in the room knows what the four questions are, knows the thinking skills involved in answering each one, and gets repeated practice over time. We explain how to do that in our book, in this blog, and in person — let us know if you’d like to talk more!