We did it. We wrote a book! About a month ago we sent the final chapter off to the publisher (John Catt USA). A round of copy edits, some decisions about cover and layout, and then we’re done with it. Feels like it did when my kids moved out. We did what we could. Now it’s up to them, and it.  

That’s an illusion, of course, on both scores. Parenting continues, and from what I hear, gets more complicated, not less. And the book may be written, but we still have to figure out how to convince teachers to read it after it hits bookstores at the end of the summer. What’s amazing and wonderful is that, despite having spent the year writing it, I still believe that they should. The book is actually pretty good! It says things about teaching and learning social studies that I wish I’d known when I started out. For that matter, it says things that will make me a better teacher next fall.  

If you’ve attended our workshops, there’s a bunch you’ll recognize. Our basic argument is the same: teaching and learning social studies both go well when the teacher asks and answers the four questions (that’s planning) and then coaches students to do the same thing (that’s teaching and learning). And the logic of the four questions is still the same. Start with a story in response to Question One: What Happened? Then dig in and figure out what some of the protagonists in that story were thinking (Question Two: What were they thinking?). Then step back and figure out how changes and differences in context may account for why the story happened when and where it did (Question Three: Why then and there?). Then, having done all that, figure out what all this means to us, here and now (Question Four: What do we think about that?).

New Clarity On Student Work

What’s new and for me, personally, a game changer is the clarity and precision of the method we’ve now articulated for planning, teaching, and assessing student work. We’ve always said that students don’t just need to learn stories. They need to learn to tell them. That’s how they achieve proficiency in the thinking skill we call narration. Same with interpretation, explanation, and judgment, the thinking skills associated with the other questions. They need a teacher to show them how to do those things well. Then they need to try it themselves. 

In the book, we’ve nailed down inquiry methods for all the questions with step-by-step instructions, templates, and examples. And we’ve provided rubrics keyed to the instructions and templates so that assessing student performance in any of the four thinking skills is straightforward for teachers and useful for students. The instructions for teaching students to tell true stories (Q1) and interpret meaning artifacts (Q2) are clearer and more detailed than they’ve ever been. Despite the crazy conditions this year, Jon tested the changes on his students. The rubrics were particularly effective at getting them to see how to make their work better. 

The real game changers are Question Three and Question Four, explanation and judgment. Those were always the hard questions for teachers to plan and students to execute. In the book, we call them generalizing questions. For example, a story is a particular account of what happened. Question Three generalizes in response to that story: under what conditions does a story like this one happen? In order to answer that question well, you need to know a lot about context and conditions. That’s the first challenge. The second challenge is knowing what to do with the knowledge you’ve got so that it can inform an explanation that makes sense. 

When Jon tried out our new, step-by-step procedures for answering Question Three with his students, the results were extraordinary. He used the exact case study we present in the book, comparing Chinese and Japanese responses to western imperialism in the 19th century. His students worked through each step of the process, from identifying similarities and differences in context and conditions to describing mechanisms to testing hypotheses. They understood what they were doing and had results in the end to show for their efforts. And they sounded like social scientists doing it! 

The results were similar for our new Question Four procedures. Unlike explanation, students are used to hearing and talking about judgment questions. Most of them have had years of practice responding to some version of, What do we think about that? What’s much rarer is being held accountable for giving a skillful answer. In the book, we show how to teach and assess judgment in a way that elevates student discourse. 

The Question Four case study in the book, and the one Jon recently tested with his students, is about restorative justice and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In the classroom, students first learned the history of apartheid-era South Africa and the transition to democracy. Jon then asked them to make a judgment about the amnesty provision of the TRC, which granted immunity from prosecution to perpetrators of human rights violations who gave full, honest, public testimony about their actions. Students were able to work their way through the case, step by step, first articulating their own reactions, then identifying the assumptions that drove those reactions, and then defining the values and principles that supported them. They even tested their principles for consistency. The conversation ripped — and it led somewhere. Students were practicing a kind of thinking they can apply to other cases and to their own lives. They were learning to judge like engaged citizens. That’s the point, right? 

We’ve always believed that social studies teaching and learning, our own and in general, could be so much better. Figuring out what questions drove deep learning and clear thinking were in the classroom got us a long way down the road. Writing the book has forced us to work through the details in a way we’d never quite managed before. We’re clearer on how our own thinking works and about how to share that thinking with students. I, for one, am excited to get back to the classroom in the fall equipped with the new tools we’ve devised. 

But first, how about a summer break…?