The Four Question Method was originally designed to solve a common problem for history teachers: How do we wrestle all of our mandated content into manageable and meaningful chunks that our students can understand? The solution is the six box storyboard that we use for unit planning. Fitting the “story of the unit,” whether it’s the American Revolution or the expansion of Islam or sub-Saharan African kingdoms, into six boxes forces teachers to make thoughtful decisions about what specific content is in and what’s out. These thoughtful decisions replace the not-so-thoughtful ones that get made for you when you don’t storyboard your units, and you are forced to skip content because you’re suddenly out of time.
As we developed the method, we realized that teacher planning is just a model for student learning: we want our students to learn and practice all the same skills that teachers use in planning. When teachers are storyboarding a unit, they’re answering Question One, “What Happened?” for their unit. A good answer to Question One takes the form of a narrative, and crafting a good historical narrative requires a lot of decisions. What events do you think are most important? What ones can be dropped or given less emphasis? Where do you want to break and “chunk” the story? What are the key turning points? These decisions shape the story that you’re going to tell, and ultimately reveal what you think is worth telling.
It turns out that making those decisions is a great way to actually learn the story, which is why we often have students make their own storyboards in class. It’s a lot to ask students to storyboard a unit, so we almost never do that. Instead we ask students to take one part of the unit story, usually one box of the unit storyboard, and use four boxes to tell that story. I did that activity today with my tenth graders, and it was a great example of why this technique is so powerful.
WHAT’S THE STORY?
We’re in the middle of a unit called “Enlightenment and Revolutions” in my AP World History course. We’ve done more than two weeks of learning: reading philosophy, discussing philosophy, taking lecture notes. We’ve had two formative assessments along the way, one on the Enlightenment and one on the early phases of the French Revolution. Yesterday we finished learning the story of Napoleon, which ends with his final defeat and the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815. Historians generally accept that date as the end of the revolutionary era in France.
I’m giving a big quiz tomorrow, and I wanted an active way for students to review. So I gave them a four box storyboard (just four blank boxes with the title up top) and told them they had to storyboard the French Revolution from 1789 to 1815. They work in groups of four and five, and I gave their instructions as follows:
- First determine your date ranges and titles FOR ALL FOUR BOXES. Your date ranges must be contiguous (you can’t skip years between boxes), and your titles must be descriptive.
- Once you’ve done that, tell the story of each box in SIX WORDS. You don’t have to use a sentence, but you are limited to six words.
The first step generated a lot of purposeful activity. Students were digging back into their class notes and homework readings, trying to decide where to break the story. There was lots of good conversation like, “No, the reign of terror comes before Napoleon” and, “We should break it in 1806 because that’s when Napoleon started the Continental System, and that made everything start to go bad for France.” In both my sections, we had more than one version of the date ranges and titles. Some groups put everything before Napoleon in the first box, then had three boxes dedicated to his rise and fall. Others spread out the liberal and radical phases of the revolution (both before Napoleon) in two boxes, and then had only two boxes dedicated to his rise and fall.
The second step, getting the story of each box into six words, generated more purposeful activity: what was the most important part of the story? One group’s first box was 1789 – 1792, “The Liberal Phase of the French Revolution.” Their six words were, “From Ancien Regime to Constitutional Monarchy.” A tight, pithy, and accurate summary of the time period, which they had to understand in order to write.
WE REMEMBER WHAT WE THINK ABOUT
Daniel Willingham famously said that “memory is the residue of thought.” That’s a fancy way of saying that we remember what we think about. And when we have to make the kind of decisions that storyboarding requires, we have to think about our content. A lot.
My students today spent a full class period working their materials, and thinking about the French Revolution: consulting notes, talking together about what happened when and what mattered most, then writing down their decisions. All of this makes them more likely to remember the story. (Giving them a quiz on it will also help them remember it; that’s called “retrieval practice.”) And honestly, storyboarding is a lot of fun. Students enjoy it, even though it’s intellectually demanding.
Of course as teachers we want students to do more than just remember what happened. We also want them to practice answering Questions Two, Three, and Four: “What were they thinking?” “Why then and there?” and “What do we think about that?” My students have done a lot of Two and Four already in this unit (we’ve read Locke, Rousseau, and Robespierre), and we’re coming up on some Question Three thinking as we compare the French Revolution with the Haitian and Latin American Revolutions. The Four Question Method starts with a story, but it doesn’t end there.
We describe all these ways of teaching, learning, and thinking in our book, From Story to Judgment: The Four Question Method for Teaching and Learning Social Studies. If you’d like to talk more about this post or anything else related to the Four Question Method, leave a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from you!