My school is creating a 9th-grade Academy, of necessity. We’re shipping our freshmen to an annex next year while we do construction on our main building. We’ve decided to think of this as a crisis-opportunity: the annex is old and musty, and we’re already complaining about going there, but we also know that this is a chance to devise some common supports for 9th graders that we’ve talked about for years but never actually implemented.

During a series of faculty meetings recently, teachers from the main academic departments agreed that they would begin using common language to describe the structure of arguments to all 9th graders. Right now, Science teachers typically ask students to write CER paragraphs: Claim-Evidence-Reasoning. In Social Studies, we’ve typically gone with TEA: Topic Sentence-Evidence-Analysis, or sometimes, Thesis-Evidence-Analysis. In part on account of that ambiguity — which ‘T’ do you mean? — all 9th graders will learn that, to build a paragraph that makes and defends an argument, you’ll need CER structure: a claim, some evidence, and some reasoning to show how the evidence supports the claim.

Overall, I’m happy about this agreement. Consistent nomenclature will help students to see what’s common about what we’re asking them to do with their minds. Mostly. In Math, we discovered, the formula is actually CR. (The poor geometry teacher in my team had an awkward, charming moment: “we don’t actually have evidence…”) That observation is good to share with students. Adopting the common CER formula will help them to see how mathematical thinking is both similar and different to other kinds of thinking. Although geometry, our 9th-grade course, has reasoning but no evidence, it does rely upon clear claims supported by non-contradictory inferences, like all worthy arguments. That’s a lesson that bears repeating.

This CER conversation helped me to understand a confusion in Social Studies that I see fairly regularly. Social Studies teachers, like their colleagues in other departments, want their students to make arguments, and they want those arguments to conform to CER. Fair enough. The problem is that we ourselves aren’t consistent or rigorous in our application of the CER standard. And for good reason: we often aren’t clear on the question we’re asking.

Jon and I worked out the Four Question Method in part in response to the concern we and our colleagues had about writing good essay prompts. Knowing what kinds of questions work for our students to think and write about is essential. We now think we know: there are exactly four kinds of questions we can contest, and therefore argue, in Social Studies.

What Happened?

We can, in principle, argue about Question One: What happened? Professional historians argue about this one all the time. For journalists, it’s bread and butter. But though we may set up samples of the activity for our students, we don’t typically engage them in argument about what happened. We tell them what happened, or give them sources that do. In other words, we typically answer Question One by reading authors and sources we trust. We get the story from others. As we’ve argued elsewhere, getting the story right, even when we derive it entirely from secondary and tertiary (or reference) sources, is no mean feat for students, or even teachers. But it is not, in fact, argument. Narrative doesn’t fit CER.

What Were They Thinking?

We can, and frequently do, argue about Question Two: What were they thinking? These arguments are the most tractable ones for us. Once we’ve situated an historical actor in a narrative, we can and do ask students to use an actor’s utterances and decisions, as recorded in reliable documents, to make a defensible claim about what the actor had in mind. What was Napoleon thinking? Was he spreading the Enlightenment, making himself World Emperor, or something else entirely? Lincoln said a bunch of different things about why he was fighting the Civil War. What was he actually thinking? What’s great about these questions is that they get students to take both people and ideas seriously. And they rely upon evidence that is accessible to students: narratives and documents that we can curate for them.

Why Then And There?

We sometimes, though rarely with success, invite students to argue about Question Three: Why then and there? That we ask explanatory questions at all I attribute to the fact that most of the teachers who ask them don’t realize what they’re actually asking students to do. Question Three is the one most likely to generate Kahneman’s Substitution Effect, where, when confronted with a difficult question, we answer a simpler one and pretend we’ve answered the hard one. Why did the Roman Empire fall? Why did Christianity succeed? Why did Buddhism spread in the east and dissipate in India? And our perennial favorite, why was there a global war in 1914? To argue in response to any of these questions — that is, to *prove* an answer using CER logic — requires that we identify the general phenomenon we want to explain, find changes in background conditions that co-vary with the changes we see in the general phenomenon, and then posit a mechanism that establishes a causal link between the two. (Our catch-phrases for answering Question Three — “Factors, not Actors,” and “Explain a change with a change and a difference with a difference,” are meant to codify and simplify this procedure.) In any case, the logic is familiar enough to social scientists, and we’re now employing it successfully in our Human Geography classes, along with the kind of quantitative data that makes explanatory inferences visual and tractable for students. It is not generally familiar to most History teachers, however. The fact is, when teachers ask what purport to be explanatory questions of their students, they are frequently and misleadingly issuing narrative injunctions: tell me the story of the fall of Rome, the spread of Christianity or Buddhism, the outbreak of the Great War. Question Three in history classes is, more often than not, a Question One masquerading as an argument.

What Do We Think About That?

Finally, we sometimes invite our students to argue about Question Four: What do we think about that? Interestingly, when we make the kinds of judgments Question Four demands, we often do what the geometers do: we make CR arguments. Though a judgment question can be a terrific activator early in a unit, Jon and I typically insist that our students learn adequate responses to Questions One, Two, and Three before we entertain their views on Question Four. If we agree on what happened, what the key actors were thinking, and why the pattern of events played out the way they did, and not differently, we are often left with disagreements about first principles. When we argue about Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs in Japan in 1945, for example, we typically begin with a common understanding of the story of the Pacific War, the elements of Truman’s thinking, and the geo-strategic situation facing the US and the world at the end of World War II. What we typically disagree about is whether or not civilians are fair targets in modern warfare. For deontologists and pacificists, at least, what matters are the claims and the reasoning. What evidence would change their views about dropping bombs on children?

Using “C-E-R” In Social Studies Classrooms

So, what’s the right way to use CER argumentation in Social Studies classes? If you’d like to stage an historian’s discovery activity, like the one SHEG curates on the Battle of Lexington, go crazy. Odds are, however, that the successful argumentative essays you assign in your Social Studies classes will be a Question Two. That’s as it should be. Our students are equipped to interpret the historical actors we introduce them to in our courses. They have skills from English class they can bring to bear in the exercise. At any rate, they will have to make consistent, logical inferences from specific textual and narrative evidence in support of clear claims in order to argue for their interpretation. If they can do that with proficiency, good for them, and for you.